Beah Richards

Character actress Beah Richards, an Academy Award nominee and two-time Emmy winner, including one earlier this month, died Thursday of emphysema in Vicksburg, Miss. She was 74.

Just four days earlier, Richards won an Emmy for guest actress in a drama series for her performance on ABC’s “The Practice.” She was too ill to attend the ceremony and was presented the award in Vicksburg by Lisa Gay Hamilton, a co-star of “The Practice.” She also garnered an Emmy in 1988 for her guest role on “Frank’s Place.”

Richards’ Oscar nomination came in 1967 for her performance as Sidney Poitier’s mother in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”

In 1999, Lisa Gay Hamilton, who worked with Richards and Oprah Winfrey in Jonathan Demme’s film “Beloved,” approached Richards proposing to helm a documentary on her life and career, with Demme producing. Hamilton filmed over 60 hours of interviews with Richards.

Richards discovered acting while attending New Orleans’ Dillard U. She later studied at the Globe Theater in San Diego, where she did a three-year apprenticeship. She moved to New York in 1951 and by 1956 appeared Off Broadway in the production “Take a Giant Step.” Three years later, she made her screen debut in an adaptation of the play, which chronicled a black teenager’s struggles in a white world.

Many performances followed, including the role of Sister Margaret in the 1965 New York production of James Baldwin’s “Amen Corner.”

Richards recently had a recurring role on NBC’s “E.R.” and through the years essayed roles on such TV shows as “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law,” “Highway to Heaven” and “Designing Women.” In 1970 Richards replaced Lillian Randolph as Bill Cosby’s mother on “The Bill Cosby Show.”

Film credits include “Drugstore Cowboy,” “In the Heat of the Night” (also with Poitier), “The Great White Hope” and “Hurry Sundown.”

Richards also appeared in three of her own plays: “A Black Woman Speaks,” “One Is a Crowd” and her one-woman show in 1979, “An Evening With Beah Richards.”

Inducted into the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame for her legit work, she also directed the stage play “Piano Bar” for the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center during the 1986-87 season. She was honored by the Cinema Society with the Paul Robeson Pioneer Award.

Richards is survived by two nieces, two nephews, three great nephews and a great niece.

Memorial contributions in Richards’ name may be made to Theater of Hearts/Youth First, 40 S. Lafayette Park Place, Suite 307, Los Angeles, CA 90057; the Museum and Marketplace, 392 Fusher Ferry Road, Vicksburg, MS 39180; or St. Marks Freewill Baptist Church, 2600 Hannah Ave., Vicksburg, MS 39180.

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