Frances E. Williams, an actress and producer who championed black theater in Los Angeles for more than 70 years, died Jan. 2 in L.A. of complications from a stroke suffered in September. She was 89.
Williams began her career at the age of 16, studying and performing with Cleveland’s Karamu Theater and at the encouragement of Paul Robeson spent two years in Russia, where she trained at the Meyerhold Theater and appeared in the 1936 film “The Circus” with Russia’s cinema queen, Lyubov Orlova.
She played the villainess in Oscar Micheaux’s melodrama “Lying Lips,” and wrote and performed on the country’s first coast-to-coast radio broadcast with entertainer Bill Robinson.
In 1941, Williams moved to Hollywood. She worked with the Actor’s Lab and performed with Charlie Chaplin at the Circle Theatre.
She also did the Broadway run and national tours of “You Can’t Take It With You.”
Her film credits include the 1951 version of “Show Boat” with Ava Gardner and William Warfield and “Magnificent Doll” with Ginger Rogers.
Most recently, she played Miss Marie the “waitress emeritus” on the short-lived CBS series “Frank’s Place.”
Williams helped found Los Angeles’ first Equity theater and served on the board of Actors Equity for 20 years.
In the late 1940s she co-founded the city’s first black theater company, the Negro Arts Theatre. She also was instrumental in the formation of the Los Angeles Inner City Theater Co., the American Indian Theater and East-West Players.
She also co-founded the Los Angeles Paul Robeson Community Center and helped form the Minority Actors’ Committee of the Screen Actors Guild.
There are no surviving relatives. A trust is being formed in Williams’ name to benefit the careers of young actors and writers.