Every time Mary Alice was on the screen or stage, you knew something interesting was about to happen. She never played a boring character, and always emanated a power that will be missed by her peers and fans. On Thursday, the actress passed away at the age of 85.
Mary Alice Smith honed her craft in community theater before working her way through New York’s stage scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She transitioned to film and became a TV staple with appearances in popular shows like Sanford and Son, Good Times and All My Children.
Even with years of amazing work on her resume, it was as Lettie on A Different World where a new generation discovered how unforgettable Alice was. The character was introduced with this wild backstory of having lived in Paris, worked as a spy during WWII and knew loads of famous historical figures. Alice managed to make every bit of it believable. As the Gilbert Hall dorm director, Lettie was a surrogate parent for many of the girls. The Emmy-nominee never made Lettie feel judgmental or preachy, even when she was clearly judging her charges.
Though she suddenly moved on after Season 2, and Lettie was barely ever mentioned again, fans never forgot how Alice added a level of authenticity to the series. Her portrayal of Lettie shifted the show into something more than a run of the mill sitcom.
From A Different World, to The Women of Brewster Place, to Malcolm X, to her Tony-winning stage work in Fences, Mary Alice was essential to Black entertainment. She spent her career presenting the beauty, dignity and importance of our culture and history to the world. Considering how big her legacy is, it’s no surprise that her loss sent shockwaves through the industry.
Oscar-winner Viola Davis tweeted, “RIP Mary Alice…the original Rose Maxson. You were one of the greatest actresses of all time!! Thank you for the work, inspiration and thank you for Rose. Godspeed Queen.”
Courtney B. Vance remembered how important Mary was to his family, writing in part, “She loved our family...all holidays were not complete without a call from Mother Mary.”
Rustin star Colman Domingo wrote, “A shoulder we all stood on. A round of applause for Mary Alice. Thank you legend. Rest Easy.”
Accompanied by two broken heart emojis Chicago Med star S. Epatha Merkerson tweeted, “Mary Alice…,” to which the legendary Jenifer Lewis replied, “So much love and laughter with Mary Alice in our NY days. An amazing role model and certainly one of our absolute best. Hello my Epathaaaaaa.”
Mary Alice had a regal presence that instantly made the audience sit up and pay attention. It’s not something you can learn, you either have it or you don’t. While her work will never be forgotten, her presence will be sorely missed.