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NEW YORK – Juanita Moore, a groundbreaking actress and an Academy Award nominee for her role as Lana Turner‘s character’s black friend in the classic weeper Imitation of Life, has died.
Actor Kirk Kelleykahn, her grandson, said that Moore collapsed and died Wednesday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 99, according to Kelleykahn. Accounts of her age have differed over the years.
Moore was only the fifth black performer to be nominated for an Oscar, receiving the nod for the glossy Douglas Sirk film that became a big hit and later gained a cult following. The 1959 tearjerker, based on a Fannie Hurst novel and a remake of a 1934 film, tells the story of a struggling white actress’ rise to stardom, her friendship with a black woman and how they team up to raise their daughters as single mothers.
It brought supporting actress nominations for both Moore and Susan Kohner, who played Moore’s daughter as a young adult attempting to pass for a white woman. Kohner’s own background is Czech and Mexican. By the end, Turner’s character is a star and her friend is essentially a servant. The death of Moore’s character sets up the sentimental ending.
Kohner — who heard of Moore’s death through Sam Staggs, author of 2009’s Born to Be Hurt: The Untold Story of Imitation of Life — had high praise for her friend and co-star, with whom she said she spoke regularly.
“I did keep in touch with her over the years and I would speak to her every year on her birthday, so I last spoke to her Oct. 19,” Kohner tells The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday afternoon. “I had promised to visit her this time when I came out to visit my family, and I guess the timing was just off.
“We were very fond of each other,” she continues. “We sort of completed each other’s performances. I think she completed mine and I completed hers. It was a lovely experience for me. She was a very, very good actress and a lovely human being and had a wonderful sense of humor.”
In a 1967 Los Angeles Times interview, Moore spoke of her Oscar recognition. “The Oscar prestige was fine, but I worked more before I was nominated,” Moore said at the time. “Casting directors think an Oscar nominee is suddenly in another category. They couldn’t possibly ask you to do one or two days’ work. You wouldn’t accept it. And I’m sure I would.”
Moore also had an active career in the theater, starting in the early 1950s at Los Angeles’ Ebony Showcase Theatre, a leading black-run theater. She also was a member of the celebrated Cambridge Players, with other performers including Esther Rolle and Helen Martin.
Her grandson is currently president and CEO of the Cambridge group.
She appeared on Broadway in 1965 in James Baldwin‘s play The Amen Corner and in London in a production of Raisin in the Sun.
“The creative arts put a person on another level,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s why we need to bring our youngsters into the theater.”
Her first film appearance was as a nurse in the 1949 film Pinky. As with other black actresses, many of Moore’s early roles were those of a maid. She told the Times that “real parts, not just in-and-out jobs,” were opening up for black performers.
Among Moore’s other films were The Girl Can’t Help It, The Singing Nun, Paternity and The Kid. Her TV credits include The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Adam-12, Judging Amy and ER.
Born in Los Angeles, Moore got her start in show business as a chorus girl at New York’s Cotton Club, then joined the Ebony Theatre.
She was the widow of Charles Burris. She is survived by her grandson and two nephews.
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