Mary Alice, Actress in ‘Fences,’ ‘Sparkle’ and ‘The Matrix Revolutions,’ Dies at 85

Mary Alice, the Tony- and Emmy-winning actress who starred in the original Broadway production of Fences, portrayed the mother of three singing daughters in Sparkle and appeared as The Oracle in The Matrix Revolutions, has died. She was 85.

Alice died Wednesday in her Manhattan apartment, an NYPD spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter.

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In 1990 films, Alice played Nurse Margaret opposite Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in Awakenings, directed by Penny Marshall; the family matriarch dealing with a disruptive guest (Danny Glover) in Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger; and a woman whose son was struck by a car in the South Bronx in Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

The onetime Chicago schoolteacher received back-to-back Emmy nominations in 1992 and ’93 — winning in the second year — for her supporting turn as Marguerite Peck, whose child is murdered, on the Atlanta-set NBC legal drama I’ll Fly Away, starring Sam Waterston and Regina Taylor.

She also played dorm director Lettie Bostic in 1988-89 on the first two seasons of NBC’s A Different World; the mother of Oprah Winfrey’s Mattie Michael in 1989 on the ABC miniseries The Women of Brewster Place; and the mother of Harold Perrineau Jr.’s Augustus Hill in 2002 on HBO’s Oz.

In the cult favorite Sparkle (1976), the Harlem-set rags-to-riches story inspired by The Supremes, Alice was memorable as Effie, the single mom raising daughters played by Irene Cara, Lonette McKee and Dwan Smith. (In her final role, Whitney Houston played the character in the 2012 reboot.)

“Only in her mid-30s when she played the role, Alice beautifully crystallized — and saluted — all the mothers who went the extra mile for their children,” Bob McCann wrote in 2009’s Encyclopedia of African American Actresses in Film and Television.

After Gloria Foster, who portrayed The Oracle in the first two Matrix movies, died in 2001, Alice stepped in to lead the way to enlightenment in The Matrix Revolutions (2003). To explain the change in appearance, it was noted that The Oracle’s outer shell had been destroyed by the criminal program known as the Merovingian.

The distinguished Alice received her Tony for best featured actress in a play in 1987 for her turn as Rose, wife of James Earl Jones’ Troy and mother of Courtney B. Vance’s Corey, in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences.

“Ms. Alice’s performance emphasizes strength over self-pity, open anger over festering bitterness,” Frank Rich wrote in his New York Times review. “The actress finds the spiritual quotient in the acceptance that accompanies Rose’s love for a scarred, profoundly complicated man.”

She landed another Tony nomination in 1995 for playing Bessie Delany in Having Our Say, a two-hander in which she and Foster were sisters living beyond their 100th birthdays and reflecting on life.

In 2000, she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.

From left: Mary Alice, Ray Aranha and James Earl Jones in ‘Fences’ - Credit: Ron Scherl/Courtesy of Everett Collection
From left: Mary Alice, Ray Aranha and James Earl Jones in ‘Fences’ - Credit: Ron Scherl/Courtesy of Everett Collection

Ron Scherl/Courtesy of Everett Collection

One of five children, Mary Alice Smith was born on Dec. 3, 1936, in Indianola, Mississippi, and raised in Chicago. Her father, Sam, worked in a laundry, and her mother, Ozelar, worked in a factory. After college, she was a Social Security secretary and then an elementary school teacher before joining a community theater group.

She landed her first paying job as an actor in 1966 when Douglas Turner Ward, co-founder of the New York-based Negro Ensemble Company, brought a touring group to Chicago to perform plays including Days of Absence and Happy Endings.

“Equity required the group to use one local actor, and I was hired to do a couple of roles and the laundry,” she said in 1979. “I loved it. I really loved it, and I didn’t mind doing the washing and ironing twice a week.”

Alice came to New York in 1967 and studied with Lloyd Richards — he had directed the original 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun and would guide her in Fences — before appearing onstage for the Negro Ensemble Company and Wynn Handman‘s American Place Theater.

In 1974, Alice starred in a PBS adaptation of Philip Hayes Dean’s The Sty of the Blind Pig, directed by Ivan Dixon, and made her film debut in The Education of Sonny Carson. A year later, she guest-starred on episodes of Police Woman, Good Times and Sanford and Son (as Fred’s sister, Frances, who has just married a white guy).

Alice said she never really considered herself an actor until she worked for producer Joseph Papp and his New York Shakespeare Festival, and she received an Obie Award for her performance as Portia in Julius Caesar in 1979.

Eleven years later, she starred opposite Denzel Washington at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in The Tragedy of Richard III.

Mary Alice and Keanu Reeves in 2003’s ‘The Matrix Revolutions’ - Credit: Warner Brothers/Courtesy Everett Collection
Mary Alice and Keanu Reeves in 2003’s ‘The Matrix Revolutions’ - Credit: Warner Brothers/Courtesy Everett Collection

Warner Brothers/Courtesy Everett Collection

Alice created the character of Rose in Fences during a workshop in 1983 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut.

“I based her not only on myself but on my mother, my aunts, my grandmother and other women I knew growing up in Chicago in the 1950s. Sometimes you just feel an affinity; you immediately know who a person is, and she’s one of those roles I identified with very early on,” Alice told the Times in 1987.

“These were women who were not educated, living in a time before women’s liberation, and their identities were tied up in their husbands. They put up with a lot of indignities and humiliations because they were women and were attached to men, and their life outside the house was very limited. Other than going to church, it was family.”

Alice’s big-screen résumé also included Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993), The Inkwell (1994), Heading Home (1994), Bed of Roses (1996), Maya Angelou’s Down in the Delta (1998), The Wishing Tree (1999) and John Sayles’ Sunshine State (2002).

Her final onscreen credit came with a 2005 episode of the rebooted Kojak, starring Ving Rhames.

Abbey White contributed to this report.

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