Marilyn B. Coleman, 79, actress in movies, plays and TV, and a singer in many styles.

Marilyn B. Coleman
Marilyn B. Coleman
Posted: August 06, 2013

IT IS A LITTLE surprising to find that Marilyn Coleman, who became a highly acclaimed singer and actress, started her North Philadelphia childhood with the nickname "Hooks."

It's more surprising to learn that the nickname derived from bowlegs and a mean left hook, which she could deliver when riled.

Marilyn grew up to be an award-winning entertainer, renowned for her acting and singing abilities, as well as for her beauty - when it was no longer necessary to defend herself with a punch.

Marilyn B. Coleman, an acclaimed actress in numerous movies, stage shows and television appearances in a 45-year career in show business, a singer who could belt out songs in every style from gospel to rock 'n' roll, died June 25. She was 79.

She also was a teacher who used theater arts to reach inner-city youth in Philadelphia and show them there is a world of culture beyond the streets.

In fact, there is a scholarship fund in her name at Bloomsburg University to help minority youth study the performing arts.

PBS made a two-hour documentary of her walking through the streets of Philadelphia talking with people, including gang members. The film, "Marilyn Coleman's North Philadelphia," won the Silver Medallion Award.

Over the years, she worked with many stars of the entertainment field, including legendary director Andre Gregory, Sherman Hemsley ("The Jeffersons"), Richard Pryor and others.

Marilyn was born Marilyn Joyce Bonaparte in Philadelphia to Estella and Fred Bonaparte. She graduated from Roxborough High School.

In her youth, she and brother Fred entered a number of local talent contests, she doing the singing and Fred accompanying her on the piano.

She won the Marian Anderson Award by singing the theme from "Madame Butterfly" in flawless Italian.

Her acting career began at the Theater of the Living Arts under Andre Gregory. There, she worked with Hemsley, actor Roger Robinson and longtime friend Dolores Gaskins.

Robert Hooks, of the Negro Ensemble Company, encouraged her to go to New York. She studied with director Lloyd Richards and appeared in "Five on the Black Hand Side" and "The Fabulous Marie" at the American Place Theater.

In 1966, she traveled to Los Angeles to work again with Andre Gregory, playing Dorrine in "Tartuffe."

Her Broadway credits include Melvin Van Peebles' "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death," Ron Milner's "What the Wine Sellers Buy" and "Don't Get God Started," and Langston Hughes' "Mule Bone."

Off-Broadway, she appeared in the Negro Ensemble Company's "Ododo," and the New Federal Theater's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Sucide When the Rainbow is Enuf."

She won the LA Critics and Dramalogue Award for her work in Steve Carter's "Eden," and the Helen Hayes Award for best supporting actress in "Jar the Floor," which toured the U.S. and London.

Her film and TV credits include "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," "Meteor Man," "The Five Heartbeats," "CB-4," "Menace II Society," "Willie Dynamite," "White Shadow," "The Love Boat," "Vice Squad" and "Designing Women."

She appeared with Richard Pryor as Sister Sarah in the film "Which Way Is Up," and as Bookman's wife in "Good Times."

As late as 2005, she apperared on stage in Joyce Sylvester's "Freeda Peoples," at the Billie Holiday Theatre and the 2005 National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Marilyn's rich spiritual life began as a child at Mother African Zoar United Methodist Church in Philadelphia. In later years, she served there as choir director and wrote and directed for the drama ministry.

"She loved to laugh," her family said, "and her sense of humor was always evidenced by her hearty laughter that revealed the ultimate beauty in her smile."

She is survived by a son, Kevin Coleman; two daughters, Marci Koutsialis and Dana Baylor; two brothers, Fred and Wendolyn Bonaparte; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Services: Celebration of life service 11 a.m. Saturday at Mother African Zoar United Methodist Church, 1204 Melon St.

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