Ania Cotton | Staff Writer
Hampton alumna and pioneer actress Billie Allen died in her Manhattan home on December 29, due to unknown causes. According to the New York Times, her death was confirmed by her daughter Carolyn J. Grant. Billie Allen is known for her Broadway and television appearances, as well as her accomplishments in paving the way for African Americans on television.
Her career began with her appearances in Broadway productions such as: “Caribbean Carnival” (1947), “Four Saints in Three Acts” (1952), “My Darlin’ Aida” (1952), and “Critics Choice.” According to Playbill, Allen acted in other productions such as “Take a Giant Step,” “Black Monday,” “Trainer Dean Liepolt and Company,” “The Ofay Watcher” and “Every Night When the Sun Goes Down.” She was also an understudy in the 1959 premiere of “A Raisin in the Sun,” where she established a lifelong friendship with fellow actress Ruby Dee.
Allen eventually landed a recurring role as a Woman of Color on “The Phil Silvers Show” in the late 1950s, as a member of the “Women’s Army Corps,” making her one of the first African-American actresses to do have a repeating role on a television series.
Billie Allen made her final Broadway appearance in 1969 in “A Teaspoon Every Four Hours,” and moved on to starring in roles on television. She began with an appearance in the soap opera “The Edge of Night,” and in other shows including “Souls of Sin,” “Black Like Me” and “Car 54, Where Are You?”
Allen also appeared in commercials for products like Pampers, Rinso, Tide, dish soap, and cleaning products. She also made an appearance in a 1990s episode of “Law & Order,” in “The Prosecutors” in 1996, and the hit musical “The Wiz.” This was a huge step for the African-American community, who prior to this had been underrepresented on television shows and commercials. While discussing her role in commercials in a New York Times feature article from 1968, Allen said, “Television viewers, at least those who don’t tune out their minds during commercials, are now beginning to learn that Negroes can worry about dentures, dishpan hands and bad breath, just as everyone else in TV land seems to.”
Billie Allen was talented in the field of directing as well; she directed Broadway productions “The Brothers” and “Day Trips.” She even got the chance to direct her friend, Ruby Dee, in “Miss Lucy’s Eyes” in 2001.
According to TheHistoryMakers.com, Billie Allen gave back to her community by becoming a founding member of the Women’s Project and Productions, serving as a founding member and co-president of the League of Professional Theater Women, and founded Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop in 1973 along with Morgan Freeman, Clayton Riley, and Garland Lee Thompson. She has also served as a voting member on the nominating board for the Tony Awards.
Allen leaves behind her daughter Carolyn, her son Duane Grant Jr., her brother Edward Allen, a granddaughter, and several step children, according to the New York Times.
Her impact on the profession and in the fields of theater and media in general opened doors for many African Americans for years to come.