Cleveland native and legendary actress/director Vanessa Bell-Calloway has come a long way from her role in the iconic comedy ‘Coming to America’ as ‘queen to be’ Princess Imani Izzi to her recurring leading role as Lady Ella Johnson in the highly popular ‘Saints and Sinners’ on Bounce TV.
Bell Calloway, 61, a Ohio University graduate has been an accomplished actress for more than 30 years, and on Saturday June 9 she will return to the place where it all began as an inductee of the 2018 class of the historic Karamu House ‘Homecoming Celebration’ beginning with the Jellife Theatre grand opening gala at 6:30p.m.
“I will be home for the grand opening of Karamu,” Bell Calloway told the Call & Post from Los Angeles on Monday.
“The people that know me and have grown to appreciate my work over the years, I am appreciative to all of that, the people that I work with on a regular basis,” she continued.
She received one of her eight NAACP Image Award nominations for her role as ‘Jackie’ in ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It’ the biographical film loosely written about the musical icon Tina Turner in 1983, which grossed over $70 million worldwide.
“My profession is acting, but what I am most proud about in my career I think that I took work for the right reasons, things that people label iconic or things that people have been fans of for years. You have to understand that when you take jobs because you need the money at the time, or you love the part, but you do them for the right reasons.”
Her talent and diversity has landed her in numerous roles in film, television and stage throughout her career, and most recently she portrayed the role of the first grandmother Marian Shields Robinson in 2016 in ‘Southside with You’ a motion picture that revealed the first date of First Lady Michelle Obama and the first Black President Barack Obama.
“I have had the pleasure of co-starring with people who are highly acclaimed, that’s really not bad,” she quipped.
Bell Calloway began her acting career in the ABC daytime soap opera, All My Children in 1985. After moving to Los Angeles in 1986, she began appearing in episodes of prime time shows such as The Colbys, Falcon Crest, 227, China Beach, A Different World, and L.A. Law. She made her film debut on Number One with a Bullet (1987), before supporting role of Eddie Murphy's character's arranged wife in the 1988 comedy Coming to America.
In 1990, Bell Calloway co-starred alongside Joe Morton in the ABC drama series, Equal Justice. During the 1990s, Bell Calloway had number of supporting roles in films, including What's Love Got to Do with It (1993) opposite Angela Bassett, The Inkwell (1994), and Crimson Tide (1995) as Denzel Washington's character wife.
She also voiced main role in the 1992 animated comedy, Bébé's Kids, had number of leading and supporting roles in the made for television movies. In 1995, she co-starred opposite James Earl Jones and Joe Morton in the short-lived CBS prime time soap opera, Under One Roof; the first drama series that feature an African-American lead characters. For her role on the series, Calloway was nominated for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series. She also had the leading roles on the short-lived NBC sitcom Rhythm & Blues (1992–93), and starred alongside the late Larry Hagman as his girlfriend in the CBS drama Orleans (1997).
In the 2000s, Bell Calloway had the recurring roles on Boston Public and The District. She co-starred in films including The Brothers, All About You, Dawg, Biker Boyz, Love Don't Cost a Thing, and Cheaper by the Dozen. Bell Calloway also guest starred on The Division, Strong Medicine, The Closer, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Dexter, Rizzoli & Isles, and Castle. From 2010 to 2011, she had the recurring role in the TNT medical drama, Hawthorne. In 2011, she began appearing in the Showtime comedy-drama, Shameless.
In 2016, Bell Calloway was cast as lead character in the Bounce TV first prime time soap opera, Saints & Sinners. She plays Lady Ella Johnson, the widow of pastor and manipulative "First Lady of the Church". Also in 2016, Bell Calloway co-starred as president Obama's future mother-in-law, Marian Shields Robinson, opposite Tika Sumpter as Michelle Obama, in the comedy-drama film Southside with You, which premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. She also guest starred on the ABC medical drama Grey's Anatomy playing Arizona's Lawyer.
While Bell Calloway is proud of all of her work, she has a particular fondness for ‘Saints and Sinners.’
“Its nice to lead a cast like that, I didn’t have to audition for that, they just came to me and it’s a blessing, that they are helping me into my other talents like directing. So, it’s been quite a blessing, I have been very fortunate.”
She sees those experiences as a catalyst to her next chapter over the next five to 10 years from now where she is acting, doing more directing and producing.
“I’ve got to up my writing game, family is very important to me, hopefully I’ll have some grandchildren by that time, we’ll see,” she laughs.
At the age of 52, Bell Calloway was diagnosed with breast cancer and as she recalled to the Call & Post she thought about mortality.
“You think about everything, you think about your family, you think about your career, you think about mortality,” she explained. “The main thing that I thought about was that I just need to keep going. I could not let cancer win. What’s next, surgery, vasectomy, ok what does that entail, ok fine and just process how I was going to get through all of that.”
“I have a great family, great husband, my mom was there, my sister was by my side, I had numerous friends, so yeah I had a great team that worked with me.”
Bell Calloway says that the racial division in America is unfortunate, but she believes that arts and entertainment has a healing effect.
“More importantly we have to unite first. I think we have to pull together in everyday life as humans.”
She is proud of another Northeast Ohioan LeBron James.
“Oh, King James? I think that he is fabulous, he’s one of the best athletes.”
Finally, when asked what young girls and boys in Cleveland could do to become the next Vanessa Bell Calloway she answered:
“Be prepared and be ready because you don’t always get a lot of time to get ready. Most of the jobs I’ve gotten I got them later that day or the very next morning so you have to be ready. Whatever it is you need to change to make your self feel good, do it now, and then always stay ready, because you just don’t come off the street and become a great actor. You’ve got to study and get to know film and work hard.”