publicity photo, 1960
August 13, 1917|
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
|Died||November 25, 1993
Englewood, New Jersey, U.S.
|Cause of death||Diabetes|
Claudia McNeil (August 13, 1917 – November 25, 1993) was an American actress known for premiering the role of matriarch Lena Younger in both the stage and screen productions of A Raisin in the Sun. She later appeared in a 1981 production of the musical version of the play, Raisin presented by Equity Library Theater. She was twice nominated for a Tony Award, first for her onstage performance in A Raisin in the Sun (1959), and again for the play Tiger Tiger Burning Bright in 1962. She was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award and a BAFTA Award for the screen version of A Raisin in the Sun in 1961.
Life and career
McNeil was born in Baltimore, Maryland, to Marvin Spencer McNeil, an African-American, and Annie Mae Anderson McNeil, an Apache Indian. The family moved to New York City soon after her birth. She was raised by her mother after her father left the family. At the age of 12, McNeil began working for The Heckscher Foundation for Children. There she met a Jewish couple who later adopted her, and McNeil became fluent in Yiddish.
She became a licensed librarian, but soon began singing in vaudeville theaters, and performing in nightclubs in Harlem, Greenwich Village and on 52nd Street. McNeil also sang for the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe on its South American tour. She was advised by Ethel Waters to begin acting, and made her New York stage debut in 1953, playing Tituba in The Crucible at the Martin Beck Theater. Four years later, Langston Hughes chose her to sing in his musical play Simply Heavenly. She won critical acclaim for this role.
In 1961, McNeil recreated her 1959 stage role in the film A Raisin in the Sun and became so identified with the part of the matriarch that she said, “There was a time when I acted the role.…Now I live it.” New York Times journalist Eric Pace summarized McNeil's performance explaining that she had a "commanding presence." Pace continued, "On the screen, Miss McNeil was stolid, voluminous and serene as a mother trying to control her son (played by Sidney Poitier) and wanting to buy her family a respectable home."
She also starred in the plays Tiger Tiger Burning Bright (1962), James Baldwin's The Amen Corner (1965), Something Different (1967), Her First Roman (1968), Wrong Way Light-Bulb (1969) and Contributions (1970).
McNeil appeared in many TV series, including The DuPont Show of the Month (1957), The Nurses (1962), Profiles in Courage (1965), Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1978), and Roots: The Next Generations (1979).
By the time she appeared in the 1959 film The Last Angry Man, she weighed nearly 300 pounds. In 1978, when she sang at Michael's Pub in Manhattan, N.Y., she had slimmed down to 159 pounds and commented, "I lost a whole person."
McNeil was married when she was 19 to a husband whom she described as a "very wonderful man." She had two sons, but lost her husband in World War II. Both her sons were killed in the Korean War. Her second marriage (to Herman McCoy) ended in divorce after two years in 1964. She studied Judaism, the religion of her adoptive parents, in youth and though she maintained a great respect for it, even saying she carried a copy of both the Talmud and the Bible with her wherever she went, she converted to Catholicism in 1952. As a woman of faith McNeil was said to have been a devout Catholic.
Retirement and death
- The Last Angry Man (1959)
- A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
- There Was a Crooked Man... (1970)
- Black Girl (1972)
- The DuPont Show of the Month (1957)
- The Nurses (1962)
- Profiles in Courage (1965)
- Moon of the Wolf (1972)
- Cry Panic (1974)
- The Migrants (1974)
- Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1978)
- Roots: The Next Generations (1979)
- Oliver, Myrna (December 1, 1993). "Claudia McNeil, stage, screen actress". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 19 December 2012.
- "A True Acting Talent, Claudia McNeil". African American Registry. Retrieved December 19, 2012.
- Pace, Eric (November 29, 1993). "Claudia McNeil, 77, an Actress Best Known for 'Raisin in the Sun'". New York Times. Retrieved December 14, 2012.
- Smith, Jessica Carter (1996). Notable Black American Women Book II. Gale Research Inc. (An International Thomson Publishing Company). p. 465. Retrieved December 20, 2012.
- "Claudia McNeil seeks to end her marriage". Washington Afro-American. February 18, 1964. Retrieved December 20, 2012.
- Allan Morrison, "Mother Role Brings Broadway Fame", Ebony, May 1960, p. 99.
- "Claudia McNeil comes back home". Washington Afro-American. October 15, 1960.
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