In the working-class neighborhood of South Los Angeles where Teresa Graves lived with her ailing mother, she was known simply as "Tudie," a trim, middle-aged woman of deep religious convictions who mostly kept to herself.
Where she lived most of her life was at the church," says next door neighbor Joyce Jones. "We talked in depth about her religion, but never in depth about anything else."
When Graves, 54, was killed last month in a fire caused by a portable heater in a back room of her house, Jones was both saddened and surprised: She learned from reporters that Tudie had once been a Hollywood star, a beautiful actress with her own TV show and legions of smitten fans. "She never talked about [her career] with me," Jones says. "The only time there was a discussion was with Bill [Willie Graves, Teresa's mother]. She showed me a picture of Teresa with Marvin Gaye. And I said "Oh! and Bill said, 'Yeah, she was in entertainment.' "
To say that Graves was "in entertainment" is an understatement. In 1974, she made television history when she became the first African-American actress to star in her own one-hour drama -- "Get Christie Love!" Her image graced the covers of national magazines (including TV GUIDE)."Teresa was a star; she wasn't just another girl," says Bernie Brillstein, whose business relationship with Graves began in the late 1960s, when she sang with the Doodletown Pipers, whom he managed. "If you look at Whitney Houston today, that's what Teresa looked like.
If you compare her to a performer today, she would be Wayne Brady. She was everything good." Adds executive producer George Schlatter, who hired Graves to wiggle and giggle alongside Goldie Hawn as a regular on Rowan and Martin's "Laugh-In" in 1969: "She sang, she danced, she was funny; She was just a magic, magic girl." After Graves left the series the next year, she performed in nightclubs, toured Vietnam with Bob Hope and appeared opposite David Niven in the horror-movie send-up "Old Dracula."
Her experiences helped her win the role of martial-arts master Christie Love in a 1974 TV-movie (Love's catchphrase was "You're under arrest, sugar"). The movie was so successful that ABC turned it into a series that same year. But by the time "Get Christie Love!" premiered, Graves's involvement with the Jehovah's Witness religion had changed her life.
Executive producer David Wolper remembers that Graves came to his office and gave him a list of what she would no longer do as Love, including knock off bad guys or sexually entice men. "She was a' superhip policewoman. But you can't shoot anyone, kill anyone. Can't have relationships with anybody, any violence. You can't do a police show based on that." Producers tried to accommodate her, but the series was dropped after one season.
Brillstein says Graves decided to get out of show business a few months after "Get Christie Love!" ended. "I wished her good luck", he says. "I was heartbroken because I hated to see her throw away what I thought she had. But she obviously found something bigger and better." That was her faith, a devotion to "the Creator" that Graves told TV Guide in 1974 was her all consuming passion. "Jehovah is first," she said. "My job is second."
In 1977 two years later she began working as a minister, she wrote in an issue of the Jehovah's Witness publication Awake! that "I'm convinced that heeding the counsel of God's Word is the best way to live." She remained out of the public eye, although she showed up several years ago at a party thrown for Wolper for his 50th year in show business. "She was a terrific, terrific gal " Wolper recalls.
Some 600 people attended Graves's memorial service in Los Angeles on October 16, including brothers A.D. and Mannie Graves, and myriad nieces and nephews Also in attendance were "Laugh-In" costars Ruth Buzzi, Gary Owens and Henry Gibson. They heard minister Glenford Harris describe Graves as a "warm, giving and dedicated person" Why did she give up such a lucrative career? She gave it up because she loved the truth."
Brillstein says he will always remember "the girl whose laugh could make a hundred people feel good. She was happy, and that's all you can ask for in life. How many of us can say the same thing?"