Actress Beah Richards dies at 80

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 15, 2000

Beah Richards holds an Emmy she received Sept. 1 for her performance in the television drama “The Practice.” (The Vicksburg Post/PAT SHANNAHAN)

Acclaimed actress Beah Richards, whose second Emmy Award was announced Sunday night to an international audience, died Thursday afternoon at her Vicksburg home. She was 80.

The veteran performer and writer, also nominated for Oscar and Tony awards, had been treated for emphysema and died about 1 p.m.

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“Our family will be forever grateful for the time we were able to spend with her,” said Sherry Fisher, Richards’ niece.

Richards was unable to travel to Los Angeles to pick up the Emmy she won for a guest appearance on the television drama “The Practice.” Instead, the highest honor a televison performer can receive was presented at her home Sept. 1 by Lisa Gay Hamilton, one of the co-stars of the ABC program.

“She really opened my eyes to the world and gave me a sense of love, encouragement and pride that I don’t think I had before,” Hamilton said this morning.

Richards attended Magnolia Avenue High School before leaving Vicksburg to explore the world. She attended Dillard University in New Orleans for about a year, but in the late 1940s decided to travel alone to San Diego by train.

There she studied acting at the Old Globe Theater for three years.

“She brought a dignity to our family, to our community and to her profession,” Fisher said.

Richards returned to Vicksburg from California in May after a career spanning more than 50 years to live with Fisher, herself retired from an award-winning career as a teacher at Vicksburg High School.

Since her arrival in Vicksburg, Richards had made several low-key appearances, including this year’s Legacy Luncheon on July 2.

“I think she had done the things career-wise that she wanted to, and then she just wanted to share her experience,” Fisher said.

Hamilton, a California native, was reared in New York and first met Richards on the set of “Beloved,” a film based on the novel by Toni Morrison. After making the film, Hamilton discovered that she lived on the same street in Los Angeles as her idol, and the two became friends.

“She showed me a depth of friendship that I had never experienced before,” Hamilton said.

Richards starred in “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” a 1960s drama starring Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy that gained Richards an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Her film credits also include “In The Heat of The Night,” “Hurry Sundown,” “Drugstore Cowboy” and “The Great White Hope.” On television, she appeared in “ER,” “The Bill Cosby Show” and “Roots: The Next Generation.”

Richards also was nominated for a Tony Award for her Broadway performance in “Amen Corner” and an Emmy for her guest appearance on the TV series “Frank’s Place.”

Her works are not limited to film and television. She has published three books “One Is A Crowd,” “A Black Woman Speaks” and “A Black Woman Speaks and Other Poems.”

“We sat in awe just listening to her. She was our friend, our mentor and our teacher,” Fisher said.

Richards’ life is the subject of an upcoming documentary being produced by Hamilton, who said she hopes to take it to colleges around the county and would like to see it air on PBS.

“I think her legacy is a responsibility to the rest of us to continue the fight for African-Americans and for women,” Hamilton said.

In addition to Fisher, Richards is survived by a niece, Rosemary Spears; a brother-in-law, James Green; two nephews, Harold McWade Sr. and James L.W. Green; a stepsister, Julia Reagan; three great-nephews, Kawni Fisher, Harold McWade Jr. and Sean Spears; a great-niece, Kimberly Spears; the Teedom family; and other relatives.

A memorial service in Richards’ honor is being planned in about two weeks, Fisher said.