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At the White House, as in Her Own Life, Olivia Cole Is a Quiet 'Backstairs' Sort of Woman

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‘I come home and do the laundry,’ she says. ‘I do not have a maid’

For many black actors, the original Roots was more than a memorable TV series; it was a catapult. LeVar Burton, Ben Vereen and Lou Gossett, among others, all leaped into maximum-visibility films and specials—not to mention higher tax brackets. Yet one of the most honored performers in the 1977 production, Emmy winner Olivia Cole, 36, all but disappeared in parts that may have enhanced her reputation but certainly not her bank account. She played memorable bits in movies like Coming Home and Heroes and even made history of sorts as a black woman bossing around a white man in Ned Beatty’s short-lived CBS series, Szysznyk. What seemed to matter most, as her friend, actress Lynne Moody, puts it, “is that Olivia has a very positive image for blacks. She has such integrity and dignity.”

Add to that finally this month, much to Cole’s dismay, celebrity. In NBC’s nine-hour Backstairs at the White House miniseries, based on the 1961 best-seller by Lillian Rogers Parks, Cole has won top billing over such stars as Leslie Uggams, Lou Gossett, Celeste Holm, Lee Grant, Eileen Heckart and Robert Vaughn. Playing the durable maggie Rogers, who with her daughter served eight Presidents (from Taft to Eisenhower), was, Olivia says, “a tremendous history lesson for me.” It is also establishing her, with the possible exception of Cicely Tyson, as the finest black dramatic actress in Hollywood. Uggams, who acted in both Roots and Downstairs with Cole, calls her “simply incredible.”

Just three years ago, with few parts in sight, a disheartened Olivia was ready to head back East, where her 45ish actor-playwright husband, Richard Venture, had landed a role in a play. “He said, ‘No, honey. As soon as you go might be the time you get the phone call,’ ” Olivia remembers. “And at that point the phone rang.” It was her agent wanting her to read “for something called Roots.” Despite stiff competition (“I won’t tell the names, but I can say I never expected to get that part”), Olivia won out as Matilda, the wife of Ben (Chicken George) Vereen in the most successful TV series ever. “She’s an intense and commanding actress,” says Vereen. Others had noticed too. “I had to audition for Roots,” Olivia observes, “but I was invited to do Backstairs at the White House.”

The acclaim has only intensified Cole’s genuinely reclusive life-style. Not even her press agent knows the phone number at the modest, three-bedroom house in the San Fernando Valley where Olivia lives with her husband, three dogs and a pickup truck. “I do ordinary things,” she says. “I like to sew, do needlepoint and go bike riding with my husband. I do my own grocery shopping.”

She was born in Memphis, Tenn., the only daughter of parents who moved to Harlem before divorcing. Her father works for Grumman Aircraft, and her mother (“a very groovy lady”) teaches tennis at City College. “She would take me to the museum because she couldn’t afford a babysitter,” Olivia recalls. “But I have been extremely lucky. I never had to pick cotton. I had a first-rate education.”

Olivia attended prestigious Hunter College High School, then entered Bard College in upstate New York as a drama major. In 1962 she won a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and returned two years later to make her debut in Romeo and Juliet at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Conn. After picking up an M.A. at the U of Minnesota, she toured with a rep company and met Venture, of Italian descent, when they starred in a Pirandello play at Washington’s Arena Stage.

A veteran of four and a half years on CBS’s The Guiding Light, she and Richard headed for the Coast in 1975. His career has almost kept pace with hers, most recently in The Onion Field, a sitcom pilot for ABC called The Phantom of the Open Hearth and Carol Burnett’s forthcoming TV movie, The Tenth Month. He also holds his own with Olivia in their three-times-a-week tennis game on a nearby public court.

Venture has four grown children from an earlier marriage, and he and Olivia are not planning any more now. Instead, she is waiting patiently for another “right” property—not one, she hopes, that will threaten her privacy even more. “When people come up to me and ask if I’m somebody important, I wonder if they’ve ever given any thought to that question,” Cole says. “I’m just a human being. I think it’s important to divorce my craft from my life. Acting is just what I do.”