Sometimes fame comes later in life; and sometimes show business "discovers" you long after you've passed the ingenue status. Irma P Hall was a virtually unknown when she stole "A Family Thing" (1996) out from under established actors James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall. The actress won raves for portraying Aunt T, a blind 88-year old woman who misses nothing and has to tell Duvall about his true family roots in the black community.
With her broad smile and warm, inviting face, Hall makes one think that acting was something she had wanted to do since she was a child. In fact, her first performance was at the all-women Briar Cliff College production of "Amahl and the Night Visitors." They needed someone to play the African wise man and as there were only seven blacks at the school, Hall was drafted and expected that to be her brush with fame. She transferred to Texas College and eventually became a high school language teacher. While working as a volunteer reporter for a Dallas newspaper, Hall met actor-director Raymond St. Jacques who was in preproduction on "Book of Numbers" (1972). He hired her to do publicity but after overhearing Hall reading her poetry on the set, he cast her in a small role. Bitten by the acting bug, Hall began seeking more work. She formed the Dallas Minority Regional Theater with Reginald Montgomery and made her stage debut there in "Happy Endings." After she retired from teaching in 1984, she eventually relocated to Chicago where she began to appear in numerous stage productions. Among her credits are "Member of the Wedding," "Black Girl," her own play "Gentle Fire" and two productions which earned her the local Chicago theater prize, the Joseph Jefferson Award, the Steppenwolf production of "Steppin' Out" and the Chicago Repertory Company staging of "Have You Seen Zandile."
While still in Dallas, Hall had begun to branch out into TV work, appearing in "The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders" (ABC, 1979) and its 1980 sequel, Ron Howard's "Skyward" (NBC, 1980) and opposite Joanne Woodward in "Crisis at Central High" (CBS, 1981). In the latter, about the integration of Little Rock High School, she portrayed a woman who finds common ground with Woodward when both discover they are doodling as they discuss the problems about them. Hall went on to appear as Mammy in the 1987 Showtime production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and as late as 1996 was still playing bit and small parts, appearing in "To Sir, With Love II" (CBS), as an old woman Sidney Poitier chances to meet. Perhaps her most substantial work was in three episodes of the short-lived 1993 series "Missing Persons" as Erik King's mother. She also had worked with James Earl Jones once before, guesting in an episode of his series, "Gabriel's Fire."
Feature film work also gave Hall merely small parts before "A Family Thing." She was a preacher in "Square Dance" (1987), a nurse in Ron Howard's "Back Draft," and had a quick comic bit as "lady on the phone" in "Mo' Money" (1992). Since her acclaim, Hall went on to have featured roles in four 1997 features: "Buddy" with Rene Russo and Alan Cumming, "Steel" alongside Shaquille O'Neal, "Soul Food," as the matriarch in a family that included Vanessa L Williams, Viveca A Fox and Nia Long (she would return to that role for the 2000-2004 Showtime cable series inspired by the film, and co-starred with Fox again on the short-lived 1998 series "Getting Personal"), and Clint Eastwood's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," in which she was a voodoo priestess. Other winning turns in high profile projects ensued: "Beloved," "Patch Adams" (both 1998), "A Slipping Down Life" and the telepic "A Lesson Before Dying" (both 1999) and the Chris Rock-Anthony Hopkins spy comedy-thriller "Bad Company" (2002) among them.
Hall gave a pair of memorable, masterful turns in 2004, first starring opposite Tom Hanks in the Coen brothers's loopy remake of the British comedy "The Ladykillers," as the fiesty, indominatable, God-fearing and very moral (if slightly naive) Marva Munson, who unknowingly allows her academic boarder Hanks and his "band" practice in her basement, where they are secretly tunneling into a neighboring casino's vault. The actress gave the performance of her career, utterly convincing and exquisitely comic, holding more than her own against the two-time Oscar winner. Next Hall appeared in a single scene in director Michael Mann's thriller "Collateral" playing the overbearing mother of cabbie Jamie Foxx, but she stole that scene completely from Foxx and his co-star Tom Cruise. Unfortunately, in the midst of her career triumphs, Hall was injured in a Chicago car wreck in January of 2004 and was sidelined by post-surgery rehabilitation.
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Moved with family to Chicago area at age seven (date approximate)
While working as a newspaper reporter met Raymond St. Jacques, who cast her in "Book of Numbers"
Formed Dallas Minority Repertory Theater with Reginald Montgomery; made stage debut in "Happy Endings"
Appeared in TV-movie "Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders" (ABC) and its 1980 sequel
Cast in featured role opposite Joanne Woodward in the TV-movie "Crisis at Central High" (CBS)
Retired from teaching
Moved back to the Chicago area
Began association with play "Jar the Floor," acting in a Chicago production
Landed recurring role on ABC drama "Missing Persons"
Delivered breakthrough screen role of Aunt T. in "A Family Thing"
Played the matriarch in the sleeper hit "Soul Food"
Made NYC stage debut co-starring in the off-Broadway production of "Jar the Floor"
Reprised role of family matriarch on the Showtime series "Soul Food"
Starred in Chicago revival of "A Raisin in the Sun"
Cast in featured role on the UPN supernatural-themed series "All Souls"
Appeared in Michael Mann's "Collateral" opposite Tom Cruise
Starred with Tom Hanks and Marlon Wayans in "The Ladykillers," a film by Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast in Tyler Perry's romantic comedy "Meet the Browns"
Played supporting role opposite Nicolas Cage in Werner Herzog's "The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans"