A character actress who played mostly maids, housekeepers, and nurses, Maidie Norman had a long and successful Hollywood career. In spite of the fact that there were few strong parts for African-American women throughout much of her time in Hollywood, Norman was an actress known for making even the smallest parts her own. As a performer of integrity as well as talent, and as a pioneering educator in the field of African-American film and theater, Norman’s contributions to her art were considerable. In recognition of her important work, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1977.
Norman played her only leading film role in The Well, a 1951 drama about the events surrounding the disappearance of a black child and the search for a white man suspected of kidnapping her. In response to the incident, the racially mixed town becomes divided along race lines; racial hatred, fueled by rumor and misunderstanding, results in violence and rioting. Though the film received positive reviews, it did not appeal to audiences and failed at the box office. It did little to improve the roles Norman was offered.
In 1962, Norman played the housekeeper in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Feeling the part promoted racial stereotypes, Norman changed some of her lines and updated the speech. Norman’s changes made her character more realistic and less demeaning.
In addition to her work in film, Norman was an educator and mentor to young African-American performers. She was an Artist in Residence at Stanford University for two years. She also taught courses at UCLA where she designed a class in African-American film and theater history. It was the first course of its kind at the university and it was among the school’s first African-American studies courses. UCLA’s Madie Norman Research Award for the best essay on African-American film or theater was named in her honor.
Though she never achieved fame as an actress, Maidie Norman appeared in some two hundred films. She also made many television appearances. Throughout the 1970s, Norman played small roles in some of the decade’s most popular television programs, including Little House on the Prairie, Marcus Welby, M.D., The Jeffersons, Dragnet, and Good Times.