GLENDALE, Calif. — Before last month's White House party-crashing, there was Jenifer Lewis — paving the way toward the Obamas.
As Lewis tells it, she didn't exactly crash January's presidential inauguration. But the singer and veteran character actress got a lot closer to the new president than his staff and security likely had planned.
Lewis offered the explanation while promoting her latest film, the animated "The Princess and the Frog," last month on the Disney lot.
"I had a ticket," the actress recalled, adding that her seat was so far away from center stage, she could barely see inaugural action. "So I went over to a Marine, and I told a fib and said that I left my credentials on the plane. And he was standing there at attention with that beautiful uniform on. His head tilted just a little. He didn't want to break formation. And he said, 'Aunt Helen?' He happened to be a 'Fresh Prince' fanatic. And he proceeded to escort me 30 feet from the podium."
Lewis, 52, clearly has a following, after logging more than 80 film and television credits over the last 20 years. There were a few earlier screen gigs, but the big Hollywood break came with 1993's Tina Turner biopic "What's Love Got to Do with It," in which Lewis portrayed the superstar singer's chain-smoking, tough-talking mother Zelma Bullock.
"She was all of my aunts combined," said Lewis, who grew up in Kinloch, Mo., just outside of St. Louis. "These women were open minded. They were bodacious. They were honest. They cussed, they drank, they smoked. And that is what I brought to that character."
The role lead Lewis to becoming widely known as "the black mother of Hollywood" — a career of stealing scenes while playing strong, confident, often audacious mothers and aunts on numerous TV series, such as Will Smith's "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Also in feature films, including a blast of modestly budgeted productions targeted to black audiences.
Lewis's biggest recent mainstream successes have come as a voice actress for animated features, with 2004's "Shark Tale" and the 2006 "Cars" both box-office blockbusters.
Now Lewis is in 'toon again, as the 200-year-old voodoo queen Mama Odie in "The Princess and the Frog." Lewis originally auditioned for the role of the princess's mother, which eventually went to Oprah Winfrey.
"And they then asked, 'Can you play an old woman?'" Lewis recalled, saying vaudeville legend Moms Mabley immediately came to mind. "You know, we have to honor our ancestors. So, I took my teeth out, and there she was."
"Princess" spins around "Tiana," Disney's first black princess.
"I can't see color. I just never did," said Lewis, who lives in Los Angeles and has an adopted daughter Charmaine, 22.
"I never saw race in a Disney classic film," Lewis continued. "I saw the message. I learned that good was better than evil. But am I excited that this is now an African-American princess? Yes. Tiana. Obama. And an idea whose time has arrived."
Walt Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" goes into wide release Dec. 11.
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