Norman, Maidie 1912–1998
Maidie Norman 1912–1998
Maidie Norman began her acting career in the late 1940s, at a time when African American actors were given little scope to showcase their talents. “When I was young, I was rather attractive and I thought that I would be a leading lady,” Norman told The Los Angeles Times in 1981. “I always thought of myself as a dramatic actress, but of course the opportunities for blacks weren’t there at the time.”
Nevertheless, Norman was known for the dignity and artistry she brought to even the most limited roles. Famously, while acting in the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Norman refused to play her role in a stereotypically demeaning manner; she even rewrote some of her lines to eliminate “old slavery-time talk.”
While Hollywood offered her limited parts, Norman was able to play leading roles on the stage; she also appeared in numerous made-for-television films and mini-series. In addition to her acting career, Norman taught drama at Stanford University and the University of California at Los Angeles, where she established a pioneering course on the history of blacks in American theater.
Norman was born Maidie Gamble on October 16, 1912, in Villa Rica, Georgia; her father, Louis C. Gamble, was an engineer, and her mother, Lila (Graham) Gamble, was a homemaker. Norman spent most of her childhood and teen years in Lima, Ohio.
After graduating from high school, Norman attended Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she received a BA in Literature and Theater Arts in 1934. She then went on to earn an MA in Theater Arts from New York’s Columbia University in 1937. The same year, she married McHenry Norman, a real estate broker, taking his last name professionally. The couple had one son, McHenry “Skip” Norman III.
In the 1940s, the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Norman began to pursue her acting career. Beginning in 1946, she appeared on numerous radio shows, including “The Jack Benny Show,” “Amos and Andy,” “Sears Mystery Theater,” and “Dragnet.” From 1946 to 1949, she trained at the Actors Laboratory in Hollywood. Norman made her film debut in 1948 in The Burning Cross. The following year, she made her stage debut as Honey in Deep Are the Roots at Los Angeles’ Mayan Theatre.
In 1951, Norman landed a leading role in the film The Well, a “controversial and well-known film within the-Donald Bogle, writing in Blacks in American Films and Television. Although Norman received critical acclaim for her performance, it was her one and only leading
At a Glance…
Born Maidie Ruth Gamble, October 16, 1912, Villa Rica, GA; died May 2, 1998; daughter of Louis Gamble and Lila Gamble; married McHenry Norman; one son, McHenry “Skip” Norman III. Education: Bennett College, North Carolina, BA, 1934; Columbia University, New York, MA, 1937; trained at the Actors Laboratory in Hollywood, 1946–49.
Career: Actor in radio, film, tv, and stage, 1946-; drama instructor, Texas State College, Tyler, TX, summers 1955, 1956; artist in residence, Stanford University, 1968–69; lecturer, University of California at Los Angeles, 1970–77.
Selected films: The Well (1951), Bright Road (1953), Torch Song (1953), About Mrs. Leslie (1954), Susan Slept Here (1954), Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle (1955), The Opposite Sex (1956), Written on the Wind (1957), What Ever Happened to Baby jane? (1962), The Final Countdown (1972), Maurie (1973), A Star is Born (1976), and Airport 77 (1977).
Awards: Bennett College Achievement Award, 1953; Woman of the Year, Los Angeles Sentinel, 1964; Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Inductee, 1977; Maidie Norman Research Award (established in her name), UCLA, 1982.
Member: Actors Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, League of Allied Arts, California Educational Theatre Association.
role in Hollywood cinema. “I thought The Well was going to launch my career,” she was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times, “but nothing happened.”
Norman dealt with the disappointment by focusing on acting in the theater, performing in plays by Shakespeare, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other serious playwrights. During her theater career, she performed in the title role in the plays Medea, Purlie Victorious, and Andromache.
Norman continued to work steadily in films through the 1950s, “a period when black women still played servants,” according to Bogle in Blacks in American Films and Television. By this time, movie studios had begun to come under fire for the stereotypical portrayals of African American characters. “Because the studios feared offending black audiences, the maid characters, unlike movie maids of the past, were developed without tension and were the blandest of bland personalities,” Bogle wrote in Blacks in American Films and Television “Mostly they were just there. Norman was often stuck with just such uncommanding parts, some maids, some not …” Her film credits from these years include Bright Road (1953), Torch Song (1953), About Mrs. Leslie (1954), Susan Slept Here (1954), Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle (1955), The Opposite Sex (1956), and Written on the Wind (1957).
In 1962, Norman landed a role—again as a housekeeper—in the film classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, a modern gothic horror tale starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. “In a film full of the bizarre, the grotesque, and the Holly weird, Norman’s Elvira was the only character wise to some of the shenanigans of the mad Baby Jane, and oddly enough, hers was one of the few characters the audience could identify with and briefly cheer on,” wrote Bogle in Blacks in American Films and Television “Alas, she still suffers an unpleasant fate. But audiences still remember the character, if not the name of the actress who played the part.”
The role in the film was partly of Norman’s own creation: while the original script called for a stereotypical, doltish maid—typical of much earlier Hollywood films—she refused to play the character that way. “I’d say, ‘You know, this is not the way we talk these days. This is old slavery-time talk,’” she recalled in a 1995 interview with the San Jose Mercury News.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Norman continued to act in films, appearing in The Final Countdown (1972), Maurie (1973), A Star is Born (1976) and Airport 77 (1977). She also began to appear on television, believing that it offered more opportunity for African American performers. Her television credits included “Days of Our Lives” (1971), “Sty of the Blind Pig” (1974), “Streets of San Francisco” (1974), “Kung Fu” (1975), “Good Times” (1975), “The Jeffersons” (1975), “Police Story” (1976) and “Roots: The Next Generation” (1979). She performed frequently in TV movies and miniseries into the 1980s.
Despite the fact that Norman had to struggle for years against stereotypical film roles, she was not bitter about her experiences in Hollywood. “I’ve enjoyed every moment of my life as an actress and teacher,” she was quoted as saying in Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television “It has been most rewarding to play roles written by the great playwrights: Racine’s Andromache, Baldwin’s Amen Corner, Phillip Hayes Dean’s Sty of the Blind Pig, and Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. I have also loved character roles.”
In addition to her acting career, Norman taught drama at the university level for many years. During the 1950s, she began to lecture at colleges throughout the nation, sharing her immense knowledge of African American theater and literature. In the summers of 1955 and 1956, she was a drama instructor at Texas State College in Tyler, Texas.
From 1968 to 1969, Norman held the position of artist-in-residence at Stanford University, where she acted in Stanford Repertory Theater, and was the first director to stage plays by black authors. “My stint as an artist-in-residence at Stanford University was a real career bonus,” she was quoted as saying in Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television “It was one of the few opportunities I have had to use my training and skills in classic theater.”
In 1970, Norman was asked to teach a class at UCLA on “black acting,” according to Beverly Robinson, a UCLA professor who studied with Norman (quoted in the Los Angeles Times) “She said that there was no such thing as black acting but that there was a thing called ‘history of black people’s theater in America,’” Robinson told the Los Angeles Times. Norman went on to establish a course on the history of black theater, which was one of the first African American studies classes to be offered at UCLA. Norman taught at UCLA until her retirement in 1977; afterward, she continued to perform and to lecture at universities across the country.
Over the course of her long career, Norman received numerous awards for her acting, including the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Award in 1977. “If I were to name a particular highlight it would have to be my induction into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame at Oakland, California,” she was quoted as saying in Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television “Tobe so honored by my black brothers and sisters is the highest merit.”
In addition to her acting and teaching, Norman was active in numerous arts organizations. She sat on the board of the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theatre, and was an officer of the League of Allied Arts, which funds scholarships in the arts. In her spare time, she enjoyed quilting, as well as painting.
Norman died of lung cancer on May 2, 1998, at the age of 85, but her legacy lives on at two separate academic institutions. UCLA gives an annual Maidie Norman Research Award to the theater arts student who presents the best research paper on the history of blacks in theater. And among the holdings of the Center for Archival Collections at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, are the “Maidie Norman Papers,” which document her life and career from 1913–89. According to the library’s website, the papers “provide a look at the difficulties of an African American woman in the acting profession, and despite these difficulties, Maidie Norman’s many achievements.”
According to film historian and professor Donald Bogle, “[T]he history of blacks in films remains one in which individual actors and actresses have often had to direct themselves; rather than playing characters, they have had to play against their roles, digging deep within themselves to come up with unexpected and provocative points of view.” Norman’s experience of acting in early Hollywood cinema was typical for African American actors; that she was able to bring dignity to the characters she played is a testament to the depth of her talent.
Bogle, Donald, Blacks in American Films and Television, Garland Publishing, 1988.
Bogle, Donald, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Continuum Publishing, 1994.
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Vol 2, Gale Research, 1986.
Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1998, p. A48.
New York Times, May 12, 1998, p. A21.
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