By Lori L. Tharps
Updated January 05, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

BEAH RICHARDS 7.1920-9.14.2000

— Beah Richards ”lived in a time that was not prepared to explore all the dimensions of her gifts,” says Sidney Poitier, who costarred with the venerable actress in the 1967 interracial-marriage seriocomedy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In a nutshell, he continues, ”she was underused.” Underused, perhaps, but far from underexposed. Throughout her more-than-40-year career, Richards, who died at 80 after a long battle with emphysema, appeared in over a dozen feature films, including The Miracle Worker (1962), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Mahogany (1975), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), and most recently Beloved (1998). Her distinguished television career included the miniseries Roots: The Next Generation, sitcoms like Sanford and Son, and such dramas as L.A. Law and ER. She won her first Emmy award in 1988 for a guest appearance on Frank’s Place. And four days before her death, Richards earned a second statuette, beating the likes of Jane Alexander and Marlee Matlin, for portraying a woman ravaged by Alzheimer’s on ABC’s The Practice.

Despite the range of Richards’ considerable talent, Hollywood wasn’t ready to accept an actress who looked like her in the 1950s and early ’60s when she came on the scene in search of her big break: While critics hailed her early performances on stage as ”exquisite,” ”superb,” and ”luminous,” Richards was simply not considered a vision of black beauty like her contemporaries Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge. Explains The Practice’s Lisa Gay Hamilton, who is currently directing a documentary about Richards: ”As an African-American actress who was very dark, who had natural hair, and who didn’t have keen features, [she] was presented with many challenges.” Consequently, the roles Richards most often portrayed fell into the category of caregiver. She once told a reporter, ”You find that the pattern is to be somebody’s maid or housekeeper. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a housekeeper — there are some I’d love to play — but there’s a limit.”

According to Hamilton, who also costarred with Richards in Beloved, she may ”have played every old black grandmother and mother in the world.” (On screen, in fact, Richards was a maternal counterpoint to some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Poitier, Bill Cosby, James Earl Jones, Danny Glover, Delroy Lindo, and ER’s Eriq La Salle.) But, adds Hamilton, ”she brought a dignity and a uniqueness to each of those roles.” And both Hamilton and Poitier agree that though Richards was undeniably hurt by the racial boundaries imposed by the times, she always appreciated achieving as much as she did.

Born in Vicksburg, Miss., the daughter of a Baptist minister and a seamstress, Richards saw her childhood haunted by virulent racism. Afraid to even venture to school, Richards often remarked that it was a miracle she survived the ”indignities” of her early life — from being stoned by white children to being forbidden to check out books from the public library. After attending college at Louisiana’s Dillard University, Richards moved to Southern California to apprentice with a regional theater troupe. She then moved to New York to further her acting career, but was unable to find work and supported herself for several years as a charm-school instructor.