Alfre Woodard

Alfre Woodard Headshot

Actress

Birth Date: November 8, 1952

Age: 71 years old

Birth Place: Tulsa, Oklahoma

One of the most accomplished and talented African-American actresses of her generation, Alfre Woodard earned an Oscar nomination and multiple Emmy wins in a prolific film and TV career that spanned over three decades.

Woodard worked primarily in drama, where she was celebrated for her grounding force in "Passion Fish" (1992), "Crooklyn" (1994), "How to Make an American Quilt" (1995) and "Down in the Delta" (1998), though she occasionally offered up her uninhibited wit in "Beauty Shop" (2005) and "Desperate Housewives" (ABC, 2004-2012). Among Woodard's most praised performances were TV movies that explored the African-American experience, including James Baldwin's "Go Tell it on the Mountain" (PBS, 1985), "The Piano Lesson" (CBS, 1995), "Miss Evers' Boys" (HBO, 1997) and the TV movie remake of the feature "Steel Magnolias" (Lifetime, 2012). She also shown in guest roles, including her turn as a mentally ill mother on the hit vampire series "True Blood" (HBO, 2008-14).

Woodard never considered herself a star but rather a working actress, though her rich gallery of characterizations - whether rural and poverty-stricken or educated women in positions of power - embodied an instinctual savvy and realistic viewpoint that placed her in a league of her own.

Born on Nov. 8, 1952, and raised in Tulsa, OK, Woodard started out her acting career as "stone-head hippie; semi-black nationalist" at Boston University. She graduated with a BFA in theater in 1974 and went straight to stage work; first at Washington, DC's Arena Theatre before landing a breakthrough in the 1977 Los Angeles production of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf."

Woodard was featured in the PBS drama "The Trial of the Moke" (1978) and pushed the art of deadpan to new heights playing a hotel manager in Robert Altman's droll satire "Health" (1979). She went on to a string of distinguished small screen appearances, including the PBS version of "For Colored Girls" (1982).

A degree of fame resulted from her dignified turn as the housekeeper Geechee in "Cross Creek" (1983), for which she earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Supporting roles in sitcoms "Tucker's Witch" (CBS, 1982-83) and "Sara" (NBC, 1985) were unfortunately short-lived, but Woodard fared better in a return to Boston (a set of Boston, anyway) and the role of obstetrician Dr. Roxanne Turner on NBC's medical drama "St. Elsewhere" (NBC, 1982-88). Although her part was limited, she and co-star Denzel Washington struck sparks.

Woodard had similar success paired with Danny Glover in the biography of South African freedom fighter, "Mandela" for Fox in 1987. She gave a commanding performance as a benefits counselor who champions the cause of a Vietnam veteran (John Ritter) who believes he had been exposed to Agent Orange in "Unnatural Causes" (NBC, 1986) and received a pair of Emmy Awards for guest work on Steven Bochco-produced dramas. "Hill Street Blues" (NBC, 1981-87) cast her as the grieving mother of a youth shot by the police, while on "L.A. Law" (NBC, 1986-1994) she delivered a powerhouse portrayal of a rape victim. She also had a triumph depicting Mary Thomas, the mother of basketball star Isaiah Thomas in the NBC biopic, "A Mother's Courage: The Mary Thomas Story" (NBC, 1989).

During the 1990s, Woodard's big screen career finally began to heat up, though initially critics were divided over her cartoonish turn as Popeye Jackson in "Miss Firecracker" (1991), with some finding it highly amusing while others professing distress that such a gifted actress was reduced to caricature. She was better received when paired romantically with Danny Glover in "Grand Canyon" (1991), Lawrence Kasdan's innovative meditation on destiny, as well as in her Golden Globe-nominated role as the nurse-confidante of a wheelchair-bound actress (Mary McDonnell) in John Sayles' "Passion Fish" (1992). Spike Lee offered the actress a strong part as the wife of a jazz musician struggling to raise her family in the writer-director's semi-autobiographical "Crooklyn" (1994).

Woodard excelled as the sister of Charles S. Dutton battling him over the family legacy in "The Piano Lesson" (CBS, 1995), which earned her yet another Emmy nomination. She joined the ensemble portrait "How to Make an American Quilt" (1995) and in one of the finest performances of her career, portrayed a nurse caring for patients in the infamous Tuskegee study of black men suffering with syphilis in the acclaimed HBO drama "Miss Evers' Boys" (1997). Woodard justly received virtually every accolade for that performance, including her third Emmy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Actress.

Under the guidance of first-time feature director Maya Angelou - who had played her mother in "How to Make an American Quilt" - Woodard gave a captivating performance as a single mother coping with unemployment, an autistic daughter and a substance abuse problem in "Down in the Delta" (1998).

After delivering a subtle performance as the landlady of a small town psychologist in the comedy "Mumford" (1999), Woodard starred in "What's Cookin?" (2000), an ensemble drama that depicted four racially diverse families preparing for Thanksgiving dinner, only to have their careful preparations disintegrate into arguments on ethnicity, politics and sexual identity. The film emerged from the 2000 Sundance Film Festival to earn a pittance at the box office, despite its star power and great performances. But 2000 was a banner year for Woodard, with another subtle performance as the homebody mother of an aspiring athlete (Sanaa Lathan) in "Love & Basketball" and a cameo appearance as a prison supervisor in the supernatural thriller "Lost Souls."

Taking the lead, Woodard played a cynical, hard-driving Atlanta attorney who returns home to the rural lowlands of her youth to mourn her mother's death in the Showtime drama, "The Wishing Tree." In a pair of career choices she might have reconsidered in retrospect, she landed supporting roles in the notorious sci-fi dud "K-PAX" (2001) and played NASA Chief Talma Stickley in the mediocre sci-fi thriller, "The Core" (2002), co-starring Hilary Swank and Aaron Eckhart.

In a better received sci-fi outing, she guided two children through space on a search for their mysteriously disappeared dad in a made-for-TV adaptation of the classic children's book "A Wrinkle in Time" (ABC, 2003). That same year, she earned another Emmy Award for a guest-starring appearance on "The Practice" (ABC, 1997-2004); was part of the stellar cast of the otherwise mediocre adaptation of the BBC series, "The Singing Detective" (2003); and played a high school principal reluctant to allow a mentally retarded man (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) to assist the football team in the feel-good drama, "Radio" (2003).

After a long absence from the stage, Woodard hit Broadway in the lead of Regina Taylor's "Seagull" adaptation, "Drowning Crow."

In one of Woodard's bigger box office successes, she played Miss Josephine, a chatty, lowbrow patron of "Beauty Shop" (2005), the spin-off of the popular "Barbershop" franchise. Accepting her first regular primetime role since "St. Elsewhere" decades earlier, Woodard joined the cast of ABC's twisted comedic sensation "Desperate Housewives" in 2005, playing Betty Applewhite, a new resident of Wisteria Lane with a mysterious possible murderer chained in her basement. She earned another Emmy nomination for her year with the show and went on to be part of the highly acclaimed feature "Something New" (2006), an under-the-radar charmer exploring interracial relationships and African-American family values.

Woodard played opposite Sissy Spacek in the CBS' telepic "Pictures of Hollis Woods" (2007), serving as a wise role model to a troubled foster child and earning another Emmy nomination for her performance.

The following year she returned to series television to play the tough boss of a secret operative (Christian Slater) whose double life is a mystery to even himself in the series, "My Own Worst Enemy" (NBC, 2008). After being featured in Tyler Perry's "The Family That Preys" (2008), Woodard earned a Grammy nomination for Best Spoken Word Album for Children as the producer of Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales (2009). She next had a regular role on the short-lived medical drama, "Three Rivers" (CBS, 2009-2010), before earning critical kudos for her recurring stint as the mentally ill, devoutly Christian mother of a drug dealer and gay prostitute (Nelsan Ellis) on the hit "True Blood" (HBO, 2008-14).

The latter role earned Woodard an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress on a Drama Series in 2011. Back as a series regular, Woodard was the by-the-book boss of an all-too-easy-going police detective on the short-lived "Memphis Beat" (TNT, 2010-11), while landing guest spots on both "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC, 2005- ) and "Private Practice" (ABC, 2007-2013). She went on to earn critical praise and award nominations for her performance as Ouiser Boudreaux in "Steel Magnolias" (Lifetime, 2012), a remake of the 1989 feature film that instead showcased an African-American cast, including Queen Latifah, Jill Scott, Condola Rashad, Adepero Oduye and Phylicia Rashad.

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