By Devin Rose
She'll be 87 years old next week, but Oak Parker Ceoria Coates is still waiting for her big break.
Coates, who since 1984 has appeared in television commercials, print advertisements and even a show on FOX, says she's not one of those people at auditions who comes away crying. She's learned over the years that she can't please every director, but she continues to try out because it's a fun thing she can look forward to. And Coates said it's not too late for her to make it big.
"I'm still waiting for Hollywood to pick me up," she said with a laugh during an interview last week at her home.
Coates said she had acted in plays at her church and during high school in Flint, Mich., where she was raised. But it wasn't until she and her husband moved to Boston that Coates became more serious about the industry. While working in real estate, a drama teacher who lived in a building she owned told Coates she should consider going into acting. The woman was a member of what is now the SAG-AFTRA union — Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists — that represents media artists. She thought Coates would be a natural, and told her there were not many black people her age that were involved.
Coates went in to audition for a role in a commercial where she played a mother whose son was coming home from the Army. She said everyone else in the audition looked like they had been in the business for years, but Coates decided not to get too made up like the others. During her try-out, the director pretended to be her son, she said, and "I gave him the treatment." Coates said she threw her arms around him with all the enthusiasm she could muster, holding nothing back. It worked.
After that, Coates began to get more offers, appearing in a promotional ad for a Boston television station, commercials for TJ Maxx and CVS and a mystery series. In a PBS documentary, she even played the mother of the research chemist whose African American family was the first to move to Oak Park, Percy Julian. She joined AFTRA as she began to get more principal roles, and got an agent when she moved to Oak Park in 2006.
Coates said she was never told by any director why they wanted her for a specific role, but she thinks it's been because of her energy and expressions. She recalled a commercial she did for Kraft, where a young boy tried to take her bottle of ranch dressing. She said the production team laughed hysterically as she told the boy to get his own bottle and playfully hit him with her cane.
In 2011, Coates played a disgruntled Nigerian woman answering the door to the police in the crime drama, The Chicago Code, which aired on FOX. In addition to her three words of dialogue, Coates said she took her time to look through a peep hole and answer the door in a surprised manner.
These days are a little busier for Coates, who is also a member of a senior bowling league and a water aerobics class. She's now part of the SAG-AFTRA senior radio players, a group that performs recreations of old radio shows. The group has a free show coming up Feb. 26 at the Chicago Cultural Center.
She's still going to some auditions when her agent calls, but she's also spending time with her two granddaughters. And when she does audition, Coates said she remembers that it has to be fun.
"You can't take it personally," she said about not getting chosen for every role. "You have to have fun and you never know what a director is looking for."