While many stage performers stayed close to their roots when making the jump to acting, Khandi Alexander moved far afield from her background as a dancer and choreographer with expert turns in both comedy and drama on television, most notably on "NewsRadio" (NBC, 1995-99), "The Corner" (HBO, 2000), "CSI: Miami" (CBS, 2002-12) and "Treme" (HBO, 2010-13). Though glamorous, Alexander eschewed Tiffany roles in favor of parts with depth and grit, and she impressed critics and audiences alike in her turns as women with seemingly boundless reserves of strength and resolve. Some of her characters used that strength for comic purposes, like her steely anchor Catherine Duke on "NewsRadio," but most needed it to simply survive their environments. Whether surrounded by abject poverty in "The Corner," crime and violence on "CSI," or the destruction of their homes in "Treme," Alexander presented women who persevered through their own willpower, but always remembered to show their human sides through carefully chosen moments of emotion. In doing so, she became a critical favorite and one of the most accomplished character actresses on television.
Born Sept. 4, 1957 in New York City, Khandi Alexander began her career as a dancer on the Broadway stage. The legendary choreographer, Bob Fosse, hand-picked her to perform in the national touring company of his musical "Dancin'." From there, she appeared in the original Broadway run of "Dreamgirls" in 1981 while honing her skills through a full scholarship to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater School. During this period, Alexander also performed regularly on award shows, which brought her into the orbit of burgeoning superstar Whitney Houston. Impressed with Alexander's talents, Houston hired her to choreograph her "I'm Your Baby Tonight" tour in 1991.
Alexander began exploring acting opportunities in the mid-1980s. After studying at the Stella Adler Conservatory, she landed minor roles in features and on television. She was naturally cast as a dancer in Richard Attenborough's adaptation of Bob Fosse's "A Chorus Line" (1985), but many of her early projects were unflattering background parts: hookers in "Streetwalkin'" (1985) and "Maid to Order" (1987), nurses, and the like. Following her work on Whitney Houston's tour, she returned to acting with an impressive comic turn in Chris Rock's rap parody film "CB4" (1993) as a venomous groupie who blackmailed performers by photographing them in scandalous situations with her. More substantive supporting roles that showcased her acting abilities soon followed, including "Menace II Society" (1993), "What's Got to Do With It" (1993) as the sympathetic Darlene, a member of Ike and Tina Turner's Ikettes; and as Wesley Snipes' heartless mother in "Sugar Hill" (1994).
In 1995, Alexander earned her breakthrough roles in two distinctly different and popular television series. On the sitcom "NewsRadio," she played Catherine Duke, a polished radio news anchor whose brittle, hyper-sensitive personality often led to outbursts of physical violence with the other station employees. While proving her comic talents on the NBC series, Alexander showed her dramatic skills in a recurring role on "ER" as Jackie Robbins, sister to Eric LaSalle's committed doctor, Peter Benton. Jackie's role on the show was initially confined to helping her brother raise his deaf son, Reese. However, in subsequent seasons, she struggled with her own son, Jessie, who fell in with a dangerous crowd at his school that eventually contributed to his death by gunshot. Both shows helped to boost Alexander's profile beyond featured player to an immediately recognizable fan favorite.
Alexander remained with "NewsRadio" until its fourth season, when she departed to explore other acting opportunities. She continued to appear on "ER" until 2001, while contributing supporting turns in features like "There's Something About Mary" (1998) as one of Cameron Diaz's girl friends, as well as a run in the national touring company of "Chicago" as Velma Kelly. In 2000, Alexander returned to television for the acclaimed miniseries "The Corner." Stripped of her glamorous appearance, Alexander wowed critics as Fran Boyd, a real-life Baltimore resident who struggled to give her children a decent life in a crime-ridden neighborhood while battling her own drug addiction. The series took home the Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries in 2000, while Alexander herself claimed a Black Reel award for Best Actress the following year. More importantly, the series helped to finally established Alexander as a formidable dramatic actress.
Alexander returned to network series work in 2002 with "CSI: Miami," a spin-off of the popular "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (CBS, 2000-15) series. As medical examiner Alexx Woods, Alexander brought a deep well of maternal care to the violent, tragedy-plagued world of detective work. She treated all who entered her examination room, both living and deceased, with a gentle, loving touch, and frequently addressed her autopsy cases with terms of affection. Her sensitive nature was frequently tested by the rigors of her job, which required her to examine the corpses of co-workers and even close friends, but she remained competent throughout her tenure on the show. Alexander decided to leave "CSI: Miami" in its sixth season, and the show's producers explained her departure by placing her son in harm's way with criminal elements, which required Woods to leave her job to take care of him and his siblings. For her work on the series, Alexander earned a 2005 Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress, as well as two subsequent nominations.
While working on "CSI," Alexander continued to appear in other series, as well as the occasional feature like the underrated "Dark Blue" (2002). In 2010, she reunited with producer David Simon, whom she had worked with on "The Corner," for the critically acclaimed HBO series "Treme." Alexander played LaDonna Batiste-Williams, one of the major figures in the show's expansive tapestry of characters. A tavern owner, LaDonna represented the anxiety suffered by many New Orleans residents over remaining in their beloved city after its devastation by Hurricane Katrina. However, LaDonna's plight exceeded simple nostalgia: her husband and sons had relocated to Baton Rouge, but her ailing mother refused to leave the Crescent City, which forced LaDonna to care for her. Making matters worse was the disappearance of her brother Daymo in the wake of the hurricane, as well as the unwanted attention of her ex-husband, musician Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce). The gritty series provided Alexander with another substantive text to showcase her dramatic skills, and critics responded with nearly universal praise for her performance.
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Made feature film debut in "Streetwalkin'"
Made TV acting debut on episode of "Duet" (Fox)
Worked as Whitney Houston's choreographer
Played Ikette Darlene in "What's Love Got to Do With It?"
Had a recurring role as Dr. Benton's (played by Eriq La Salle) sister on "ER" (NBC)
Played anchor Catherine Duke on the NBC sitcom "NewsRadio"
Toured as Velma Kelly in the stage musical "Chicago"
Garnered critical praise for her leading role in the HBO miniseries "The Corner"
Played Alexx Woods, a medical examiner, in the CBS drama "CSI: Miami"
Played Ving Rhames's wife in "Dark Blue"
Cast as Ladonna Batiste, the estranged wife of Wendell Pierce's character Antoine Batiste, in HBO's post-Katrina New Orleans series "Treme"