OBITUARY: Madge Sinclair

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The Independent Online
Madge Sinclair is best remembered for her portrayal of Kunta Kinte's wife, the house slave Belle whose only child, Kizzy, is sold to another plantation owner in the epic television drama Roots (1977). Her performance earned her an Emmy nomination; a long career in American television followed.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Sinclair was educated at the Shortwood College for Women and taught in schools in Jamaica until she was 30. Moving to New York, she acted with the New York Shakespearean Festival and at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre. She made her film debut with an impressive performance as Mrs Scott, the single-minded South Carolina school principal who clashes with Jon Voigt in Martin Ritt's Conrack (1974). Other film roles included the madame of a bordello in Leadbelly (1976), the captain of the USS Saratoga in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) and as Eddie Murphy's mother in Coming to America (1988). In 1994 she was the voice of the lion queen in Disney's smash hit animated feature The Lion King.

Television provided Sinclair with numerous roles. She appeared in everything from The Waltons to the made-for- television feature I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, adapted from Maya Angelou's eloquent autobiography. Sinclair once said: "Some people get snooty about it, but I like working for television. I can finish something and see it the next week." For her regular role as the unflappable nurse Ernestine Shoop in the popular drama series Trapper John, M.D., a spin- off from M*A*S*H*, Sinclair was nominated for three Emmy awards. She won a Los Angeles regional Emmy for the 1987 drama Look Away in which she portrayed the former slave who was Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker. More recently she won another Emmy for her role as James Earl Jones's love interest in the ABC series Gabriel's Fire. In 1994 Sinclair was featured in the miniseries A Century of Women.

In addition to her Emmy awards, Sinclair was honoured by the prime minister of Jamaica with the Order of Distinction, Rank of Commander. Besides television, Sinclair also found time to make stage appearances with the Los Angeles Theatre Center which, she said, reminded her of her beginnings at the Public Theatre in New York. One reviewer was moved to describe her performance in Boseman and Lena at the Center as "magnificent".

In 1993 Sinclair came to London to appear at the Cochrane Theatre as the sharp-witted Isabella in The Lion, Michael Abbensetts's play directed by Horace Ove for the Talawa Theatre Company.

Stephen Bourne

Madge Sinclair, actress: born Kingston, Jamaica 28 April 1940; married (two sons); died Los Angeles 20 December 1995.