Lynn Whitfield

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).

Lynn Whitfield
Whitfield in 1999
Lynn Butler-Smith

(1953-05-06) May 6, 1953
Years active1981–present
Vantile Whitfield (m. 19741978)

Brian Gibson (m. 19901992)

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 six NAACP Image Awards.

Early life

Whitfield was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the daughter of Jean (née Butler)who is African-American, an officer of a finance agency, and Valerian Smith -who is Creole, a dentist.[1] 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.[2]



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.[2] 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.[1]


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.[3] In a highly publicized casting call, Whitfield was chosen over hundreds of women.[4] In the movie, she appeared nude on-screen.[5] 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."[6] 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."[7] 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.

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.[8][9] 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.[10] 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.[11] In 1998, Whitfield had supporting role of an oncologist in the comedy-drama film, Stepmom.[12][13]

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 Dorothea 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.[14] She also had the recurring role on Hit the Floor,[15] and appeared as April's (Rochelle Aytes) abusive mother on Mistresses.[16]

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.[17][18] 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.[19][20] One critic stated "Whitfield has the imperious aura of a grand soap opera diva in the tradition of Joan Collins."[21]

Personal life

Whitfield has been married twice. Her first husband was Vantile Whitfield from 1974 to 1978.[22] From 1990 to 1992, she was married to director Brian Gibson and had a daughter, Grace.[23][24]



Year Title Role Notes
1983 Doctor Detroit Thelma Cleland
1985 The Slugger's Wife Tina Alvarado
1985 Silverado Rae Johnson
1987 Dead Aim Sheila Freeman
1987 Jaws: The Revenge Louisa
1994 In the Army Now Sgt. Ladd
1996 A Thin Line Between Love and Hate Brandi Web
1997 Gone Fishin' Angie
1997 The Planet of Junior Brown Mrs. Brown
1997 Eve's Bayou Roz Batiste
1998 Stepmom Dr. P. Sweikert
2000 A Time for Dancing Linda Derricks
2003 Head of State Debra Lassiter
2006 Madea's Family Reunion Victoria Breaux
2006 Confessions Dr. Page
2008 Kings of the Evening Gracie
2008 The Women Glenda Hill
2011 Mama, I Want to Sing! Lillian Winter
2011 The Rebound Laura
2011 All Things Fall Apart Bee
2012 Battlefield America Ms. Parker
2012 Redemption of a Dog Francine
2012 Training to Be A Superhero MiMi Jakes Short film
2013 Lonely Boy Dr. Christine Nolan
2013 24 Hour Love Cynthia
2013 King's Faith Vanessa
2013 Act Like You Love Me Harriett
2013 Someone to Love Sophia Brent
2013 The Last Letter Lorraine
2014 Blood Lines Vivian
2014 30 Days in Atlanta Immigration Lawyer
2014 Take the Spotlight
2014 Lap Dance Momma Pearl
2015 Curve Ball Dr. Layne
2015 The North Star Miss Grace
2016 Prayer Never Fails Loral Hess
2017 Espionage Tonight Sydney Greenstreet
2017 Solace Irene
2018 Nappily Ever After Paulette Jones


Year Title Role Notes
1981 Hill Street Blues Jill Thomas 3 episodes
1982 American Playhouse Woman in the bath "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf"
1983 Matt Houston Val Episode: "The Centerfold Murders"
1983–85 This Is the Life Norma 2 episodes
1985 Cagney & Lacey Eleanor Taggart Episode: "Who Says It's Fair" (Parts 1 & 2)
1985 Miami Vice Odette Ribaud Episode: "Bought and Paid For"
1985 The Fall Guy Jeanne Episode: "Escape Claus"
1986 Johnnie Mae Gibson: FBI Johnnie Mae Gibson Movie
1986 The George McKenna Story Bobbie Maxwell Movie
1986 The New Mike Hammer Della Marvel Episode: "Harlem Nocturne"
1986 Tall Tales & Legends Pollie Ann Episode: "John Henry"
1988 St. Elsewhere Annie Callan Episode: "Curtains"
1988 HeartBeat Dr. Cory Banks Series regular, 18 episodes
1989 The Women of Brewster Place Lucielia "Ciel" Turner Miniseries
1990 Matlock Angela Page Episode: "The Informer" (Parts 1 & 2)
1991 The Trials of Rosie O'Neill Episode: "Domestic Silence"
1991 Equal Justice Maggie Mayfield 5 episodes
1991 The Josephine Baker Story Josephine Baker
1991 A Triumph of the Heart: The Ricky Bell Story Natala Movie
1992 Stompin' at the Savoy Esther Movie
1993 Taking the Heat Carolyn Hunter Movie
1994 State of Emergency Dehlia Johnson Movie
1994 Thicker Than Blood: The Larry McLinden Story Bobbie Mallory Movie
1994–95 The Cosby Mysteries Barbara Lorenz Series regular, 20 episodes
1996 Sophie & the Moonhanger Sophie Movie
1997 Martin Ellen Episode: "Goin' Overboard" (Parts 1 & 2)
1997 Touched by an Angel Dr. Serena Hall Episode: "Amazing Grace" (Parts 1 & 2)
1998 The Wedding Corinne Coles Movie
1999 The Color of Courage Minnie McGhee Movie
1999 Deep in My Heart Corinne Burrell Movie
1999 Dangerous Evidence: The Lori Jackson Story Lori Jackson Movie
1999 Love Songs Jean Simpson Movie
2001 A Girl Thing Nia Morgan Movie
2001 Boston Public Louanna Harper 3 episodes
2002–06 Without a Trace Paula Van Doren 6 episodes
2003 The Cheetah Girls Dorothea Garibaldi Movie
2004 Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story Barbara Becnel Movie
2004 Strong Medicine Dr. Marshall Episode: "Race for a Cure"
2006 The Cheetah Girls 2 Dorothea Garibaldi Movie
2006 Shark Anita Astin Episode: "Pilot"
2011 FlashForward Anastasia Markham Episode: "White to Play"
2012 Somebody's Child Constance Movie
2012 Prodigy Bully Angela Washington Movie
2013 The Dempsey Sisters Olivia Norman Movie
2014 Hit the Floor Vanessa Howard Episode: "Shattered Glass"
2014 For the Love of Lockwood Madame Mabry Movie
2014 My Other Mother Mary Jo Movie
2014–15 How to Get Away with Murder Mary Walker 3 episodes
2015 Fear Files Madame Mabry Movie
2015 Chasing Life Karen Callahan 2 episodes
2015-2016 Mistresses Marjorie 4 episodes
2016–present Greenleaf Lady Mae Greenleaf Series regular

Awards and nominations

Year Award Category Work Result
1991 Emmy Awards Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special The Josephine Baker Story Won
1992 Golden Globe Awards Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV The Josephine Baker Story Nominated
1993 NAACP Image Awards Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, Mini-Series or Television Movie The Josephine Baker Story Won
1998 Outstanding Lead Actress in a Motion Picture Eve's Bayou Nominated
1998 Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series Touched by an Angel Won
1999 Outstanding Lead Actress in a Television Movie or Mini-Series The Wedding Nominated
2000 Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie/Miniseries/Dramatic Special Dangerous Evidence: The Lori Jackson Story Nominated
2000 Outstanding Performance in a Youth or Children's Series/Special The Planet of Junior Brown Won
2000 Black Reel Awards Network/Cable - Best Actress Love Songs Nominated
2004 Television: Best Supporting Actress The Cheetah Girls Nominated
2005 Best Actress, Network/Cable Television Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story Won
2005 NAACP Image Awards Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story Won
2016 Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series Greenleaf Nominated
2018 Nominated
2019 Won
2017 Gracie Awards Actress in a Supporting Role - Drama Won


  1. "Lynn Whitfield Biography (1953?-)". Retrieved 2013-11-30.
  2. "Lynn Whitfield Facts, information, pictures - articles about Lynn Whitfield". Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  3. "What Becomes a Legend Most? : Lynn Whitfield became Josephine Baker, Budapest became Paris and Harlem as HBO raced to complete the first movie about the storied entertainer's life". latimes. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  4. "HBO's 'Josephine Baker': The Naked Truth". latimes. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  5. "Lynn Whitfield Shimmies into the Skin of Sultry Josephine Baker". Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  6. "The Josephine Baker Story -". Entertainment Weekly's Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  7. "2 Emmys For James Earl Jones; 'L.A. Law', 'Cheers' Win Again". philly-archives. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  8. Brian Lowry. "A Thin Line Between Love and Hate". Variety. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  9. Martin Lawrence. "A Thin Line Between Love & Hate -". Entertainment Weekly's Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  10. "A Thin Line Between Love and Hate (1996) - Box Office Mojo". Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  11. "Eve's Bayou". 1 June 1996. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  12. "Stepmom". 25 December 1998. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  13. "'Stepmom' (PG-13)". Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  14. Joyce Eng (14 November 2014). "How to Get Away with Murder Postmortem: Boss Breaks Down Annalise's Motives and Killer Theories". Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  15. Tambay A. Obenson (6 February 2015). "TV Casting News Roundup: New Roles for Rutina Wesley, Lyn - Shadow and Act". Shadow and Act. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  16. starrymag. "Rochelle Aytes – Mistresses". Starry Constellation Magazine. Retrieved 24 June 2015.
  17. Denise Petski. "Lynn Whitfield, Merle Dandridge & Desiree Ross Join 'Greenleaf' - Deadline". Deadline. Retrieved 25 August 2015.
  18. Tambay A. Obenson (24 August 2015). "Lynn Whitfield, Merle Dandridge and Desiree Ross Cast in - Shadow and Act". Shadow and Act. Retrieved 25 August 2015.
  19. "5 Reasons to Watch Oprah Winfrey's New Series 'Greenleaf'". ABC News. 22 June 2016. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  20. "'Greenleaf' Review: OWN Church Drama Delivers Juicy Moments - and Oprah Winfrey". 21 June 2016. Retrieved 22 June 2016.
  21. Ryan, Maureen (17 June 2016). "TV Review: 'Greenleaf'". Retrieved 18 June 2016.
  22. Shinhoster Lamb, Yvonne (2005-01-23). "Arts Administrator, Playwright Vantile Whitfield Dies". Washington Post. Washington, DC. His marriages to Barbara Cobb, Barbara Grant Thomas and Lynn Whitfield, the actress and a former student, ended in divorce.
  23. "Lynn Whitfield Shimmies into the Skin of Sultry Josephine Baker".
  24. "Lynn Whitfield's Daughter, Grace Gibson, Covers Adeles' "Rumor Has It/Set Fire To The Rain"".
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