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Lynn Whitfield

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Lynn Whitfield



Grace Gibson

Years active

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Full Name
Lynn Butler—Smith

May 6, 1953 (age 70) (

Brian Gibson (m. 1990–1992), Vantile Whitfield (m. 1974–1978)

Jean Butler, Valerian Smith

Shawne Langston, Valerian Butler-Smith, Kimberlegh Butler-Smith

The Josephine Baker Story, A Thin Line Between Love and, Eve's Bayou, Madea's Family Reunion, The Cheetah Girls

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Lynn Whitfield (née Butler-Smith; born May 6, 1953) is an American actress and producer. She began her acting career in television and theatre, before progressing to supporting roles in film. She won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie and received a Golden Globe Award nomination for her performance as Josephine Baker in the HBO biographical drama film The Josephine Baker Story (1991).


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Whitfield spent her career after breakthrough performance as Josephine Baker playing the leading roles in a number of made for television movies in the 1990s, and had several starring roles in films, include performances in A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (1996), Gone Fishin' (1997), Eve's Bayou (1997), Stepmom (1998), Head of State (2003), Madea's Family Reunion (2006) and The Women (2008). Whitfield also starred in a number of smaller movies in the 2000s and 2010s. In 2016, she began starring as villainous Lady Mae Greenleaf in the Oprah Winfrey Network drama series, Greenleaf. Whitfield has won five NAACP Image Awards.

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Early life

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Whitfield was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the daughter of Jean (née Butler), an officer of a finance agency, and Valerian Smith, a dentist. She is the eldest of four children and a third-generation BFA graduate from Howard University. Her dentist father was instrumental in developing Lynn's initial interest in acting as he was a prime figure in forming community theater in her native Baton Rouge. First garnering attention on the stage by studying and performing with the Black Repertory Company in Washington, D.C, she married one of the company's co-founders and pioneers of black theatre, playwright/director/actor Vantile Whitfield in 1974. She eventually moved to New York and appeared off-Broadway in such shows as The Great Macdaddy and Showdown before earning acclaim in the 1977 Los Angeles production of the landmark play 'for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf' co-starring alongside Alfre Woodard.


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Whitfield made her professional screen debut in the NBC critically acclaimed serial drama, Hill Street Blues as Jill Thomas in 1981. In 1983, she appeared in the comedy film Doctor Detroit (1983), playing the supporting role of Thelma Cleland. She later co-starred in films The Slugger's Wife, Silverado, and Jaws: The Revenge. She also starred in the television films The George McKenna Story opposite Denzel Washington, Johnnie Mae Gibson: FBI as a title character, and in the ABC miniseries The Women of Brewster Place alongside Oprah Winfrey and Cicely Tyson. She also was regular cast member in the short-lived 1988 ABC female-driven medical drama series, HeartBeat alongside Kate Mulgrew, Laura Johnson, and Gail Strickland.


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Whitfield achieved wide recognition in the title role of The Josephine Baker Story (1991), portraying the American who became a Folies Bergère star, a French Resistance fighter during World War II, and a civil rights activist. The HBO biopic required her to age from 18 to 68. In a highly publicized casting call, Whitfield was chosen over hundreds of women. In the movie, she appeared nude on-screen. In his review, Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly said: "Whitfield is exceptionally good as the legendary singer-dancer who came to prominence in the ’20s for her throaty singing and her notorious "banana dance" – a wiggly little number executed while wearing nothing except a skirt of real bananas." Whitfield won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie for her role, and said this gave her "the greatest sense of accomplishment and realization of my vision. It absolutely called upon everything I thought I could do at that point." She also received a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film nomination and won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special.

After her breakthrough as Josephine Baker, Whitfield had the recurring role in the ABC legal drama Equal Justice, appearing opposite Joe Morton. She continued her career, starring in the made for television movies, include A Triumph of the Heart: The Ricky Bell Story (1991); Stompin' at the Savoy (1992) with Vanessa L. Williams, Jasmine Guy, and Vanessa Bell Calloway; Taking the Heat (1993) with Tony Goldwyn; State of Emergency (1994) with Joe Mantegna; Sophie and the Moonhanger (1996); The Wedding (1998) as Halle Berry's mother; The Color of Courage (1998) alongside Linda Hamilton; and Deep in My Heart (1999) opposite Anne Bancroft. She also had the series regular role on the short-lived NBC detective series The Cosby Mysteries from 1994 to 1995, and later guest starred on Martin and Touched by an Angel.

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In 1996, Whitfield was cast as a female lead opposite Martin Lawrence in the dark romantic comedy film, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate. At the time of filming, Lawrence was 12 years younger than Whitfield, who was then 42. The film grossed over $35 million against a budget of $8 million. In 1997, she co-starred opposite Danny Glover and Rosanna Arquette in the comedy film Gone Fishin', appeared in the supporting role in the Canadian drama The Planet of Junior Brown, and played the mother of Jurnee Smollett's title character in the critically acclaimed independent drama Eve's Bayou. In 1998, Whitfield had supporting role of an oncologist in the comedy-drama film, Stepmom.

2000s and 2010s

In the 2000s, Whitfield had many supporting roles on television and film. She co-starred in the Chris Rock's comedy film, Head of State (2003), and Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion (2006). Whitfield also appeared in The Women (2008), The Rebound (2009) and Mama, I Want to Sing (2011), and had many roles in a low-profile B-Movies. She also starred as Dorthea Garibaldi in both Disney Channel films The Cheetah Girls and The Cheetah Girls 2.

On television, Whitfield had recurring roles on Boston Public and Without a Trace in the 2000s. From 2014 to 2015, she appeared in the ABC legal drama, How to Get Away with Murder as villainous Mary Walker. She also had the recurring role on Hit the Floor, and appeared as April's (Rochelle Aytes) abusive mother on Mistresses.

In 2015, Whitfield was cast in series regular role of main villain in the Oprah Winfrey Network original scripted drama series Greenleaf about unscrupulous world of the Greenleaf family and their sprawling Memphis megachurch. Whitfield plays the leading role of Lady Mae Greenleaf, the imperious Minister's wife and power and money hungry matriarch of the family. The series also stars Keith David, Merle Dandridge, Kim Hawthorne and Oprah Winfrey. Whitfield has received positive reviews from critics for her performance as Lady Mae. One critic stated "Whitfield has the imperious aura of a grand soap opera diva in the tradition of Joan Collins."

Personal life

Whitfield was married twice. Her first husband was Vantile Whitfield from 1974 to 1978. From 1990 to 1992, she was married to director Brian Gibson and had a daughter, Grace.


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