Lawrence Vonetta McGee – named after her father – was born in San Francisco on January 14,1945. Her family planned for her to have a career in law, and she began studying pre-law at San Francisco State College, but she became involved in amateur theatre and was bitten by the acting bug. Vonetta left college without graduating and joined the diaspora of American actors – experienced and aspirant – who moved to Rome in the 1960s to find work at the Cinecittà film studios.
Her filmographies list her first feature as Faustina, a comedy directed by Luigi Magni in 1968, but Il Grande Silenzio was made the previous year and opened in Italy at Christmas in 1967. In the film, Vonetta was a pioneer woman whose outlaw husband has been murdered by a bounty hunter, played by Kinski. She hires a mute gunfighter – Silence, wonderfully played by Trintignant – to kill the killer, thus setting in train the grim, tragic and terrible events of Corbucci’s film.
Vonetta gave a fine performance as the vengeance-bent widow, Pauline. She was extraordinarily beautiful: tall, dark, with enormous and expressive eyes. 20th Century-Fox bought the rights to Il Grande Silenzio and then suppressed the film, considering it too pessimistic. But it was hugely influential on other filmmakers (Eastwood attempted a remake, Joe Kidd, directed by John Sturges), and for Vonetta, a career in American movies followed inevitably.
Poitier invited her to return to the US to appear with him in The Lost Man (1969). She starred (as “the Negress”) in John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter the following year. Thereafter came the string of blaxploitation pictures which made her famous: Blacula, The Big Bust-Out (both 1972) and Shaft in Africa (1973). In essence, these were genre pictures that starred black actors instead of white ones. They proved immensely popular with audiences, but tended to be disdained or ignored by mainstream film critics.
Vonetta disliked the “blaxploitation” label: she was proud of the black part, proud of the strong, take-charge characters she had played in the films, but did not consider them exploitative in any way. She was a smart woman, who saw no difference between these and other popular entertainments, whatever the colour of the stars.
A role in Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction (1975) and an increasing amount of episodic television work followed. Vonetta then suffered health problems and took a break from acting. Repo Man marked her return to the screen. When making the film, I grilled her about Il Grande Silenzio and about working with Corbucci. He was the nicest man, she told me (how appropriate, given the savagery and sadism that characterise his extraordinary films). “And he never tried to put the make on me! His wife, Nori, was usually on set, and they were such a happy couple. They made it a great environment to work in.”
Those were Vonetta’s two lessons to a young director: do not try to put the make on your leading lady, and make a nice environment for the actors to be creative in. This was excellent advice. In Repo Man she was both elegant and a perfect action heroine: diving into the fight sequences with gusto, demolishing a pair of blond brutes played by Biff Yeager and Steve Mattson.
In the mid-80s, Vonetta appeared in Cagney & Lacey as the wife of a detective played by Carl Lumbly. She and Carl married in 1986 and had a son, Brandon. In 1990, she appeared, briefly but memorably, opposite Sy Richardson and Danny Glover in Charles Burnett’s fine film To Sleep With Anger.