Helen Martin, the character actress remembered as the little old lady next door in Marla Gibbs' mid-1980s television series "227" and as Halle Berry's matriarch "Momma Doll" in the Warren Beatty film "Bulworth," has died. She was 90.
Martin died Saturday at her home in Monterey, Calif., of a heart attack. The actress appeared regularly in more than half a dozen television series about black families over the past three decades, often as a grandmother or other elderly relative and occasionally as a nun or dedicated church worker. In addition to her memorable role as mouthy Pearl Shay in "227," she graced the small screen in "That's My Mama," "Benson," "Good Times," "Full House," "The Parent 'Hood," "The Wayans Brothers," and in the late 1990s "Bananas in Pajamas" and "The Jamie Foxx Show." Born in St. Louis and brought up in Nashville, Tenn., Martin performed with local theater groups in Tennessee and formed a band that she conducted and fronted as a singer. She bowed to parental pressure to attend Fisk University for two years then left for Chicago and later New York City to build a career in show business.
Martin became one of the original members of Harlem's American Negro Theater and one of the earliest black actresses to make her mark on the Broadway stage. Orson Welles cast her in his production of "Native Son." Her other Broadway credits included "Deep Are the Roots" directed by Elia Kazan, "The Long Dream" directed by Lloyd Richards, and "The Amen Corner" written by James Baldwin. She was also cast as an African queen in Jean Genet's historical play "The Blacks," which began on Broadway and then toured Europe.
Martin also appeared in several specials and TV movies. Her favorite role was as the village elder in the mini-series "Roots."
Among her films were "Cotton Comes to Harlem," "A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich," "Repo Man," "A Rage in Harlem," "Doc Hollywood," "House Party 2" and "Beverly Hills Cop III." She was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for her role as the hero's grandmother in the 1987 film "Hollywood Shuffle." She had just completed filming "Something to Sing About," scheduled for release this spring.
Martin was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in Oakland, Calif., in 1992.… Expand
Helen Martin's Scores