Natalie Desselle, comedic heart of 'BAPS' and 'Eve,' dies at 53
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Natalie Desselle, comedic heart of 'BAPS' and 'Eve,' dies at 53
Desselle appeared as Halle Berry’s sidekick in the movie “BAPS”.

by Azi Paybarah

(NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Natalie Desselle, whose comedic talents helped make the 1997 movie “BAPS” a campy classic for a generation of fans, and who later starred in the ensemble cast of the early 2000s television show “Eve,” died Monday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 53.

The cause was colon cancer, said her former manager, Dolores Robinson.

Known for her comedic timing on screen and upbeat attitude off screen, Desselle began her acting career in the 1990s when opportunities for nonwhite and plus size actors were limited but beginning to expand.

In 1996, Desselle had a guest appearance in one episode of the family-friendly sitcom “Family Matters,” and a role in the women-led action movie “Set It Off.”

The next year, Desselle appeared as Halle Berry’s sidekick in the movie “BAPS,” a fish-out-of-water comedy that would help define Desselle’s career for the next two decades. Desselle played Mickey, and Berry played Nisi, two Georgia women with big hair, big egos and even bigger dreams of achieving stardom as dancers in California. Their plans are derailed, however, when they wind up working for an older, rich white man in Beverly Hills.

The movie, whose title stands for “Black American Princesses,” was more popular with fans than with critics. A New York Times review of the film was lukewarm on the story but praised Desselle for “providing lots of comic relief.”

Robert Townsend, who directed the movie, recalled the difficulty he had in finding the right actor to play Mickey. “I couldn’t find anybody that I thought had the charisma and would create the comedy chemistry,” he said in a statement. Then, an actor friend mentioned that there was a talented newcomer in his acting class. So Townsend went to meet the newcomer — Desselle. She was “absolutely brilliant with her innocent country charm,” he wrote. He wanted her for the role; studio executives resisted.

At the official audition, Desselle walked into a room full of Hollywood heavyweights. Desselle, visibly nervous, offered a “Hi, y’all” in her country drawl. Berry offered the actor a friendly hug, and “their chemistry was unbelievable — she was cast on the spot!” Townsend wrote.

In a statement, Berry said Desselle “showed us it was OK to be goofy and funny while still being sincere and extraordinarily kind.” She also said Desselle “represented actual Black women, not what Black women are perceived to be.”

Also in 1997, Desselle played Minerva, a stepsister to Cinderella, in a made-for-television movie featuring the singer Brandy in the title role, Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother and Whoopi Goldberg as Queen Constantina.

“She loved it — it was one of her favorite roles,” Robinson recalled the actress as telling her. “She got to be in a fairy tale that was changed from white to Black.”

“For young Black kids to see stories that include them, even fairy tales, is such an ‘I belong and I am in this world, too,’ message,” Robinson said.

Natalie Desselle Reid was born in Alexandria, Louisiana, on July 12, 1967. Her father, Paul Desselle, was an executive groundskeeper at the England Air Force Base in Alexandria. Her mother, Thelma, was a cafeteria worker who later became an administrative assistant at Peabody Magnet High School, from which Natalie, her sisters Paula and Calisa, and brother, Sherman, all graduated.

On April 6, 2003, Desselle married Leonard Reid. The couple had a son, Sereno, 23, and two teenage daughters, Summer and Sasha. Desselle took her husband’s surname but continued to work as Natalie Desselle.

She is survived by her husband, three children, two sisters, brother and father.

Like her character in “BAPS,” Desselle, who Robinson said had been inspired to pursue acting by the 1950 film “All About Eve,” went west to become a star. She cold-called Robinson, one of the few Black women working as a manager at that time, and asked to meet with her.

“I wasn’t exactly happy to take on too many Black clients because it was just too difficult to get them work,” Robinson said. “And being Black myself, that’s quite a statement to make.”

“I had two children I was trying to put through college, so I had to take on people that I thought could make money and people that I thought could work,” she added.

But after the two women met, Robinson agreed to manage Desselle. “I just saw this spirit,” she said. “She was just such a humorous, uplifting, positive person. And I just felt like there was not going to be any stopping her.”

Desselle worked steadily from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, mostly on television. By 2003, she had joined the ensemble cast of “Eve,” which aired on UPN for three seasons, ending in 2006.

Je’Caryous Johnson, the writer and producer of a musical version of “BAPS,” said he had reached out to Desselle and persuaded her to reprise her role in his production. But in mid-March, about two weeks before opening night, the coronavirus pandemic forced Johnson to cancel those plans.

Later, there were plans to livestream the show, but Desselle fell ill. She had been eager to perform in the production, Johnson recalled. “The excitement was she would finally get a chance to meet the fans who made her career,” he said.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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