Short and sassy, Rosetta LeNoire was a senior citizen before America discovered her allure through her appearances as Nell Carter's mother on the NBC sitcom "Gimme a Break" in the 1980s and as Mother Winslow on "Family Matters" in the 90s. But, truth be told, LeNoire was not just a Broadway veteran; she had danced with her godfather Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, had done experimental TV in the 40s, had founded a respected theater company and so loved to perform that she would perform Shakespeare at a convalescent home if that were her only venue (and she has!)
Born in New York to a family with connections in the burgeoning artistic milieu of Harlem, the teenaged LeNoire took piano lessons from the equally legendary composer Eubie Blake. She first performed professionally in 1926 as a dancer in a revue with Bojangles, and in 1936 played the First Witch in a production of "Macbeth". She reached Broadway in 1939 alongside Bojangles in "The Hot Mikado" and later toured with the show. She was in the original Broadway cast of Philip Yordan's "Anna Lucasta"--which was turned from all-black to all-white for the 1949 film version. LeNoire, however, reprised her stage role in the all-black 1958 remake, co-starring with Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jr. In the 1950s, LeNoire was much associated with the Corning Glass Theatre, and she last performed on Broadway as Rheba in "You Can't Take It With You" (1983, reprising the role in a cable TV production).
LeNoire is also legendary as a theatrical producer. In 1968, she founded the AMAS (Spanish for "to love") Repertory Theatre Company and has since produced, created and occasionally appeared in a host of productions, including the original 1980 version of "Mama, I Want to Sing", which later toured the country (LeNoire produced, but did not perform). In 1976, she established the Eubie Blake Children's Theatre and LeNoire has since spent much of her time performing in school, youth centers, and even shelters.
While she did some experimental TV work in the 40s and appeared as Noah's Wife in the 1957 "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production of Marc Connolly's "Green Pastures" (NBC), LeNoire did not see her TV career become solid until the late 60s, when she joined the cast of the ABC soap opera "A World Apart" in a regular role. She then went on to appear on "The Guiding Light" (CBS, 1971), "Another World" (NBC, 1971-73) and "Ryan's Hope" (ABC, 1975). The actress moved to primetime with the short-lived "Calucci's Department" (CBS, 1973). But it was in the 80s when she finally clicked. Beginning in 1981, LeNoire made several guest appearances on "Gimme a Break" as Nell Carter's contentious mother. Finally, in 1986, she became a regular, moving in with Nell despite the fact the two did not get along. The exposure gave LeNoire a TV Q and she was cast as the widowed Mother Winslow who moves in with her son's family on the premiere episode of "Family Matters" (ABC, 1989-97; CBS, 1997-98). She has remained with the series, although in more recent seasons her character remarried and she moved out of the Winslow home, reducing her role into a more recurring rather than regular one. (It also has been said that LeNoire takes much of her hefty TV pay checks and puts it back into her theater foundations.)
LeNoire has also appeared in a handful of TV-movies, notably in "The Father Clements Story" (NBC, 1987), as mother to priest Louis Gossett Jr. Her feature film work has been limited mostly to smaller roles. In 1972, she did voice work for the animated "Fritz the Cat" and was the nurse to Walter Matthau's Willie in "The Sunshine Boys" (1975). LeNoire was Ethel Rosenberg's prison matron in "Daniel" (1983), a judge opposite Robin Williams in "Moscow on the Hudson" (1984), and a kindly woman with whom Joe Morton has contact in John Sayles' "The Brother From Another Planet" (also 1984).