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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : Rosetta LeNoire's nurturing ways extend beyond her role on ABC's 'Family Matters'

November 20, 1994|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rosetta LeNoire works in Los Angeles on the ABC series "Family Matters." She runs two theater groups in New York. And, before we forget to mention it, she's 83 and has more goals in life.

Though she's spent 70 years in show business, most people today know LeNoire from her role as the sweet, all-knowing Mother Winslow on "Family Matters." But her real passion are two acting companies she founded in her home state: The AMAS Repertory Theater and The Eubie Blake Children's Theater. Both groups are devoted to interracial productions, a theme that plays an integral part in the actress' life.

LeNoire--who also starred in NBC's "Gimme A Break" and NBC's "Amen"--was born in New York's Hell's Kitchen and recalls her family's experiences with discrimination.

"Every morning, my father and his friends gathered on the roof to walk out together to the subway to work, because that way they wouldn't get beaten up by whites," she says.

LeNoire's mother died of pneumonia at 27; after giving birth she was refused a room and was placed in a hospital hallway, LeNoire says. Her mother died two days later, she adds.

LeNoire also found opposition from other African Americans. "Not only was I crippled," she says of her youth, when rickets caused her legs to be braced and she walked with crutches, "but I was Catholic and most of the other blacks were Baptist or Methodist, so I know what it's like to be beaten up."

LeNoire says she's seen "gigantic changes" in America's racial environment. "You have to live it to know. I thank God everyday I've lived this long to enjoy what I'm enjoying now, what most young people take for granted."

Her godfather and mentor, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, "had to eat in the servants' area, no matter how famous he got. I'm thrilled I can live like this."

Robinson and her singing instructor, Eubie Blake, helped develop her interest in entertainment. When LeNoire's leg braces came off at 13, she learned to tap dance and two years later, went on the road with Robinson.

Later, she joined the Robert Earl Jones Theater Group. In addition to gathering acting experience, she cared for Jones' infant son, James Earl Jones, now one of the most highly regarded actors around. "He's grown in to such a lovely man," she says. "I'm so proud of him."

LeNoire's 1939 Broadway debut was in "The Hot Mikado," an all-black version of the opera. "It was something," she recalls. "There were 125 of us, all black Japanese."

"The Hot Mikado" was followed by a role in Orson Welles' all-black production of "MacBeth": "Good Lord! He was a delegate from heaven. He was the only one who had faith that blacks could bring the right dignity and sophistication to Shakespeare."

Roles in television and theater, starting in the early '40s, followed and continued to be offered. "I've been lucky," she says, "I've always worked." She also penned the Tony-nominated "Bubblin' Brown Sugar."

"I just pray that if 'Family Matters' goes off the air, there'd be another show like it," she says. "Many people told me they were able to solve problems through the show. We need more shows like this and less of the sex business all the time. You'd think that's all that exists, sex, watching most TV."

Despite her constant reference to her age, the great-grandmother of two still has goals: "I hope before I leave this world, that I can obtain a building for my theater groups. It's so needed and we can continue our work on multiracialism. That's why I called it AMAS, which means 'you love' in Latin. The principal reason is to bring people together regardless of creed, religion or national origin, and at my age, I know how important that is."

"Family Matters" airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on ABC. Reruns air weekdays at 6:30 p.m. on KTLA.

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