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How 'Blackish' star Jenifer Lewis became 'the mother of black Hollywood'

By: Keith L. Alexander The Washington Post
December 6, 2017 Updated: December 6, 2017 at 4:30 am
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When casting Tina Turner's mom in the 1993 film "What's Love Got to Do With It?," the director turned to a relative unknown by the name of Jenifer Lewis.

The actress, who had done only a few small film and TV parts after arriving in Hollywood via Broadway and cabarets, is only about 2 years older than the film's star, Angela Bassett. So when she got the call, she almost slammed down the phone. That is, until they told her how much she was going to be paid.

"Hell, for that money," Lewis recalled, "I would have played the daddy."

That film established Lewis in what was to become her signature role: the matriarch. Armed with her penchant for delivering memorable one-liners, Lewis launched a nearly 25-year career of playing the mother, auntie or grandmother to such stars as Will Smith, Tupac Shakur and Whitney Houston. These days, she plays Anthony Anderson's mother on the ABC show "Blackish."

And while her face and booming voice may be recognizable to some, her name is still one that escapes many - especially the unusual spelling of her first name with one "n." In the small town of Kinloch, Mo., Dorothy Mae Lewis named her youngest of seven children after the 1940s actress Jennifer Jones. But she wanted her daughter to be unique and so, "My mother wanted something different in my name," Lewis said.

The spelling still confuses people. Lewis' managers make sure everyone knows about it and regularly enter dressing rooms before her, to ensure no signs are misspelled. If they are, they're ripped down before Lewis sees them.

Lewis grew up watching all-around entertainers such as Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey, and trying to master acting, singing and dancing.

"I have had that charisma and that presence since I was born," she said. "I came out my mama singing a ... Ethel Merman song."

"She is a force of nature," said Whoopi Goldberg, who has worked with Lewis in four projects, including both "Sister Act" movies. "She is one of the most talented persons in the world.

"She defies characterization, but Hollywood didn't know what to do with her. Until now. Now she's blooming like a rose because that's what she really is, a rose."

In person, Lewis comes across as a combination of the over-the-top onstage persona of Bette Midler (with whom Lewis toured as a backup singer in the 1980s) and the street-smart, bawdy Cookie from Fox's "Empire," with a dash of the self-help mother love of Iyanla Vanzant.

She also has a big dream: a one-woman show on Broadway. Her name, all in lights, with one N.

I have "this ability to hold people in the palm of my hand. But I wanted to put them in my heart. So when I get the audience in my palm, it's my responsibility to put them in my heart, too," she says.

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