Olivia Cole dies at 75, won an Emmy for ‘Roots’ but found few opportunities for black actors in Hollywood


Olivia Cole, who won an Emmy Award for her portrayal of Mathilda, wife to Chicken George in the landmark miniseries “Roots,” has died at her home in central Mexico.

Cole died Jan. 19 in San Miguel de Allende, said Linda Cooper, executive secretary of the mortuary there handling her arrangements. Cole was 75.

The actress 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 dramatized the lives of his ancestors from West Africa to slavery and post-Civil War America.


She was the first African American to win an Emmy in the category of best supporting actress in a miniseries.

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, Cicely Tyson, Louis Gossett Jr. and Madge Sinclair.

Cole, a native of Memphis, Tenn., attended 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 honors in 1964.

She also earned a theater arts master’s degree from the University of Minnesota.

Her first credited 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.”

She embraced stage work, appearing regularly on Broadway in the 1960s and ‘70s 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 — a city known for its vibrant arts scene and large U.S. expatriate community — 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 newspaper.

Cole was divorced from actor Richard Venture, who died last year.