Dorothy Steel was 88 years old when she started acting as a hobby. She soon discovered that she had real talent and decided to act professionally. But she couldn’t have predicted that four years later, at the age of 92, she would become a worldwide star.
Steel was born on February 23, 1926. She grew up in Detroit, Michigan and got a job in the federal government. For several decades, the Internal Revenue Service employed her as one of its senior revenue officers.
The future star traveled the world for her job, and her hobbies include bowling and reading. She retired in 1984 and spent 20 years residing in the Virgin Islands. Eventually, she relocated to Georgia so that she could live near her grandson and her son, Scott Wardell.
It was at the Frank Bailey Senior Center in Riverdale that Steel met Elaine Jackson, who scripted and directed plays there and now manages the center. Steel played a teenager in many of Jackson’s productions and always had the audience laughing at her improvised lines. It was her very first time acting, and she soon caught the bug.
“I always told her she should be in movies,” Jackson told The Washington Post. “Just because of her personality and in the way she portrays her characters. Everything we gave her to do, she just became that particular character.”
So at the age of 89, Steel decided to get an agent and went on to film some commercials and short films. The budding actress also landed the role of Mother Harris in the TV series Saints and Sinners, of which she has now appeared in several episodes. But it would be a couple of years before she’d get an audition that would change everything.
Despite her natural talent, Steel never planned to act while she was growing up. However, she soon discovered a love of getting into character. “I can be whatever it is I’m supposed to be at the time,” she told The Washington Post. “I love it.”
Steel added, “While you’re acting, you’re in this protected cubicle that people call the stage. You’re protected from the world. And that’s the first time in my life I felt absolutely secure… You can just be whatever it is the character is supposed to be.”
Then in November 2016, her agent Cindy Butler called with the offer of an audition for what Steel described as a “comic strip” film. She hadn’t heard of the comic in question and didn’t believe she could perfect the African accent needed for the role. So she instructed her agent to pass on the opportunity.
Later on, when she was chatting to her grandson Niles Wardell, she told him about the audition that she had declined. And the 26-year-old couldn’t believe she had turned it down. He explained to her that it was the role of a lifetime.
The movie was Black Panther. Wardell revealed to his grandmother that the Marvel blockbuster was going to be huge – and that she had to believe in herself. “My grandson said to me, ‘You’re always talking about stepping out on faith. I either want you to man up or shut up,’” Steel shared. So when she got a second chance to audition, she took it.
Steel worked hard to get into character and mastered a South African accent by studying speeches by Nelson Mandela on YouTube. Then, she submitted her taped audition. And right away, the casting team at Marvel called Butler.
“We sent it in and an hour later they said, ‘Who is that old lady? We want her,’” Steel told WSB-TV 2’s Nefertiti Jaquez. She was offered the role of the king of Wakanda’s advisor and accepted. And when filming began, she would be collected each morning at 5:30 a.m. and driven to the set.
Each day, Steel spent hours having her makeup done and getting into her costume before filming began. At times, she wouldn’t get home until late at night but she loved every second of her three weeks on set. She became close to Angela Bassett and described director Ryan Coogler as “the nicest man in the world,” according to The Washington Post.
However, the movie’s leading man Chadwick Boseman left the greatest impression on Steel. “Chadwick the King. Every day, he would make sure if I was on the set, he would come by and make sure he gave me a big old hug and kiss,” she recalled to WSB-TV 2. The actress added, “We were one big melting pot of black people, and we knew we were doing something that had never been done before.”
When Black Panther was released, it was an instant hit. The movie was critically acclaimed and has drawn in $1.3 billion at the box office worldwide, making it the second-highest-earning film of 2018. It also turned Steel into an overnight star.
After the movie came out, Steel appeared on Steve and would regularly be stopped near her College Park home by people asking for autographs or to take a photograph with her. She called the whole experience “truly amazing” and explained that she hopes the cultural importance of the blockbuster has hit home with viewers. “We have power and it’s time for us to step up and take over,” she said.
Steel never expected that she would work in Hollywood – let alone star in one of the most successful movies of the year. “If anyone would have told me I would be an actor, I would’ve said you got to be out of your mind,” she shared. Now her fans are hoping to see her in the rumored Black Panther sequel.
The grandma is not the only star to find fame in later life. Golden Girls actress Estelle Getty was 62 years old when she landed her career-defining role. And Shirley Booth acted in her first movie at the age of 54. Steel says that her story is further proof that age shouldn’t stop anyone from following their passion.
“Hopefully, somebody who at 55 or 60 has decided, ‘This is all I can do,’ they will realize they have 35 more years to get things together,” Steel told The Washington Post. “Start now. It’s never too late… Keep your mind open and keep faith in yourself that you can do this thing. All you have to do is step out there.”