Obituary: Olivia Cole, actress who won Emmy for her role in Roots

Olivia Carlena Cole Born: 26 November 1942, Memphis, Tennessee. Died: 19 January 2018, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, aged 75

Olivia Cole in 2007 (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Olivia Cole in 2007 (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Olivia Cole, who won an Emmy Award for her portrayal of Matilda, wife to Chicken George in the landmark US TV mini-series Roots, has died. She was 75.

Cole died last Friday at her home in San Miguel de Allende, a central Mexico city, said Linda Cooper, executive secretary of the 24 Horas de San Miguel de Allende cremation and burial group.

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The cause of death was a heart attack, Cooper added.

Cole received an Emmy Award for her role in ABC’s smash hit 1977 drama based on African-American writer Alex Haley’s book Roots, which dramatised the lives of his ancestors from West Africa through slavery and post-Civil War.

She was the first African-American to win in the Emmy category of best supporting actress in a mini-series.

In the late 1970s, Cole reportedly lamented that Hollywood failed to respond to Roots with more opportunities for black actors and actresses. She wasn’t alone. “You’d think somebody might have followed up with stories about other black families and experiences. Nobody followed up,” series executive producer David L Wolper told The Associated Press in 2002, on the drama’s 25th anniversary.

Ben Vereen played Chicken George in the ensemble cast that also included LeVar Burton, Leslie Uggams and Cicely Tyson.

Cole, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, pursued her education at New York City’s Hunter College High School, Bard College in New York and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, from which she graduated with honours in 1964.

She also earned a theatre arts master’s degree from the University of Minnesota. Her first screen performance came in the daytime serial Guiding Light in 1969, with other TV and movie credits including North and South, Oprah Winfrey’s The Women of Brewster Place and Coming Home.

Cole received a lead actress Emmy nomination for the 1979 miniseries Backstairs at the White House.

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She embraced stage work, appearing regularly on Broadway in the 1960s and 1970s in plays including The Merchant of Venice, You Can’t Take It With You and The School for Scandal.

In her adopted town of San Miguel de Allende, Cole held readings of Shakespeare’s plays for three decades, the New York Times said.

“She once told me that she thought she had done her best work in the Shakespeare group, just because she was learning so much,” Wendy Sievert, a friend of Cole’s, told the Times.

Cole, who was divorced from actor Richard Venture, is survived by cousins.