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15 Best Black Actresses of the 1970s and Where They Are Today

Ever since Lena Horne signed her major contract in 1941, more black actresses have gotten leading roles in movies.

Lena stipulated in her contract that she would never play a maid (which was the role originally set for most black actresses) in any movie.

Her decision inspired many black actresses who became fan favorites in various movies, including Gail Fisher who won an Emmy Award for her role in the 1970s series “Mannix.”

But the 1970s had even more to offer with many black actresses being nominated for various awards.

Here are some of the best actresses of the 1970s who left an indelible mark on film history.

1. Gail Fisher

As aforementioned, Fisher was the first black actress to win an Emmy Award. But she is known for more than that: she was one of the first African American actresses to play a substantive role in a television series.

She is known for her role as Peggy Fair’s secretary in the series “Mannix” which won her an Emmy Award and two Golden Globe Awards.

Unfortunately, she died in 2000 in Los Angeles after suffering from kidney failure.

2. Diahann Carroll

Like some celebrities, Carroll got her huge break after appearing on a reality TV show. She was a contestant on the “Chance of a Lifetime” a DuMont TV Network program that Dennis James hosted.

After gaining popularity, she got her first acting role as Dorothy Dandridge’s pal in the movie Carmen Jones.

Carroll tragically passed away from cancer in 2019 in California, following a battle that began when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997.

3. Rosalind Cash

Known for her role in “General Hospital” as Mary Ward, Cash’s career flourished on TV, screen, and stage.

She was known for refusing to play the stereotypical African American acting roles.

Cash played the role of Mary Ward until her death in 1995 due to cancer.

4. Vonetta McGee

Another black actress who graced the screen during the 1970s and even managed to co-star with Clint Eastwood in “The Eiger Sanction” was Vonetta.

She starred in various 1970s films including “Melinda,” “Hammer,” “The Kremlin Letter, “Superdome,” and “Foxbat.”

 Like some of the actresses on our list, she was diagnosed with cancer in 2001 . However, she tragically passed away in 2010 due to cardiac arrest.

5. Denise Nicholas

Unlike most of the top black actresses of the 70s, Denise is still active to date, but not as an actress.

After featuring in the movie “Proud” in 2004, she retired from films and Television series.

She is currently an author working on her second novel. Her first best-seller book which she published in 2006 was titled” Freshwater Road.” 

6. Lonette McKee

Born to a black dad and Swedish mother, Lonette is best known for her role in “Sparkle” the 1976 musical-drama film.

She also starred in other 70s films including “Cuba” and “Which Way is Up.”

McKee is still active with her latest movie being “Dream Street“, which she directed and wrote.

She also teaches acting at the New York Continuing and Professional Studies.

7. Lee Chamberlin

Born Alverta LaPallo, Lee is known for her role in various 70s films including “Let’s Do It Again” and “Uptown Saturday Night.”

She is also known as the daughter of LaPallo, who was considered the oldest living male in the U.S. at some point.

Lee was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 2014. Her last film was the 2013 award-winning movie “Habeaus Corpus.

8. Brenda Sykes

Unlike most top actresses, Sykes was discovered while taking part in The Dating Game which aired in the 1960s.

She is known for her role in the movies “Black Gunn” (1972) and “Mandingo” (1975).

But she was quite shy and retired from the limelight after getting married to Scott-Heron Gil, a musician.

 Brenda is still alive and has managed to keep her life private since she left the limelight.

9. Pam Grier

Described by Tarantino as the first female movie action star, Pam became a household name after featuring in various 70s Blaxploitation and action movies.

Pam paved the way for actresses by becoming the first action hero.

She became known in the 70s for her role in movies like “Foxy Brown” and “Coffy.”

Grier lives in Colorado and is still acting to date. Some of her latest movies include “Pet Sematry: Bloodlines and Cinnamon.”

10. Tamara Dobson

Dobson started her career as a model in the 60s, before becoming a full-time actress.

She also featured in various TV commercials including Chanel and Revlon. Like Pam, Dobson also paved the way for black female actresses in the action genre.

Tamara is known for her role as agent Cleo in the 1973 movie “Cleopatra Jones.”

Regrettably, she succumbed to complications from multiple sclerosis in 2006 after battling the illness for years, compounded by pneumonia.

11. Diana Ross

Ross is known for more than just her beautiful voice; she is also a popular actress who starred in various movies and TV series.

She appeared in various 70s films including “The Wiz,” “Mahogany,” and “Lady Sings the Blues.”

Her role in the 70s films earned her several nominations and she even won the Golden Globe Award for the year’s new star.

Diana Ross is still active and has even booked several tours in 2024. She also featured in the 2023 documentary titled “Renaissance: A Film by Beyonce” 

12. Cicely Tyson

Known for her role in “The Help” and “Last Flag Flying,” Tyson became popular after featuring in the movie Sounder.

Tyson received attention and criticism for her role in “Sounder” as Rebecca Morgan for which she was nominated for a number of awards.

Cicely has won several awards including 3 Emmy Awards.  Tyson was active until January 2021 when she passed away.

13. Gloria Hendry

All 007 fans know Gloria as Rose Carver, a role she played in “Live and Let Die” in 1973.

She was the first black lady to get involved with Bond in the 007 movies. 

But do you know that she was discovered while serving as a Playboy Bunny?

Her first acting role was in “For Love of Ivy” in 1968. She is still acting to date with her latest film being “Snow Black” in 2021.

14. Barbara McNair

Another musician who managed to develop her acting career in the 60s and 70s is Barbara McNair.

She was featured in various top 70s movies including “McMillan & Wife” and “The Organization.”

McNair was no stranger to scandals, having been involved in a highly publicized incident where she was found in possession of heroin.

Her marriage to Rick Manzie, who had mafia ties, added another layer of controversy to her life.

Barbara died in 2007, after a 7 year long battle with cancer in LA.   

15. Lola Falana

Falana rose to prominence as a sought-after actress on Italian television, known for her fluency in Italian and her captivating performances in three films.

However, few people may realize that her journey to stardom began with a bold decision to drop out of high school and embark on a quest for fame.

Fleeing from home at a young age, she found her footing as a dancer before ultimately launching her successful music career.

She appeared in various 70s films with her popular one being “Lady Cocoa.”

 Lola founded the New Catholic Apostolate known as The Lambs of God Ministry whose main mission is helping orphans in Africa.

Also Check:

Top 13 Black Actresses Over 70 You Need To Know

10 Black Actresses From The 60s Who Left Their Trademark In Film History

The 70s introduced us to some of the best black actresses of all time. Some of these actresses are still acting and even performing to date like Diana Ross. Others managed to break many records like Tamara Dobson and Pam Grier who introduced black actresses to action films. Despite the challenges they had, they paved the way for some of the top actresses entertaining us to date.

Nikita Waruguru

Nikita Waruguru is a Kenyalogue freelance writer who focuses on TV, celebrity gossip, and pop culture. She's been interested in TV and entertainment from a young age. She wrote her first blog post 10 years ago and has since written more than 3000 news articles, features, and lists. When she's not writing about the latest Netflix reality shows, you can find her binge-watching one or listening to music.

Nikita Waruguruhttp://kenyalogue.com
Nikita Waruguru is a Kenyalogue freelance writer who focuses on TV, celebrity gossip, and pop culture. She's been interested in TV and entertainment from a young age. She wrote her first blog post 10 years ago and has since written more than 3000 news articles, features, and lists. When she's not writing about the latest Netflix reality shows, you can find her binge-watching one or listening to music.
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