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July 22, 2014

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Vonetta McGee: Leading Lady of Blaxploitation Era Dead at 65

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Vonetta McGee
, an actress who scaled the ranks of black Hollywood during blaxploitation film era of the 1970s, died after experiencing cardiac arrest and being on life support for two days. She was 65, though some have her year of birth listed as 1940.

McGee appeared opposite Fred Williamson in the black action movie 'Hammer' in 1972 and had starring roles in the crime drama 'Melinda' and the popular horror film 'Blacula.'

One Los Angeles Times movie reviewer once considered McGee "one of the busiest and most beautiful black actresses."

The San Francisco native also appeared with Richard Roundtree in 'Shaft in Africa' (1973), and co-starred with her lover, Max Julien, in 'Thomasine & Bushrod' (1974).McGee also appeared alongside Clint Eastwood in the 1975 action-thriller 'The Eiger Sanction,' which was considered a coup for a black actress during that period.

"I was pleased to see her get a role with Clint Eastwood," Williamson told the Los Angeles Times. "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," he added.

Known to be outspoken herself, McGee didn't care too much for the blaxploitation label that was attached to many of the films of her heyday. The label, she said, 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."

On a segment of 'Soul Train' in 1974, McGee joked that she had to go through a "lot of pain" to get her acting career started. In actuality, she attended San Francisco State college when she got involved with a local acting group. McGee launched her film career in 1968 in Italy, where she debuted in 'The Great Silence' and played the title role in the comedy 'Faustina.'

While starring in several episodes of the 1980s drama series 'Cagney & Lacey,' alongside Carl Lumbly, McGee fell in love with the dashing actor.

"I still remember the first day she came on the set -- it was August 21,1984 -- and we were scheduled to do a bedroom scene," Lumbly reflected in a 1989 Ebony magazine profile on celebrity couples. "Later, when we left the set, I realized we were holding hands. ... We married two years later."

The couple had a son, Brandon, in 1988.

According to family spokeswoman Kelley Nayo, McGee had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 17, but her July 9 death was not related to the disease.

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.

"She was a brilliant actor, with a distinctive style and grace," Pam Grier told BV Newswire upon hearing about McGee's death. "I hope everyone revisits her films and enjoy. I wish peace and love to Carl, her husband, her son and and her family."

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