When casting Tina Turner’s mom in the 1993 film “What’s Love Got to Do With It?,” the director turned to a relative unknown by the name of Jenifer Lewis.
The actress, who had done just a few small film and TV parts after arriving in Hollywood via Broadway and cabarets, is only about two years older than the film’s star, Angela Bassett. So when she got the call, she almost slammed down the phone. That is, until they told her how much she was going to be paid.
In person, Lewis comes across as a combination of the over-the-top onstage persona of Bette Middler (with whom Lewis toured as a backup singer in the 1980s) and the street-smart, bawdy Cookie from Fox’s “Empire,” with a dash of the self-help mother love of Iyanla Vanzant.
Lewis, a 60-year-old actress-dancer-singer, has long embraced her signature TV role: the matriarch. But now she’s solidifying it with her new memoir, “The Mother of Black Hollywood,” based on diaries that she has kept since she was in the seventh grade. She chronicles her life as a 1980s musical theater performer, watching hundreds of her theater friends die of AIDS. She writes about being molested as a teen by the pastor of her childhood church, her battle with bipolar disorder and sex addiction and her gradual emergence as a Hollywood mainstay.
Lewis spares few details in the book, including her anger over “Today” show host Jane Pauley’s on-air crack in 1986 that Lewis’s gold earrings weren’t real. She also recalls playing Effie White during the workshop version of “Dreamgirls,” before losing the role to Jennifer Holiday for Broadway (though she thinks Holliday sings “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” better than she did). She also writes about how, in 2015, she found out her then-boyfriend of five months had a history of theft and had stolen $50,000 from her. It was the same day she learned her mother had died.
- Will Smith, aunt, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”(1991–1996)
- Angela Bassett, mother, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” (1993)
- Tupac Shakur, mother, “Poetic Justice” (1993)
- Whitney Houston, mother, “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996)
- Jill Marie Jones, mother, “Girlfriends” (2002–2006)
- Raven-Symoné, grandmother, “That’s So Raven” (2004)
- Taraji P. Henson, mother, “Not Easily Broken” (2009)
- These days, she plays Anthony Anderson’s mother on the ABC show “Blackish.”
In addition to her mom roles, Lewis’s dramatic alto has found a home in animation, as she’s voiced such memorable characters as Flo in the Disney/Pixar film “Cars” and Mama Odie in Disney’s“The Princess and the Frog.” Plus, last year she put out a homemade YouTube music video with R&B singer Brandy and actress Roz Ryan, “In These Streets,” an answer to haters who try to throw up hurdles on their road to success. The three filmed the video at Lewis’s home last year, and its popularity led to a string of follow-up videos.
“She is a force of nature,” said Whoopi Goldberg, who has worked with Lewis in four projects, including both “Sister Act” movies. “She is one of the most talented persons in the world.”
These days, she’s focusing on her health. She still takes two pills each day to avoid the manic highs and depressive lows. Professionally, in addition to her steady work with “Blackish,” she’s just completed a new Disney animated TV series based on the movie “Big Hero 6,” and there are plans for a possible “Jackie’s Back! 2,” a follow-up to her comedic 1999 Lifetime movie that has a cult following among her fans.
She also has one more dream: A one-woman show on Broadway. Her name, all in lights, with one N.
I have “this ability to hold people in the palm of my hand. But I wanted to put them in my heart. So when I get the audience in my palm, it’s my responsibility to put them in my heart, too,” she says and then refers to her book.