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Jean E. Hill, actress in John Waters films

Former schoolteacher-turned model later became a screen actress

By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

6:04 PM EDT, August 26, 2013

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Jean E. Hill, a Baltimore model and actress who later performed in three John Waters films, died Wednesday of renal failure at Mercy Medical Center. She was 67.

"Jean Hill was my only African-American star. She was a talented comedian, a brave actress and a much valued member of the Dreamland acting gang I worked with in my movies," said Mr. Waters.

"She had a personality almost too large for show business, and she startled closed-minded people in every level of society. Sometimes raunchy in her public life, Jean was always classy in her private one, and underneath it all was a real lady," he said.

Pat Moran, Baltimore's Emmy Award-winning veteran casting director, was an old friend of Ms. Hill's.

"Jean was a remarkable woman because she had always been told she couldn't do this or that, but she did and she surpassed that," said Ms. Moran. "She was a woman with a great sense of humor and a great sense of style."

The daughter of a city sanitation supervisor and a nurse, Jean Elizabeth Hill was born in Baltimore and raised on Druid Hill Avenue.

After graduating in 1965 from Frederick Douglass High School, she earned an associate's degree from Baltimore City Community College and earned a bachelor's degree in special education from what is now Coppin State University.

During the 1970s and 1980s, she taught and tutored special-education students at the old School 181 at Calhoun and Baker streets, before becoming a postcard, calendar and plus-size model for Rock Shots Greeting Cards and Comstock Greeting Cards. She also performed at the Arena Players, where she directed and designed costumes.

"I remember the time Jean told Kate Moss that she had been a model, too, and Kate got a big kick out of that," said Mr. Waters.

Ms. Hill first worked with Mr. Waters in 1977 when he was filming "Desperate Living."

"She played Grizelda Brown, the killer maid," said Mr. Waters. "I was living at Temple Gardens then, and I told the doorman I was looking for a 200-pound black actress, and he told me he knew a 400-pound woman who was an actress."

In his 1981 autobiography "Shock Value," Mr. Waters recounted meeting Ms. Hill for the first time for an audition that he and Ms. Moran had set up. They had previously interviewed a number of women for the role but none proved acceptable.

"Nervously awaiting her arrival, I prayed she'd be the special one. The doorbell rang, I opened the door, and there she was — my dream-come-true, four hundred pounds of raw talent," he wrote.

After giving her a drink, Mr. Waters asked if she objected to doing nude scenes, and Ms. Hill responded, "I've got a lot to show, honey," and also agreed to dye her hair blonde.

"She asked for a special chair that wouldn't break when she sat on it, and after listening to her give a hilarious reading from the script, we went over the contract. I gave her an advance on her salary, and it was settled," wrote Mr. Waters.

"In 'Desperate Living' she killed me by sitting on me. She played a maid, and my wife and I were having an argument and she took the wife's side," George Stover, a veteran John Waters actor, said with a laugh.

"Jean was a delight to work with, and she was the kind of person that everyone liked. She was very sweet and funny and kept everyone in stitches with her ribald sense of humor that never offended and came off as funny and genuine."

In "Polyester," which Mr. Waters produced in 1981, Ms. Hill played the hijacker of a gospel bus.

Dennis Dermody, film critic for Paper Magazine, met Ms. Hill when she was filming "Polyester."

"I met her on the set. They were filming the scene where she overtakes the bus and bites a tire. She broke a tooth doing that but soldiered on," recalled Mr. Dermody. "She was always vivacious and fun."

Her last movie for Mr. Waters was "A Dirty Shame," which he made in 2004. Ms. Hill played a woman on a fire escape, which proved quite taxing for her because of her health.

In 2000, she participated in the TV documentary "In Bad Taste" on Mr. Waters' life. In 2005, she joined the cast and crew of "A Dirty Shame" who discussed the making of the film.

She appeared in the 2010 documentary "Frances: A Mother Divine," about the life of Frances Milstead, the mother of drag queen actor Divine and a John Waters stalwart, who died in 1988.

Ms. Hill was a popular talk-show guest and made appearances on "Oprah," "People Are Talking," "The Jerry Springer Show" and "The Sally Jessy Raphael Show."

Ms. Hill had been a resident of Harvey Johnson Towers on Mosher Street.

"She was a tremendous human being. She was a woman who was very giving and generous and took in many foster kids during her life," said Aileen Johnson, a Washington writer and lawyer.

"She was also very much a woman of the world who could talk to anyone. She had friends in both high and low places, and did not suffer fools gladly," she said.

Ms. Hill was also a lifelong advocate for homosexuals and supporter of same-sex relationships.

Ms. Hill enjoyed cooking soul food, friends said. She also enjoyed writing and at her death was working on her autobiography, "The Fat Lady Sings."

Ms. Hill was a communicant of St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church, 1526 N. Fremont Ave., where a Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Wednesday. The family hour begins at 10 a.m.

She is survived by two brothers, Eric Williams of Cedonia and Louis Williams of Baltimore; four sisters, Patricia Hill, Agnes Diallo and Anita Williams, all of Baltimore, and Linda Hill of Cumberland; and many nieces and nephews. Her husband, Ronnie Walker, died in the 1980s.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com