Over the course of her 30-year career, actress Lynne Thigpen (b. Joliet, IL, 22 December 1948; d. Marina del Rey, CA, 12 March 2003) appeared in eight Broadway plays (five of them musicals), nearly 40 movies and several television series, usually as a secondary character. A performer of limitless energy and powerful vocal gifts, she had six nominations for Daytime Emmy Awards, three of them (in a row) for her portrayal of “The Chief” in the children’s informational television series Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, and in 1997 she won the Tony Award® for Best Featured Actress in a Play in Wendy Wasserstein’s An American Daughter.
After graduating from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana with a degree in teaching, Cherlynne Theresa Thigpen taught high-school English for a short time, while pursuing her interest in theatre by participating in community productions. Determined to have a career as an actress, she moved in 1971 to New York City, where she soon joined the ensemble of Stephen Schwartz’s long-running off-Broadway hit Godspell, lending her compelling voice to “O Bless the Lord, My Soul.” Two years later, with several other members of the stage cast, she made her film debut in the screen version of the show.
She made her Broadway debut in 1975 in the musical revue The Night That Made America Famous, and continued as a replacement in the cast of Doug Henning’s The Magic Show. She was featured as the singer of four songs in Stephen Schwartz’z blue-collar revue Working in 1978, and in 1981 she earned a Tony® nomination for her blockbuster performance in Tintypes, a revue also nominated for a Tony® as Best Musical. This was, however, her last appearance in a musical, as she turned increasingly to serious dramatic roles on television and in film.
In 1983 she debuted as Flora Baxter on the daytime soap opera All My Children; she would appear in the same role in seven episodes (though the character’s name changed to Grace), spread out over several years, until 2000.
Though most of her early film roles were brief and seemingly insignificant, her career gradually gained substance through Tootsie (1982), Sweet Liberty (1986), Hello Again (1987), and Running on Empty (1988), until 1989 when her solid, outstanding performance as the parent of an expelled student in Lean on Me brought her the distinction she deserved.
In 1987 Thigpen was back on Broadway as Rose in August Wilson’s Fences with Billy Dee Williams, and the same year, in the same role but in California, was nominated for a Los Angeles Drama Critics Award.
On television she had a recurring role as District Attorney Ruby Thomas in ten episodes of L.A. Law in 1991–2, and at about the same time began her marathon of 295 episodes as The Chief on the PBS children’s geographical sleuthing series Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and its sequel Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? (1996). (She also appears in the three video-game spinoffs of the series.) Carmen Sandiego resulted in her earning five Emmy nominations in a row. Somehow in the midst of all this, Thigpen had time to appear off-Broadway in Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena (1992), for which she was nominated for an Obie. She was also nominated for two NAACP Image Awards: in 1996 for the Informational Youth or Children’s Series/Special, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, and in 1997 for Outstanding Actress in a Daytime Drama Series, All My Children.
In 1997, for her first Broadway appearance in ten years, Lynne Thigpen played Dr. Judith Kaufman, a half-Black, half-Jewish feminist in Wasserstein’s An American Daughter. She made her entrance on stage soaking wet, her character having just attempted to drown herself in a river. Her performance won the year’s Tony Award® for Best Supporting Actress, and she played the role again in 2000 in a movie made for TV. She was again nominated for an Obie for her work in Jar the Floor, presented in 1999 by the Second Stage Theater.
Thigpen recorded over twenty audiobooks, many of them authored by African-Americans, including All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes by Maya Angelou, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, six books by Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Paradise, Song of Solomon, Sula, and Tar Baby), and The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor. Her voiceover performances earned her a nomination for the AudioFile Awards Golden Voices for the Year 2000.
On television she guest-starred intermittently in episodes of Gimme A Break!, Law & Order, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Homicide: Life on the Street, FM, thirtysomething, The Cosby Show, and King of the Hill, among many other series and movies. While Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion was being broadcast under the name of The American Radio Company of the Air, she participated in many of his radio skits. Her later films include Random Hearts (1999) with Harrison Ford, Bicentennial Man (1999) with Robin Williams, The Insider (1999) with Al Pacino, and Shaft (2000) with Samuel L. Jackson. In regional theatre she performed in Educating Rita, St. Mark’s Gospel, and a stage version of Having Our Say, playing one of the Delany sisters at age 101.
Thigpen’s last TV series role was as Ella Mae Farmer, a police chief’s assistant and computer expert on 66 episodes of The District (2000–3). Her sudden death at home from a cerebral hemorrhage brought the series to an early close the following year. Her last film, released posthumously, was Anger Management (2003), starring Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson.
One of her most popular roles in children’s television was the voice of Luna (the moon) in the Muppet series Bear in the Big Blue House (mostly 1997), gaining her sixth nomination, posthumously, for a Daytime Emmy Award. After her death, Thigpen’s family and close friends established a non-profit foundation, The Lynne Thigpen – Bobo Lewis Foundation, to help young theatrical aspirants survive and succeed in New York.
An elementary school in her home town (Joliet, IL) is named for her.
– Lucy E. Cross
Photo courtesy of The Everett Collection