Thesp Janet MacLachlan, who played the compassionate teacher in “Sounder” and worked for actors’ rights, died Oct. 11 in Los Angeles after a heart attack. She was 77.
As Camille who gives the sharecropper’s son a chance at education, her understated acting stood out in the Oscar-nominated “Sounder.”
During the 1960s and ’70s MacLachlan refused to act in Blaxploitation films of the era and often played roles as a judge, nurse, doctor, psychiatrist, teacher or social worker. She also stood up for actors rights, including as a member of Actors’ Equity. She served on the Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers assembled by the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE, in 1962.
MacLachlan graduated from Hunter College in New York with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1955. She worked in clerical posts while studying acting at Harlem YMCA, the Herbert Berghoff Acting Studio and the Little Theatre of Harlem. In 1961, she quit her job at a PR firm to understudy Cicely Tyson in two shows: “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl” and “The Blacks: A Clown Show.” When Tyson ankled “The Blacks,” MacLachlan got the role. In 1963 she appeared on Broadway in “Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright.”
She spent a year at Minneapolis’ Guthrie, where she performed in “The Miser,” “Hamlet” and “Death of a Salesman.”
The following year, Universal Studios acquired MacLachlan as a contract player and she relocated to Hollywood. MacLachlan’s first TV appearance was on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and she went on to guest star in more than 70 skeins. Some of them included “Star Trek,” “The Fugitive,” “Murder She Wrote,” and “Alias.” She had recurring roles on “Cagney and Lacey” and as the sarcastic housekeeper Polly Swanson on “Archie Bunker’s Place.”
In 1981, MacLachlan received an Emmy award for her performance in the KCET PBS mini of “Voices of Our People: In Celebration of Black Poetry.” She also won a NAACP Theater Award in 1987 for “Eyes of the American.”
She helped found the Actor’s Studio West in Los Angeles, served as an assistant director at Cal State LA, and was a member of the Acad, SAG and the Motion Picture Fund.
Survivors include her daughter, actress Samantha MacLachlan, and a sister.