Our Time Press

ANNA MARIA HORSFORD SPEAKS Pt. 2

Anna-Maria Horsford

Anna Maria Horsford is known globally for her roles as Thelma Frye on the NBC sitcom Amen (1986–91), and as Dee Baxter on the WB sitcom The Wayans Bros. (1995–99). And in New York City, she is known, not as Thelma and Dee, but as Anna Maria Horsford.


A veteran of numerous roles in sitcoms, motion pictures, daytime television and guest appearances on talk shows, Anna Maria Horsford began charming audiences in the late 1970s thanks to her leading and supporting roles. Four decades later, she is still enchanting audiences, and, now, mentoring actors, as others mentored her, early on.
Currently, she can be seen as Tracy Morgan’s mom Roberta Barker in TBS’ “The Last OG” currently in production for its fourth season, and Billy Porter’s mom, in episodes of the FX drama “POSE”.
The maternal instinct comes honest– perhaps a quality she picked up from her own mother, the late Lillian Agatha Richardson Horsford who “allowed” her daughter the space to dream big dreams; with the expectation that Anna Maria also would “keep it real” on whatever stage in life she played.
AMH: She used to collect clothing and send them back to her island home. One day she received a pair of pink honey-colored slippers with ostrich feathers. I asked if I could keep them as my “Hollywood slippers.” I told her I would need them for the West Coast.
Immigrants come here with dreams. Mom understood dreams. She allowed me to keep the slippers and my dreams. So, I would practice going up and down the stairs, and I would usually fall. She would say, “Anna, get those things off.” I would respond, “But these are my Hollywood slippers. I need them when I get to Hollywood.” [laughs] And she said, “Your behind will be broken by the time you get to Hollywood if you don’t take those shoes off.”
Many years later when I was working in Hollywood as an actress, my back was hurting, and I thought, “She was right. Because God, my ass is broken now.” But I also realized she did it for us to dream, and to work to realize the dream. She never said the dream was impossible. But she always reminded me that the reality was: you had to work that dream.
My first, first job out of high school was at the Joe Papp’s Public Theater, a part in Coriolanus at the Delacorte in Central Park.

OTP: So you began in the theater with great mentors?
AMH: When I was in community theatre back in the 60’s and 70’s, there were no questions about waiting to “get there.” We knew where the parts were. They were right where we were.
Outside of such landing places as Woodie King’s New Federal Theatre, the parts were limited for people of color. I recall, and you may remember, every time a Black person appeared in a movie or in a performance on screen — even if it was a part as an extra, we would call everybody to the screen to watch. We would holler out the window: “Black people on TV, black people on TV.” [laughs]
Yes, the roles were limited. But we managed to play on. When I was small, I used to tell my mother, “I have to go to Hollywood.” And she said, “Mm-hmm.” But she never said it was impossible.
Working with people like Woodie King and Ellis B. Haizlip and others considered the “who’s who” in theatre, cultural arts and entertainment brought me to the realization I was destined to become what I wanted to be.
When Ellis B. Haizlip asked me to take the producing job on the groundbreaking television series “Soul!”, I said, “Well, I can’t really take the job because I’m an actress.” He said, “I’m sure this position will not interfere.” He knew how limited the field was [laughter]. And I said, “I just don’t really want to take a full-time job.” But he called me and said, “So, stay as long as you can.”
Ellis would let me take advantage of outside opportunities. My first two big movies were The Tap Dance Kid and An Almost Perfect Affair. I worked on the latter on the Riviera during vacation time from Soul! So, I’ve had the most convenient career in the world with the most support in the world from the start.
I was happy to be associated with giants in the field who introduced me to other giants.

OTP: So how has the look from behind the camera changed for you over the years? What do you see on the other side of the camera?
AMH: From behind the camera? Well, you have an appreciation for what happens in front when you work behind…
Sometimes actors forget there are hundreds of things to be done before the camera starts rolling.
And they are part of a process when you’re getting everything to work for a final result. Because of the training with Ellis Haizlip and Woodie, by the time I got to California to do “Amen,” I knew that I had to “be on time” and all the other things involving process – besides acting. I would bring my own props to the set. I just knew everything involved. I was ready. I understood that the writers, directors, and everyone who worked on the production didn’t sit up until 4 in the morning writing a piece of sugar-honey-iced tea for me.
So, that was my thing: I was anti-confusion.

OTP: How did you first meet Woodie, a lifelong friend?
AMH: Because there were so few roles, everyone knew everyone. Woodie King, of course, was established. He said to me, “I got a part for you.” He was talking about Charles Fuller’s “A Perfect Party” production in which he was acting.
He said, “Yeah, I don’t think they’re many lines.” He only forgot to tell me there were no lines (laughter).
The encouragement from, teachings of and friendships with such mentors as Mr. Haizlip {who passed in 1991) and King, {who recently announced his retirement from the New Federal Theatre to work on a book} has travelled with me throughout my career.

OTP: How else did the knowledge impact such roles as Thelma in “Amen!”
AMH: From the beginning when I met with the producers of “Amen” about the part, they asked me what I thought of the character and the script – which was not finished. The basis of it was a woman living with her father who had been engaged a few times and got rejected each time. And so, I replied, “Let me tell you something, black people “own” doing-it-right. Okay? So, if you do it right, they’ll like the show; do it wrong, you’ll lose the audience after the first airing.” Now, I was making a kind of a joke, but I was telling the truth, at the same time. Boyfriend took notes. And in that first interview I gave him a short history of what life like was on Lenox Avenue because that’s all I know is where I’ve been, so that’s the story I tell. Frankly, I didn’t care whether I got the job or not because I was working: I had just returned from Canada doing a film with Marlo Thomas and Lee Grant. So, I just went on about my thoughts on making the character Thelma real, and right for the audience.
I said, “First of all, if she got rejected by these men, it doesn’t mean that she did anything wrong. It means the men were stupid and they probably wanted to do something she didn’t want.”
And I continued to talk about this character who evolved into the oldest living virgin in Philadelphia.
In effect, I added texture to the character. So they enhanced the character around my thoughts. One of the writers even said, “I’ve never seen an actor try to write herself out of it.”
I said, “Well, it has to be real. For instance, Thelma would not talk about sex in front of my father. That’s just NOT what we do.”

OTP: You are passionate about getting your characters right, and true to life, whether it is in a sitcom or a serious play.
AMH: You know, it should be part of your mission whatever you do to tell people who you are and how to treat you. There are things in our culture that you just must do; it’s part of my ministry in show business. You cannot be in something and play a lie. The audience you’re trying to reach will know it’s a lie. Know what I mean? There are things about our culture that we must be committed to getting right wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, whatever field we’re in.
You may not have control over how people may evaluate you, or how they take you. But occasionally, you get a glimpse of how someone else may see you. Or that somebody may even tell you, “you are this, you are that.” So, then you open your mouth and get it them straight.
I did a prison movie based on a true story. In it, my character did not ring true in one scene, so I said: “I’ve been reading this script, and I don’t think this woman would act that way.” Now that was bold of me to say this on a major film in production. But I wound up making the director look better.
The deal is a woman walks in on the scene. And the next thing you see is my character stealing the girl’s stuff; that’s after I’ve embraced her. [laughs] And the director’s like, “Well, wait a minute. I thought you were her friend.” I said, in character, “You betta get out my way b__.” I had turned on her so fast, everybody got scared. They thought it was real. And I said, “Okay, you see. That’s what I’m talking about.” And the director said, “Yeah, let’s keep that. Let’s keep it.”
AMH: And what about that ministry working in real Hollywood life, off screen?
One time I got sick on the set of the Amen series. I wasn’t supposed to walk around so I requested lunch. The assistant asked me for money even though I was one of the lead actors. She had no right asking me for anything, and she knew it. I said, “No, I don’t feel food. My father owned a supermarket.”
So, what I did, because she had no right asking me for even one dollar because I’m making it possible for her to have a job, I sent a note to Johnny Carson since he owned the show. I also wrote to the President of NBC. I said, “I just got out the hospital, I’m on the set and she’s going to ask me for the money before she has to get my lunch.” I said, “The one thing I don’t feel is food. I’ve always had food. My father owned a supermarket and blah, blah, blah. Okay? So, I don’t feel food.” Baby, they sent me more bouquets of flowers, and hired an executive to calm me down.
He asked, “Is everything okay, Ms. Horsford?” I said, “Everything is fine. I just don’t want anybody to bother me with stupidness.”

You can’t let people just run over you. I have to teach you how to treat me if you never met somebody like me before.
Well, they promised me a raise in the third year and didn’t bring it. I knew that was a little strange; they usually kept their word. I responded by mail. So, this black woman lawyer calls me on the phone and says, “Anna, You can’t just sue the company like that!”
I said, “You know, there’s one thing in the world I’m scared of.” And she said, “And what’s that?”
I said, “I’m scared of being on the cover of Enquirer without my hair done. Because the “Amen” audience will wonder if I’m using my money on drugs. So, I got to go. I’m going to the hairdresser now. Okay?”
I hung and went to the hairdresser with the money they were supposed to give me.
OTP: What are your thoughts on not getting Emmy recognition for your work on Amen which was so popular?
They waited 25 years and I got one nomination as Outstanding Special Guest Performer for a role as Vivienne on CBS’ ‘ The Bold and the Beautiful. Okay? And someone said, “Oh, you must be excited?” And I’m like, “I’ve been excited from the first time I got a job and a check. What are you talking about?”
Of course, I appreciate all the recognition of my work, and I know I’ve been blessed over the years. But I must say this: Every other person in Harlem knows me and knows my name. That’s my Emmy. That’s my award.
I got on a plane right before the character Thelma was supposed to get married. The captain announced to his passengers that Thelma Frye was finally marrying the Reverend and the entire plane applauded. I could have died and gone to heaven that day. Couldn’t have felt better.
You see, we must use other markers besides the Oscars, the Grammy’s and the Emmy’s.

OTP:Sounds like something your mother would have told you. And, by the way, whatever happened to those honey-colored Hollywood slippers with the ostrich feathers?
AMH:They’re sitting in a closet.

OTP:You’ve had them for more than 30 years?
AMH:They’re not the same pair. (laughter)

(To be continued)

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