Celebrities Giving Back to the Community
Since we see celebrities on film, television, and hear them on the radio, we assume that they are larger than life. However, they are mere mortals who deal with the same issues and concerns as we do. CONNECTIONS spoke with Anthony Anderson, Lynn Whitfield, and Tavis Smiley about issues that are affecting our communities and how they are promoting awareness and understanding to make a difference.
Lynn Butler-Smith was born May 6, 1953 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She began her acting career in television and theatre before progressing to supporting roles in film. First garnering attention on the stage by studying and performing with the Black Repertory Company in Washington, D.C, she married one of the company's co-founders and pioneers of black theatre, playwright/director/actor Van Whitfield in 1974. She eventually moved to New York and appeared off-Broadway in such shows as "The Great Macdaddy" and "Showdown" before earning acclaim in the 1977 Los Angeles production of the landmark black play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide...When the Rainbow Is Enuf." Lynn eventually became a force to be reckoned with intelligent and principled roles on quality film and TV as well
Lynn's Hollywood career unfolded under a talent development program at Columbia Pictures in 1979. Appearing on such established TV shows as "Hill Street Blues" and in a 1982 PBS version of her "For Colored Girls..." stage hit, she made her film debut with Doctor Detroit (1983) and doled out a number of support roles in other popular films as well such as Silverado (1985), The Slugger's Wife (1985), Jaws: The Revenge (1987), and Dead Aim (1987). It was TV, however, that garnered her the most attention, working her way into top lead and co-star roles. The topical social dramas The George McKenna Story (1986) (TV) co-starring Denzel Washington, Johnnie Mae Gibson: FBI (1986) (TV) opposite Howard E. Rollins Jr. and Oprah Winfrey's historical miniseries The Women of Brewster Place (1989) (TV) were her early highlights. In addition, she found some steadier work on series TV playing classy professionals, including two for ABC (a doctor in "Heartbeat" (1988) and a news anchorwoman in "Equal Justice" (1990).)
The peak of her acclaimed career arguably came in the form of highly popular but deeply troubled Follies Bergere headliner-turned civil rights activist Josephine Baker. In the HBO biopic The Josephine Baker Story (1991) (TV), Lynn played the legendary entertainer with Emmy-winning gusto, a role that stretched her to the limits as she played the role from age 18 to 68. Earning an NAACP Image Award in 1992 for her role in the miniseries Stompin' at the Savoy (1992) (TV), she later appeared in Pauly Shore's comedy In the Army Now (1994) and went back to series TV alongside Bill Cosby in the short-lived "The Cosby Mysteries" (1994).
Lynn had an upsurge in the late 90s with roles in the films A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (1996) with Martin Lawrence and Gone Fishin' (1997) with "Silverado" co-star Danny Glover. She also earned excellent reviews for her supporting work in Eve's Bayou (1997), a role that drew on her Louisiana heritage. More quality TV came her way when she starred as Sophie in Sophie & the Moonhanger (1996) (TV), a mini-movie that focused on the relationship of the wife of a Klansman and her longtime black housekeeper. She kept up the momentum with an unsympathetic role in the Oprah Winfrey miniseries The Wedding (1998) (TV), where she again had to cover a long life span, this time from 19 to 47, and Redemption (2004/I) with Jamie Foxx, an urban film that chronicled the turbulent life of (now) imprisoned L.A. Crips gang founder Stan "Tookie" Williams.
More recent turns have come with a recurring role in the series "Without a Trace" (2002), a part in an updated version of Clare Boothe Luce's The Women (2008/I) and a lead role opposite Ciara in the film Mama, I Want to Sing! (2011). Divorced from Vantile Whitfield in the late 70s, Lynn later married British director Brian Gibson in 1990, by whom she has a daughter, Grace. They parted ways in 1992.
Anthony Anderson was born August 15, 1970 in Compton, California, a suburb of Long Beach. His mother, Doris, was a telephone operator and actress, and his stepfather, Sterling Bowman, was a native of Little Rock, Arkansas who moved to Los Angeles to work in the steel mill industry before opening a chain of three clothing stores. Anderson has stated that his first attempt at stand up comedy was a failure. He appeared at The Comedy Act Theater billed as comedian "Tasty Tony, the One and Only, and if there's another, he's a phony." When his stage name was announced, he was booed off the stage before ever saying a word. Although this experience was a blow to his ego, he did meet his future friend and fellow comedic actor Guy Torry there, who consoled him after the show and encouraged him to keep getting up on stage. He and Guy would later act together in the Eddie Murphy film titled "Life." Anderson is an alumnus of the Hollywood High School Performing Arts Magnet's Class of 1988 and Howard University. He trained with actors such as Avery Brooks, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.
His television work includes a lead role in the teen series Hang Time as Teddy Broadis. He had many one-off and guest roles on major series such as NYPD Blue, Malcolm & Eddie, In the House, and Ally McBeal. Recurring roles were on several series such as 'Til Death and The Bernie Mac Show. He was the central character in the series All About the Andersons, which lasted for one season on The WB.
Anderson joined the cast of the long-running NBC crime drama television series, Law & Order in 2008. He previously starred in two other crime series, Fox's K-Ville (as one of the lead characters) and Fox's cable channel FX's The Shield.
Since his film debut in Liberty Heights, Anderson has been performing as an actor, often in comedic roles, for many years. Among his more prominent feature films are: Kangaroo Jack, My Baby's Daddy, Hustle & Flow, and Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London. In June 2010, he was cast in a lead role in the upcoming Scream 4.
In 2009, Anderson directed a one-minute short film featuring his Law & Order co-star, Jeremy Sisto. The short was made for the Responsibility Project, a joint initiative of NBC and Liberty Mutual Group. The short aired during the Law & Order episode "Reality Bites" on October 16, 2009
Tavis Smiley was born on September 13, 1964 in Gulfport, Mississippi. The son of Joyce Marie Roberts, a single mother who first became pregnant at age 18. On September 13, 1966, just shy of his second birthday, his mother married Emory Garnell Smiley, a non-commisioned officer in the U.S. Air Force. His family moved to Indiana. Smiley became interested in politics at age 13 after attending a fundraiser for U.S. Senator Birch Bayh. At Maconaquah High School in Bunker Hill, Indiana, a school that Smiley described as "98 percent white", Smiley was active in student council and the debate team, even though his parents were "skeptical of all non-church extracurricular activities."
During his sophomore year at Indiana University Bloomington, he became business manager of his dormitory, a member of the student senate, and director of minority affairs. After his friend Denver Smith was killed by Indiana police officers who claimed to have acted in self-defense, Smiley helped lead protests to defend Smith, whom he believed had been wrongfully killed. Those protests led Smiley to a work-study internship at the office of Bloomington mayor Tomilea Allison. Being paid $5 an hour, Smiley wrote letters to local residents, researched for Mayor Allison, and helped write positions on local issues. Mayor Allison rebuked Smiley for padding his time sheets and had Smiley work off the extra hours without pay. During his first semester of junior year, Smiley was under academic probation and blamed his extracurricular activities for interfering with his studies. When Smiley visited Los Angeles to attend a national student leaders' convention, the cousin of his roommate introduced Smiley to football star Jim Brown. Brown introduced Smiley to fellow football player George Hughley, who worked for Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley and connected Smiley to Mayor Bradley's staff. Every week since meeting Bradley's staff, Smiley wrote a letter to the mayor's office asking for an internship and once personally flew to Los Angeles to appeal. However, by summertime he received a letter from the city stating that all internship positions were filled. Smiley then handwrote a letter from the mayor that he said represented his feeling "from the heart", and Bradley called Smiley to say that he had a position available for Smiley. As the internship was unpaid but counted for college credit, the Bloomington Community Progress Council funded Smiley with $5,000 for living expenses in Los Angeles, and Brown allowed Smiley to live as a houseguest during September 1985.
Twice, Smiley considered quitting college, first during junior year, and then after finishing his internship with Mayor Bradley. Bradley successfully convinced Smiley to return to college, and Smiley did. Smiley took the LSAT twice, as he was considering attending Harvard Law School. However, in his senior year, he failed a test in a computer class after being accused of copying another student's, so he failed that class and several others and lacked nine hours of credits and thus did not graduate from IU. Following a hiring freeze by the government of Los Angeles, Smiley served as an aide to Mayor Bradley until 1990. A 1988 article in the Los Angeles Times identified Smiley as "a Bradley administrative assistant who works in South Los Angeles.
After attending Indiana University, he worked during the late 1980s as an aide to Tom Bradley, the mayor of Los Angeles. Smiley became a radio commentator in 1991, and starting in 1996 he hosted the talk show BET Talk (later renamed BET Tonight) on BET. Controversially, after Smiley sold an exclusive interview of Sara Jane Olson to ABC News in 2001, BET declined to renew Smiley's contract that year. Smiley then began hosting The Tavis Smiley Show on NPR from 2002 to 2004 and currently hosts Tavis Smiley on PBS on the weekdays and "The Tavis Smiley Show" from PRI. Most recently, he and best friend Dr. Cornel West have joined forces for their own radio talk show, "Smiley & West."