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Mon, 08.13.1917

Claudia McNeil, Actress born

Claudia McNeil

*Claudia McNeil was born on this date in 1917. She was a Black stage and film actress.

Her parents from Baltimore, MD, were Marvin Spencer McNeil and Annie Mae Anderson McNeil, who were Native American (Apache).  Shortly after her birth, the family moved to New York City.  Young McNeil was raised and inspired by her mother, who owned a grocery store and was a single parent after telling her husband to leave.  Her relationship with her mother was not always great.  McNeil began working as a mother’s helper for the Heckscher Foundation at twelve. There, she met the Toppers, a white Jewish couple who later adopted her.

McNeil became fluent in Yiddish, and at the age twenty, she set out to become a professional singer. Her first break came at the “Black Cat” in Greenwich Village, making $13.50 weekly. McNeil also sang for the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe on its South American tour, yet did not begin acting until getting advice from Ethel Waters.  In 1953, in her mid-thirties, she landed her first acting role as a replacement on Broadway in “The Crucible.” Four years later, Langston Hughes auditioned for her in “Simply Heavenly,” where she won critical acclaim as the character “Mami.” She also appeared in "A Raisin in the Sun" (1961), which solidified her stage career.  In "A Raisin in the Sun," McNeil so strongly identified with her role as the matriarch she said, “There was a time when acted the role…Now I live it.”

She went on to work in “Tiger Tiger Burning Bright” (1962) and James Baldwin's “The Amen Corner” (1965). In 1967 McNeil played in “Something Different,” where her Yiddish smoothness was instrumental in the production's success. This was followed by “Her First Roman” (1968); she was cast along with Leslie Uggams, her roommate, during the show.  Her last two stage contributions were as Mrs. Devereaux in “Wrong Way Light-Bulb” (1969) and “Contributions” (1970).

McNeil acted in many films, including "The Last Angry Man" (1959). She also appeared in the TV series "The DuPont Show of the Month" (1957), "The Nurses" (1962), "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" (1978), and "Roots: The Next Generations" (1979). She retired in 1983 and two years later moved into the Actors’ Fund Nursing Home in Englewood Bergen County, New Jersey. Claudia McNeil died on Nov. 25, 1993.

To become an Actor or Actress


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Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York
ISBN 0-926019-61-9

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