Olivia Cole, Actress in 'Roots' and 'Backstairs at the White House,' Dies at 75

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Olivia Cole

The respected Emmy winner also appeared in films like 'Coming Home' and alongside Oprah Winfrey in 'The Women of Brewster Place.'

Olivia Cole, the Emmy-winning actress best known for her performances in the 1970s miniseries Backstairs at the White House and Roots, has died. She was 75.

Cole died Friday at her home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, her agent, Susie Schwarz at SDB Partners, told The Hollywood Reporter. The New York Times reported that she had suffered a heart attack.

Cole also portrayed the gossipy Miss Sophie alongside Oprah Winfrey on the 1989 ABC miniseries The Women of Brewster Place and on a subsequent, short-lived series.

Cole received her supporting actress Emmy for her turn as Matilda — the wife of Ben Vereen's Chicken George and mother of Georg Stanford Brown's Tom — on Alex Haley's Roots, which was broadcast on ABC in January 1977 on eight consecutive nights and watched by an estimated 140 million people.

On the nine-hour 1979 NBC miniseries Backstairs at the White House, Cole was perhaps even more memorable as Maggie Rogers, the mother of Leslie Uggams' Lillian Rogers Parks. Both real-life women spent years working as maids for U.S. presidents over several decades.

For that performance, Cole received another Emmy nom, for outstanding lead actress in a limited series or special, and "established her, with the possible exception of Cicely Tyson, as the finest black dramatic actress in Hollywood," People magazine noted in a 1979 profile.

Cole also appeared as Corrine in the best picture Oscar nominee Coming Home (1978); in Some Kind of Hero (1982), with Richard Pryor; opposite Paul Winfield in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (1984); and with Ice Cube in First Sunday (2008).

  

Cole was born on Nov. 26, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee, the only daughter of parents who moved with her to Harlem. She attended Hunter College High School, Bard College in New York and then the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

She returned to the U.S. in 1964 and appeared in Romeo and Juliet at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut. 

In 1966, Cole made her Broadway debut in a revival of The School for Scandal — just one of the many stage appearances during her career — and then landed a gig as Deborah Mehren on the CBS soap opera Guiding Light.

Cole bossed around Ned Beatty on the CBS series Szysznyk in 1977-78 and also appeared on television on Police Woman, North and South, Family, L.A. Law and Murder, She Wrote.

Cole was married to actor Richard Venture, who died just last month; they met when starring in a play at the Arena Stage in Washington, and he discovered the town of San Miguel de Allende while filming the Costa-Gavras drama Missing (1982) there. The couple divorced a couple of years later, and she lived in Mexico for some 30 years, Schwarz said.

She did not have any known survivors.

Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.

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