Tamara Dobson

Blaxploitation's Cleopatra Jones
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The Independent Online

Tamara Dobson, model and actress: born Baltimore, Maryland 14 May 1947; died Baltimore 2 October 2006.

Sporting a huge Afro, wearing funky clothes, driving a customised Corvette and busting drug barons, Cleopatra Jones was one of the most emblematic characters of the blaxploitation movie era of the 1970s. At 6ft 2in, Tamara Dobson was certified the tallest leading lady in film by the Guinness Book of World Records when she portrayed the kick-ass heroine in Cleopatra Jones (1973) and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975).

The former model acquired as big a following as Pam Grier, who starred in Coffy, Foxy Brown and Friday Foster around the same time. But, while Grier never stopped working and enjoyed a career resurgence after appearing in Quentin Tarantino's blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown in 1997, Dobson disappeared from the public eye in the mid-1980s after television roles in the series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Jason of Star Command.

There was talk of reviving the Cleopatra Jones franchise with Whitney Houston taking the lead role and Dobson's character was clearly an inspiration for Foxxy Cleopatra, the part played by Beyoncé Knowles opposite Mike Myers in Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002). But only archive footage of Dobson's was included in Baadasssss Cinema, the 2002 documentary about the blaxploitation genre.

Born in 1947 in Baltimore, Tamara Dobson trained as a beautician and studied fashion illustration at the Maryland Institute of Art. With her height and good looks, she attracted the attention of modelling agencies and began appearing in Vogue, Essence and Mademoiselle as well as Redbook and Ebony magazines. She moved to New York and filmed television commercials for perfumes like Fabergé's Tigress and Revlon's Charlie.

After a small uncredited role in the blaxploitation comedy Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972), Dobson had a small part as Rochelle, the girlfriend of the scheming Deaf Man played by Yul Brynner, in Fuzz (1972). However, she made her mark in the title role of Cleopatra Jones, directed by Jack Starrett. Famously described by the baddies as "10 miles of bad road", Jones is a Special Agent to the US President, fighting drug-traffickers both abroad and on the home front. Dobson more than held her own opposite Shelley Winters (as Mommy, the lesbian drug baroness) and Antonio Fargas (who went on to star as Huggy Bear in Starsky & Hutch) and used her martial arts training to portray what many felt was a female version of James Bond.

The creation of the strong-willed Cleopatra Jones was a defining moment in the evolution of the blaxploitation genre away from the male-dominated Shaft and Superfly, paving the way for the likes of Pam Grier, Jeannie Bell (TNT Jackson) and Teresa Graves (Get Christie Love!). The fashion-conscious Dobson made Afro hair, wide-brimmed hats and leather-trimmed fur jackets all the rage.

When, in 1975, she reprised her role in Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, with Stella Stevens as the villainess, the sequel was not as successful as the original. The following year, Dobson starred in the broad comedy Norman . . . Is That You? , but her career was soon on the slide.

Exploitation fans enjoyed her role as Dutchess in Chained Heat, the 1983 women-in-prison film by Paul Thomas also starring Linda Blair, Sybil Danning and Stella Stevens. Stevens also appeared with Dobson in Amazons (1984), another TV film, directed by Paul Michael Glaser (of Starsky & Hutch fame), in which women plot to take over the world.

Pierre Perrone