Martin, Helen 1909–2000
Helen Martin 1909–2000
Actress Helen Martin was a pioneer in theater. A founding member of the Harlem-based American Negro Theater, Martin was one of the first African-American actresses to appear on Broadway. In her prolific career she worked with such famed people as legendary director Orson Welles and screen giants Sidney Poiter, Warren Beatty, and Halle Berry. When she died on March 25, 2000 in Monterrey, California, Martin left behind an acting career that spanned sixty years.
Helen Dorothy Martin was born July 28, 1909 to William Martin, a minister, and Amanda Frankie (Fox) Martin. Though born in St. Louis, Missouri, Martin grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. She was drawn to performing at an early age and was active in local theater groups. Not limiting herself to acting, she also sang with her own band. However, her parents had other ideas for her future and insisted that she go to college. Wanting to please them, Martin dutifully went off to Fisk University in Tennessee where she studied for two years. She also did a stint at A&I State College, also in Tennessee, before finally breaking off on her own to pursue the acting career she longed for.
Martin moved to Chicago in the thirties and became active in theater under the Federal Theatre Project, which was part of the Works Progress Administration, WPA, established under President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935. By the end of the thirties Martin had made the leap to New York City’s thriving theater scene. She made her stage debut there in 1939 with the Rose McClendon Players. McClendon was a driving force in the effort to establish a black theater aesthetic, and Martin shared those aspirations. Along with black theater legends, Abram Hill and Frederick O’Neal, Martin became a founding member of the American Negro Theater. This groundbreaking company firmly established African-American theater and provided a training ground for African-American actors, actresses, and playwrights. In addition to Martin, the American Negro Theater launched the careers of Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis—all legendary African-American performers.
In 1941 Martin made her Broadway debut as Vera Thomas, Bigger Thomas’s sister in Orson Welles’s production of Native Son. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Orson Welles personally cast her” in the role. Martin’s performance in Native Son not only established her as a serious stage actress but as one of the first African-American actresses in a major role on Broadway. The performance also heralded the way in which legions of African-American actresses were to follow. Following its run on Broadway, Native Son toured the United States with Martin in her role.
Martin’s talent took her from stage to screen and she made her film debut in the Allied Artist’s production, The Phoenix City Story in 1955. Fifteen years would pass before she would appear on the big screen again and then only in minor parts. During this time her stage career flourished. Between her 1939 debut and her death in 2000, Martin performed in over 40 stage productions, including roles in such famed plays as Cat on a Hot Tin
Born on July 28, 1909 in St. Louis, MO; died March 25, 2000; parents: William Martin, a minister, and Amanda Frankie (Fox) Martin; raised in Nashville, TN; Education: Attended Fisk University and A&1 State College, both in TN.
Career: Stage and screen actress. Became one of the first serious African-American actresses to make a mark on Broadway; acted in Orson Welles’s production of Native Son, 1941; appeared in over forty stage productions, over a dozen films, and countless television sitcoms, including 227; Baby, I’m Back.
Memberships: Founding member of the American Negro Theater, Harlem, NY.
Roof, Raisin in the Sun, and Purlie Victorious. She also toured the United States in productions such as You Can’t Take it With You and Deep are the Roots, the latter of which became a British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, radio broadcast in 1947. She also performed onstage in London, England.
With the ascent of African-American themed sitcoms, Martin found a new career on the small screen. Throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties she enjoyed continuing roles on hit shows such as Sanford and Son, Good Times, Benson, and The Jeffersons and landed her first featured role on a series in 1978 with the show Baby, I’m Back. However, it wasn’t until 1985 when Martin was cast in the role of the grouchy neighbor Pearl Shay on the hit show 227, that she gained national recognition. Her impeccable comic timing as an elderly busybody gained the attention of casting agents, and in her seventies veteran stage actress Martin found a new career as an acerbic grandmother character in a slew of contemporary movies, including 1987’s Hollywood Shuffle by esteemed African-American director Robert Townsend—a role for which she received a nomination for an NAACP image award. She also appeared in 1991’s House Party 2, 1996’s Don’t Be a Menace to Society While Drinking Your Juice in the ’Hood, a satire of Los Angeles ghetto-based movies, and 1998’s Bulworth with Halle Berry and Warren Beatty.
In January of 1996, her public image firmly established as a sweet if mouthy grandmother, Martin appeared on the television show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, ostensibly to promote Don’t Be a Menace. Instead she shook up O’Brien and crew—not to mention her fans— with her raunchiness. According to transcripts of the show, O’Brien asked Martin what she would have done if she hadn’t become an actress. After replying that she would have been a stripper, “she got up on the leg rest and then did a little dance while the band played a bump and grind,” www.misfit.com/conan reported. A bit later in the show, referring to her pot-smoking grandmother character in the film, O’Brien asked her if that image bothered her. She responded by saying, “I love the reefer” and then asking O’Brien if he had any. Marijuana enthusiasts pounced on her pronouncement and quickly held her up as an example of the drug’s presumed harmlessness. Whether O’Brien and Martin were playing a little gag on the audience or Martin was just letting loose is not known.
After nearly sixty years on stage and screen and a metamorphosis from color-barrier busting Broadway regular to quick-witted granny on the small screen, Martin filmed her last movie, Something to Sing About. On March 25, 2000, before the film debuted, Martin succumbed to a heart attack and died in her home in Monterrey, California. Her career, while not having the highest profile, was undoubtedly prolific. In her wake, thousands of African-American actresses and actors have walked across Broadway stages, their feet a bit surer because of the path she and her colleagues in the American Negro Theater trod. The little ‘ole granny with a penchant for ‘reefer’ left a career legacy to be admired and emulated.
American Theatre, July 2000, p. 15.
Ebony, June 1998, p.36.
Jet, April 17, 2000, p.64.
Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2000.
Variety, April 10, 2000, p.75.
"Martin, Helen 1909–2000." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/martin-helen-1909-2000
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