Olivia Cole, the Emmy-winning actress known for her work in such TV programs as Roots and Backstairs at the White House, died Jan. 19 at her home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she lived for nearly 30 years. She was 75.
Her agent, Susie Schwarz, confirmed the news to EW.
Cole portrayed Mathilda, the wife of Ben Vereen’s Chicken George and mother of Georg Stanford Brown’s Tom, in Roots, the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s novel of the same name. The ABC miniseries became a cultural phenomenon, attracting an estimated 140 million viewers, and Cole won the Emmy for outstanding single performance by a supporting actress in a comedy or drama series.
Cole also earned an Emmy nomination for her work on the 1979 NBC miniseries Backstairs at the White House, in which she portrayed the real-life figure Maggie Rogers, who spent years working as a maid for various U.S. presidents. That year, PEOPLE heralded Cole as one of the finest black actresses in Hollywood, alongside fellow Roots alum Cicely Tyson.
In 1989, Cole appeared alongside Oprah Winfrey on the short-lived ABC series The Women of Brewster Place.
Cole was born Nov. 26, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee, to Arvelia and William Cole. They later relocated to Harlem, New York, and Cole went on to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. In 1966, she made her Broadway debut in The School for Scandal, and she regularly returned to the stage throughout her career.
Cole made her screen debut in 1969, on the soap opera Guiding Light, and went on to feature in more than 30 films and television shows. She starred on the CBS sitcom Szysznyk from 1977 to 1978, and also appeared on Police Woman, North and South, Murder She Wrote, and other shows.
Her film credits included Coming Home (an Oscar nominee for best picture), Some Kind of Hero, and First Sunday.