Vonetta McGee, an actress whose big-screen heyday during the blaxploitation era of the 1970s included leading roles in “Blacula” and “Shaft in Africa,” has died. She was 65.
McGee died Friday at a hospital in Berkeley after experiencing cardiac arrest and being on life support for two days, said family spokeswoman Kelley Nayo. Although McGee had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 17, Nayo said, her death was not related to the disease.
McGee was described as “one of the busiest and most beautiful black actresses” by Times movie reviewer Kevin Thomas in 1972, the year she appeared opposite Fred Williamson in the black action movie “Hammer,” and had starring roles in the crime- drama “Melinda” and the horror film “Blacula.”
She went on to appear with Richard Roundtree in “Shaft in Africa” (1973), and co-starred with Max Julien in “Thomasine & Bushrod” (1974).
McGee also appeared with Clint Eastwood in the 1975 action-thriller “The Eiger Sanction,” prompting The Times’ Thomas to write in his review: “Her parrying with Eastwood, verbally and otherwise, is enough to scorch the screen.”
“I was pleased to see her get a role with Clint Eastwood,” said Williamson, who knew McGee before they made “Hammer.” “Not many black actors had that opportunity to be in a movie where color doesn’t matter.
“Vonetta McGee was like a lot of actors and actresses at that time, like myself, Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, Billy Dee Williams and Pam Grier, in that we had more talent than we were allowed to show because everything was perceived as a black project. Once they categorize you, your marketability becomes limited.”
McGee was no fan of the “blaxploitation” label that was attached to many of the films featuring black casts in the ‘70s.
That label, she told The Times in 1979, was used “like racism, so you don’t have to think of the individual elements, just the whole. If you study propaganda, you understand how this works.”
Although The Times reported that McGee “calls herself one of the lucky graduates of the black-film genre,” she pointed out that there was a difference between someone like Diana Ross and other potentially marketable black actresses.
“She has had the luxury of a studio behind her,” McGee said. “This is where a lot of us fell short. We all needed a certain amount of protection. But we were on our own.”
Among McGee’s other film credits are “The Lost Man,” “Detroit 9000,” “Brothers” (in which she played an activist based on Angela Davis), “Repo Man” and “To Sleep with Anger.”
In the ‘80s, her career turned primarily to television.
That included playing Sister Indigo on Robert Blake’s short-lived 1985 dramatic series “Hell Town” and playing a social worker who takes a con man played by Jimmie Walker into her home in the syndicated 1987-88 sitcom “Bustin’ Loose.”
She also played a recurring role on “L.A. Law” and appeared in several episodes of “Cagney & Lacey” as the wife of detective Mark Petrie (played by Carl Lumbly).
McGee and Lumbly were married in 1986 and had a son, Brandon, in 1988.
Born Lawrence Vonetta McGee in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 1945, she was attending what is now San Francisco State when she got involved with a local acting group.
She launched her film career in 1968 in Italy, where she appeared in the spaghetti western “The Great Silence” and played the title role in the comedy “Faustina.”
In addition to her husband and son, she is survived by her mother, Alma McGee; three brothers, Donald, Richard and Ronald McGee; and a sister, Alma McGee.
A memorial service is pending.