Thursday, October 05, 2006

Cleopatra Jones Dies at the Age of 59

Actress Tamara Dobson -- best-remembered for her portrayal of the kung fu-fighting, Afro-wearing, fashion-conscious government super agent Cleopatra Jones -- died Monday of complications from pneumonia and multiple sclerosis in a Baltimore rehabilitation facility. She was 59 years old.

Born May 14, 1947, in Baltimore, Ms. Dobson was a former beautician who earned a degree in fashion illustration from the Maryland Institute of Art. She went on to work as a professional model, appearing in magazines such as Vogue, Essence and Mademoiselle. She also graced the cover of Redbook and posed for a legendary fashion spread in Ebony magazine sporting her signature giant Afro. In addition to appearing in television commercials, she served as the face of Faberge's "Tigress" for several years, and she appeared in ads for both Chanel and Revlon's "Charlie" perfumes.

Ms. Dobson launched her film career in 1972 with a small role in "Fuzz," playing Yul Brynner's girlfriend (the film also starred Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch). Her big break came in 1973 when she was cast in the title, pioneering role of "Cleopatra Jones," opposite Shelley Winters, Bernie Casey and Antonio Fargas. The film, directed by Jack Starrett, and written and co- produced by actor Max Julien ("The Mack"), introduced the first black super heroine to the silver screen; prior to Ms. Dobson's role, the blaxploitation genre had been distinguished primarily by black males doing battle with the white establishment, crooked cops, drug dealers and pimps. Her character inspired the creation of other tough, black female leads in movies such as "Coffey," "Foxy Brown," "Get Christie Love," and "Black Belt Jones," and Cleopatra Jones was parodied in "Austin Powers in Goldmember" (2002), which starred Mike Myers and Beyonce Knowles as Foxxy Cleopatra.

In 1975 Ms. Dobson reprised her super spy role in "Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold." A federal agent fighting the drug trade in the United States and abroad, her character was often likened to a female version of James Bond, every bit the fierce fighter and fashion maven as the iconic spy. Known for her 3-foot-wide hat brims, colorful garb and flowing fur robes, Cleopatra Jones' penchant for exotic clothing and super-sized Afros inspired mid-1970s fashion trends, including the popular waist-length, leather-trimmed fur jackets.

Boasting measurements of 38-26-39 at the peak of her career, Ms. Dobson, who also trained in martial arts, cut a stunning figure. At 6 feet, 2 inches tall, she was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest leading lady in film.

"She was not afraid to start a trend. She designed a lot of the clothing that so many women emulated. With the knowledge from her degree and her natural creativity, she helped develop elegant fashions, especially for tall women," says Dobson's brother Peter.

Ms. Dobson continued to work throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her film credits include: "Come Back, Charleston Blue" (1972; starring Godfrey Cambridge); "Norman, Is That You?" (1976, starring Redd Foxx and Pearl Bailey); "Murder at the World Series" (1977, starring Lynda Day George); and "Chained Heat" (1983, starring Stella Stevens and Linda Blair). "Amazons," a made-for-TV movie directed by Paul Michael Glaser ("Starsky and Hutch") in 1984, was Dobson's last feature-length film. Her other television roles were on "Jason of Star Command" (during the 1980-81 season) and "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" (1980, as the evil doctor).

Ms. Dobson lived most of her adult life in New York, where she and tennis legend Arthur Ashe became the first two African-Americans to reside at the exclusive Carnegie House Condominiums at 57th and 6th Streets. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis six years ago.

"It was tough going through that debilitating disease, especially with her athleticism and involvement in karate," Peter Dobson says. "That was something she had to fight, and that fight was horrendous ... and being a proud individual, the fight was even harder for her."

"She was the perfect combination of power and kindness," he added.

Ms. Dobson is survived by her brother, Peter, and sister, Darilyn, a model who became known as the Palmer's Cocoa Butter girl. She was also a devoted aunt to her brother's three children: Kaleb, 10; Valyn, 12; and Aaron, 17.

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