At 92, Dorothy Steel Got a Role in 'Black Panther'

When she started acting at 82, this former IRS employee had no idea she'd appear in a blockbuster.

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Dorothy Steel; photo by Michael A. Schwarz

“Cindy, I’m not interested,” I said, trying not to sound too irritated at my agent. “I’m not auditioning for some dumb comic-book movie.”

“Ms. Dorothy,” she said. “I wish you’d at least think about it. It’s going to be really big.”

“Nope, not doing it,” I said. “Besides, I don’t have the faintest idea how to do an African accent.” I hung up, anxious to return to my baking. My grandson, Niles, was coming over, and I was making sweet potato pie, his favorite.

Ten years ago, if someone had told me that at age 90 I’d be arguing with an agent about a movie role, I would have thought they were flat-out crazy. Me playing a tribal elder in some make-believe African country called Wakanda? Who’d ever heard of such a thing?

Dorothy Steel; Matt Kennedy © 2017 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2017 Marvel. All Rights Reserved
       Dorothy Steel as the Merchant Tribe
       Elder in Black Panther

It was enough to make me think about retiring from acting. I’d had my fun, been in some commercials—even a soap opera, Saints and Sinners, for a season on Bounce TV; a short film, Black Majik; a full-length movie called Daisy Winters; and a made-for-TV movie, Baby’s First Christmas. That was plenty. I’d never planned on being an actress in the first place, never in a million years.

The whole thing started one day at the senior center when I was 82. They were putting on a play called It’s Christmas and looking for volunteers. Why not? I thought. I figured I could squeeze in the rehearsals between my bowling leagues, church and cooking special meals and desserts for Niles and my son, Scott. They might be grown men, but I never tired of spoiling them.

I got the part of a sassy teenager. Can you imagine? I don’t know what got into me, but on stage I became that girl—wisecracking, self-centered, with attitude to spare. I started ad-libbing my lines. Folks in the audience were cracking up. I fed off their energy. It was great.

The whole experience was so out of character for me. I’d always thought of myself as shy, more interested in watching others than being in the spotlight. “Why are you always analyzing everyone and everything?” my older sister would ask.

I’d worked most of my career for the IRS, a divorced single mother. The last 14 years, I’d worked as a senior revenue officer, assigned to the Virgin Islands. After I retired, I traveled. Everywhere I went, I watched people, studying the way they spoke, noting how some slouched while others held themselves at attention.

At 82, I settled in Atlanta to be close to family. That’s where I found the senior center. After that first play, I was in a couple more, just for fun. A man came to one of our productions and afterward introduced himself as Greg Alan Williams. He was an actor and dean of an acting school called Actors’ Breakthrough. He said that if any of us wanted to study there, we could for half price.

Well, I was interested and told my sister and nephews, who ridiculed me for such an idea. My son said, “Go for it.” Scott, by then retired, had been an award-winning cameraman for WSB, a local TV station. He offered to drive me. Folks in the class joked, “Here comes Scott. Driving Miss Daisy!”

I was the oldest person there by far. The instructor took us through the basics, teaching us how to get into character, not to overdo it, that it should feel natural, picking up on the little quirks and idiosyncrasies that make a person real. The very things I’d been studying for years. We were advised to get a tablet, a good phone, a Facebook account, some head shots and an agent. I signed up with Cindy Butler at iSubmit Talent Agency.

Not long afterward, a casting director called her with a role he thought I’d be perfect for: Mother Harris in Saints and Sinners. That was the beginning of my professional acting career at 88 years old.

I was still worked up over that conversation I’d had with Cindy. A movie called Black Panther? Honestly, what was she thinking? I put the pie in the oven and sat down to read while I waited for Niles. By the time he arrived, I’d nearly forgotten about the whole thing.

Niles had finished off a piece of pie and I was clearing the table when for some reason it popped in my head. “Cindy, my agent, called with the craziest idea,” I said. “Me in some movie called Black Panther. I told her no way.”

Niles’s mouth dropped open. “Are you kidding?” he said. “Grandma, this is Marvel Comics. A billion-dollar company. You know, like Spider-Man.”

I frowned, suddenly wishing I’d never brought it up. “I don’t want to do cartoons,” I said. “And they’re wanting me to have some African accent. I don’t even know how to do that.”

“Grandma, you’re always talking about how we need to step out in faith,” Niles said. “This is huge. Either man up or shut up!”

The nerve of him! “Niles, don’t you be telling me what I should be doing,” I said. Niles gave me one last imploring look and scooted out the door to his truck. “As if he thinks he’s gonna teach me something about faith,” I grumbled.

I sat down and opened my book, but I couldn’t focus on the words. I started thinking about how I’d stepped out in faith.

In September 1958, when Scott was 10, I was hospitalized with an abdominal pregnancy. I was five months pregnant. There was no saving the baby, and the chances of my surviving were slim. My heart stopped during surgery, and the doctors had to give me two shots directly into it to start it beating again. I have scars on my ankle, where they gave me all the B-positive blood they had on hand, and two white marks on my chest, where they gave me the shots to my heart.

Back in my hospital bed, I heard my doctor tell the nurse, “Don’t let her suffer. I know she’s going to die.” My insides were so tangled up, I couldn’t even eat a teaspoon of soup or drink water without unbearable pain. All I could do was lie there and stare at the hospital room wall.

Then I remembered King Hezekiah, who lay dying and prayed to the Lord to give him 15 more years of life. The Lord had. So I prayed, “Lord, give me eight more years, until my son is grown, and I will bless your name all my days.” I heard an inner voice: “Get up from your hospital bed, and walk out to the street. Then come back in, and I will heal you.”

I got up out of bed and made my way down the stairs to the street. It might have looked as if I were stepping out on nothing leaving the hospital, but as the Bible says, the everlasting arms of the Lord were supporting me. I came back inside, exhausted. Slowly, my health turned the corner. I was healed.

I got divorced not long after that and struggled to support Scott on my own. One day I drove from Detroit, where we lived, to Flint because I felt led there. I happened upon an IRS office and went in and asked a supervisor for a job, a position his secretary said didn’t exist. I became the first black female promoted to revenue officer in the Flint office.

I’d been blessed; I surely had. But there’d been so many times when all I could do was trust in God. He’ll always see you through. I’d been telling Niles that since he was a baby, hadn’t I? Why was I so intent on not auditioning? Was I afraid of making a fool of myself? As if I had some big image to protect. Niles, my agent—they thought I’d be perfect for the part. What would it hurt to try? It wasn’t as if I had any realistic chance of landing it.

Mandela. The word came to me with crystal clarity, like a message meant just for me. Nelson Mandela. Now there was someone with a distinct African accent! I got on YouTube and watched several of his speeches, listening to the pronunciation, where the emphasis fell. After a few days, I began to pick it up.

I was watching a speech one night when Scott came over for a meal I’d made. “What’s this?” he said. I told him the whole story. “What are you waiting for?” he said. I didn’t need to hear any more.

The next day, I called Cindy. “I’d like to give that Black Panther part a try,” I said. When the script came over, I reviewed my lines. There weren’t that many. But the character was in a key scene where the lead actor faces a ritual wrestling match to prove himself worthy of being king. And in a palace scene where the elder offers words of wisdom: “We’ve protected our borders for thousands of years, and now it’s your turn to lead. We don’t need a warrior. We need a king.”

I repeated the lines over and over. When I thought I had it down pretty well, I asked Scott if he could tape me doing it. He had a home studio, and I thought I nailed it on my first take. “Let’s do it again,” Scott said. Lordy. He made me do those lines 10 times. He narrowed it to two, then picked one. An hour after Cindy sent off the tape, the casting director was on the phone with her. “Who is this old woman?” they said. “We want her.”

I called Niles first thing. “I got the part!” I said. “And I want to thank you for what you said. I didn’t like it much at the time, but Lord knows I needed to hear it.”

“Grandma, I knew you could do it!” Niles said. That gave me goose bumps. He wasn’t the only one who’d believed in me. God had been opening doors for me my whole life, preparing for the role I was born to play.

Black Panther went on to become one of the biggest movies in worldwide ticket sales ever. It still seems as if I dreamed the whole thing. And to think I got to rub shoulders with actual movie stars like Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Chadwick Boseman. Now when my agent calls, I listen. Even at 90, you never know what role God has in store for you.

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