The acclaimed performer and active industry member appeared in such films as Sounder and more than 75 episodes of such TV series as I Spy, Star Trek, Archie Bunker's Place and dozens of others.
Janet MacLachlan, an actress whose career spanned several decades and included such highlights as a key supporting role in the 1972 film Sounder and guest appearances on such television series as Archie Bunker’s Place and Cagney and Lacey, died October 11, 2010, at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Los Angeles.
According to news reports, MacLachlan had been hospitalized after suffering a cardiovascular incident at her home in Silver Lake.
MacLachlan, who was active in entertainments industry organizations, was a former governor of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' performers’ peer group as well as grant committee chairman for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
“Janet was not only inspirational and a great leader, she fought for equal access for all actors,” said Peter Kwong, a governor in the Television Acdemy’s Performers’ Peer Group. “She was also a good friend as well as a wonderful performer; she delighted us with hours and hours of entertainment, as in Sounder, Archie Bunker’s Place and Murder One, just to name a few.”
Trained as a stage performer, MacLachlan exuded a seriousness and self-possession that led to numerous roles as respected authority figures, including judges, nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, teachers and social workers.
Born Janet Angel MacLachlan on August 27, 1933, in New York City, her parents were immigrants from Jamaica. She attended the all-girl Julia Richman High School, where she excelled in math, and graduated in 1950.
Her first acting experience came in her teens, when she was cast in a play with the Harlem Boys Club. Later, as a student at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, she studied drama in a private class taught by Sidney Poitier, who reportedly instilled not only the importance of refining her craft, but also of developing a point of view.
After graduating from Hunter in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she worked at clerical jobs while studying acting at the Harlem YMCA, the Herbert Berghof Acting Studio and the Little Theatre of Harlem. She became an executive secretary and office manager for a New York public relations firm, but in 1961 the lure of the stage spurred her to leave her job, where she was earning a reported $175 per week, for a $5-a-week stipend to understudy Cicely Tyson in two productions: Moon on a Rainbow Shawl and the controversial off-Broadway play The Blacks: A Clown Show, by Jean Genet.
After Tyson left The Blacks, MacLachlan assumed her role for six weeks, working alongside such established costars as James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Jr., Maya Angelou and Roscoe Lee Browne. The same year, she appeared in the parody Raisin’ Hell in the Son.
MacLachlan made her Broadway debut in 1962 in Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright, in a cast that included Roscoe Lee Browne, Al Freeman Jr., Rudy Challenger, Ellen Holly, Diana Sands, Claudia McNeil and Robert Hooks. MacLachlan then spent time with the repertory company at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
After relocating to Los Angeles, she signed a contract with Universal and went on to appear in guest roles on such series as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. and The Fugitive. Through the late 1960s and early 70s she appeared on The Invaders, The FBI, Ironside, The Mod Squad, The Name of the Game and other series. Two of her best TV roles, both of which aired in 1967, as Bill Cosby's love interest in an episode of I Spy, which was shot on location in Greece, and a first-season episode of Star Trek, in which she played an Enterprise crewmember named Lt. Charlene Masters.
Her feature film debut came in 1968 with the politically charged drama Up Tight, a remake of John Ford’s The Informer directed by Jules Dassin — his first American production since his blacklisting and exile in Europe. The cast included Ruby Dee, Roscoe Lee Browne, Frank Silvera, Max Julien and Raymond St. Jacques.
Other features in the 1970s included the science fiction drama Change of Mind, as well as Halls of Anger, …tick… tick… tick… and The Man. The best known was Sounder, in which she played Camille, a teacher who gives a poor sharecropper’s son, played by Kevin Hooks, a chance at a decent education. The film was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture.
In the ensuing years she balanced the occasional movie role with dozens of television appearances — more than 75 in her career. They included such shows as The Rockford Files, Good Times, Cagney and Lacey, Amen, Murder, She Wrote, Murder One, Family Law and Alias.
She had a recurring role as housekeeper Polly Swanson on Archie Bunker’s Place, and had roles in several made-for-television movies, including Louis Armstrong: Chicago Style, Roll of Thunder Hear Me Cry, The Sophisticated Gents, For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story and The Tuskegee Airmen.
In the early 1980s, MacLachlan co-founded the Media Forum, an organization of African American actors and professionals in the entertainment industry dedicated to combating negative stereotypes in film and television. The group included actors Robert Hooks, Brock Peters, and Denise Nicholas, as well as producer Charles Floyd Johnson.
In 1981, the group produced Voices of Our People: In Celebration of Black Poetry, in which MacLachlan and others did staged readings of verse by African-American writers. In the production, which aired on KCET, MacLachlan won a Los Angles-area Emmy Award for her performance.
She is survived by her daughter Samantha MacLachlan, an actress who has appeared in the feature film Set It Off and on the television series Once and Again, NYPD Blue, JAG and others.