Mary Alice, the legendary actress known for her performance on screen in Sparkle and on stage in Fences, died of natural causes at her home in New York, the NYPD confirmed to Variety. She was 85.
Born Mary Alice Smith in Indianola, Mississippi, she first worked as an elementary school teacher and performed in community theater productions before pursuing a career as a professional actress. Her film debut came in 1974's The Education of Sonny Carson, directed by Michael Campus.
Alice is perhaps best remembered for 1976's Sparkle, the musical drama inspired by The Supremes about a girl group, called Sister and the Sisters, and their rise to fame. Alice starred as Effie Williams, mother of the sisters, who encouraged her daughters to pursue their dreams.
"I am very proud to be an actor. I chose this profession because I feel this is how I can fulfill my service as a human being — communicating the human condition," she told Contemporary Film, Theatre & Television. "My desire is to create interesting and complex characters on film and television."
Other notable film credits include Awakenings (1990), Malcolm X (1992) and Down in the Delta (1998). Alice's final movie role was in 2003's The Matrix Revolution, playing The Oracle opposite Keanu Reeves' Neo, before she retired from acting in 2005.
Alice was equally known for her Broadway stage work, including originating the role of Rose Maxson in Fences, for which she won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play. In the 2016 film adaptation of August Wilson's play, Viola Davis played the role of Rose and won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
"RIP Mary Alice…the original Rose Maxson," Davis tweeted upon Alice's passing. "You were one of the greatest actresses of all time!! Thank you for the work, inspiration and thank you for Rose. Godspeed Queen."
On the small screen, Alice played the role of Leticia "Lettie" Bostic for two seasons on the NBC sitcom, A Different World (1988-1989), and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series in 1993 for her performance as Marguerite Peck on I'll Fly Away.
Alice's impact on the succeeding generation of actresses cannot be overstated, as Alfre Woodard recently shared with A.frame that she holds up Mary Alice as one of the greats and look to her as a reminder of the power of acting.
"There are three people I look to when I say I need a brush up, or I need a class: I just look at Vanessa [Redgrave], Geraldine Page and Mary Alice," Woodard said. "If I can get the spirit and the movement in the sensibility, in terms of how you approach your work and how you carry it out, then I'll always know that I'm on key. I'm on pitch. I'm in rhythm. I'm honest. And I'm producing some really good music."