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 2 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.
“Hell, for that money,” Lewis recalled, “I would have played the daddy.”
That film established Lewis in what was to become her signature role: the matriarch. Armed with her penchant for delivering memorable one-liners, Lewis launched a nearly 25-year career of playing the mother, auntie or grandmother to such stars as Will Smith, Tupac Shakur and Whitney Houston. These days, she plays Anthony Anderson’s mother on the ABC show “Blackish.”
The energetic 60-year-old actress-dancer-singer is on a mini-tour to promote 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 raped 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.
And while her face and her booming voice may be recognizable to some, her name is still one that escapes many — especially the unusual way of spelling her first name with one “n.” In the small town of Kinloch, Missouri, Dorothy Mae Lewis named her youngest of seven children after the 1940s actress Jennifer Jones. But she wanted her daughter to be unique and so, “My mother wanted something different in my name,” Lewis said.
The spelling still confuses people. Lewis’ managers make sure everyone knows about it and regularly enter dressing rooms before her, just to ensure there aren’t any signs misspelled. If there are, they are ripped down before Lewis sees them.
Lewis grew up watching all-around entertainers such as Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr. and Pearl Bailey, and trying to master acting, singing and dancing.
“I have had that charisma and that presence since I was born,” she said. “I came out my mama singing a … Ethel Merman song,” she said. “I didn’t cry. I sang: ‘You’ll be swell. You’ll be great.’ Then I looked at the nurse and said, ‘Now hit me … and see what happens.’ The doctor said, ‘She’s all right,’ and handed me to my mother.”
“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.”
“She defies characterization, but Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her,” Goldberg added. “Until now. Now she’s blooming like a rose because that’s what she really is, a rose.”
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’ home last year, and its popularity led to a string of follow-up videos.
“I told those two heffers they could come by my house for dinner. You know how we do,” Lewis said, rolling her eye and waving her right hand. “But I didn’t mean it. Then, they showed up, and all I had in the refrigerator was a hard-boiled egg.”
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.
In a meeting with about 20 students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, Lewis warned them to avoid hard drugs and negative people and to eat healthful foods and exercise. “And carry your booties to bed and get some sleep,” she snapped. “That’s called taking care of yourself.”
Plus, she added, “Don’t think you’re going to be happy when you get something. You have to be happy on your way to happy. I don’t leave a room unless I leave a smile. I want to leave them laughing.”
Later, 300 people who had paid $25 each to see Lewis burst onto the Ellington school stage for an event that was less book signing and more one-woman comedy show meets revival meeting.
If anyone arrives at one of her events late, as this crowd found out, Lewis stops and looks at them. “What time does your ticket say,” she yelled to one latecomer, then followed up with her loud laugh and, as she often does, referred to herself in the third person. “And don’t get up to go to the bathroom. I tell people, you come to see Jenifer Lewis, you wear Depends.”
Lewis spares few details in the book, including her anger over “Today” show host Jane Pauley’s on-air crack in 1986 that Lewis’ 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.
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.