Although best known as an author, poet and activist, Maya Angelou, who passed away today at the age of 86, also acted and wrote for TV and film. Having spent years acting on the stage, earning a Tony Award nomination in 1973 for her performance in Jerome Kilty’s “Look Away,” she brought her charisma and talent into American living rooms with a pivotal role in the landmark miniseries “Roots,” sparking an acting career that included a Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination.
Airing in 1977, “Roots” is widely considered the most popular television mini-series of all time. Starring in two episodes, Angelou played Kunta Kinte’s (Levar Burton) African grandmother, the matriarch of the line whose descendants are followed throughout the series. “Roots” was not only an audience hit, but also a critical success, and it won top honors at both the Emmys and Golden Globes. Angelou herself was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for her performance.
Shortly after the success of “Roots,” Angelou’s best-selling memoir “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” was adapted into a TV movie that aired on CBS in 1979. Angelou contributed to the screenplay and was portrayed in the film by Constance Good. Her next screenwriting credit was for “Sister, Sister” a 1982 family drama that she also produced.
It wasn’t until 1993 that Angelou returned to the front of the camera with a small role in John Singleton’s “Poetic Justice.” The mid-1990s saw the peak of Angelou’s fame. She won her first Grammy Award in 1994 for her spoken word album, “On the Pulse of Morning.” She became the first poet to read at a Presidential inauguration since Robert Frost in 1961, doing so for Bill Clinton. Angelou made her first appearance on “Sesame Street” in 1995. That same year, she appeared in the female-driven drama “How to Make an American Quilt” alongside Winona Rider and Ellen Burstyn. Angelou earned her second major acting award nomination as part of the ensemble cast for the film, which was nominated for the Screen Actors Guild Award.
In 1998, at the age of 70, she made her feature directorial debut with “Down in the Delta” starring Alfre Woodard. Sporadic screen appearances followed, including narrating films ranging from “The Journey of August King” to “Elmo Saves Christmas.” Her final acting job was, surprisingly, in the comedy genre as May in “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion” in 2006.
Upon learning of the passing of Angelou, Directors Guild of America President Paris Barclay made the following statement:
“Today we mourn the loss of a tremendous storyteller, but we rejoice in the knowledge that her stories and images will comfort and inspire us forever. Dr. Angelou first joined the DGA in 1975, becoming one of the first African American female members of the DGA. Never one to shy away from new experiences, she went on to make her feature directing debut at the age of 70. The DGA had the great pleasure of honoring Dr. Angelou in 2004 at our African American Steering Committee’s ‘Tribute to Dr. Maya Angelou: Master Storyteller.’ On a personal note, one of my earliest professional directing jobs was helming an adaptation of one of her short stories; her provocative words and passionate voice continue to echo in my head. We are proud to count her among our ranks.”