Claudia McNeil, stage, screen actress

December 01, 1993|By Myrna Oliver | Myrna Oliver,Los Angeles Times

Claudia McNeil, a character actress best known for her stage and screen role as the Sidney Poitier character's mother in "Raisin in the Sun," died Nov. 25 at the Actors Fund Nursing Home in Englewood, N.J., of complications to diabetes.

Miss McNeil, who was born in Baltimore, was 77 and had lived in the home for nine years.

"When I saw that face, I knew that we'd found the mother for my play," playwright Lorraine Hansberry said after she cast Miss McNeil for "Raisin in the Sun," which is about a struggling black family on Chicago's South Side.

"When Claudia walked in with her mink coat, her black hair, her nightclub sophistication to read for her part, people looked at me like I was crazy," the writer said. "Then she read a speech, and they knew it was right: She is the mother."

Miss McNeil's expressive face spoke volumes to Mr. Poitier's wordy son in the play, which captivated Broadway in 1959, toured the country in 1960 and was made into a movie in 1961.

"This making movies," the actress said when she came to Hollywood to do the filming in 1960, "this isn't working -- this is a paid vacation."

Miss McNeil was born in a rowhouse at 118 S. Caroline St. in East Baltimore, the daughter of a black father and an Apache mother who gave her up for adoption because they were too poor to support her. She was raised Roman Catholic by Jewish adoptive parents in New York.

At age 12, she began her career as a singer and dancer in cabarets and supper clubs.

"Nowadays," she told the Manchester Guardian in 1965, "everyone's rushing around fussing about civil rights and heaven knows what. In those days we were working together for America -- together. Nobody cared about class or color or anything else -- we were all in it together."

She made those comments during an appearance in London in James Baldwin's play "The Amen Corner." She also performed in that play in Tel Aviv, Israel, and noted that she wished her Jewish adoptive parents could have shared in the standing ovation she received there.

Miss McNeil's handful of other films included "The Last Angry Man," "There Was a Crooked Man" and "Black Girl."

She said that after more than 20 years as a singer, she felt her career waning as she approached age 40, so she studied acting. Off-Broadway roles followed.

Widowed once and divorced once, Miss McNeil had one child, a son who was killed in the Korean War.

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