Lee Chamberlin, an actress whose career took off when she joined Bill Cosby and Rita Moreno on the funky 1970s children’s show “The Electric Company,” died on Sunday, May 25, 2014 in Chapel Hill, N.C. She was 76.
The cause was metastatic cancer, her son Matthew said. Chamberlin, who lived in Paris, was visiting him in Chapel Hill when she died.
Chamberlin was among the original cast members of “The Electric Company,” the hit PBS show that taught basic grammar and diction to elementary school students using parodies, sketches and musical numbers reminiscent of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.”
Chamberlin played the diner proprietor Vi and sang educational duets with a little-known actor named Morgan Freeman on the show, which debuted in 1971.
After the second season, she jumped from children’s television to Shakespeare (though some of her “Electric Company” skits were replayed until the show went off the air in 1977). Mel Gussow of The New York Times called her an “appealing” Cordelia to James Earl Jones’s King Lear in his review of a 1973 production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
She also appeared in the movies “Uptown Saturday Night” (1974) and “Let’s Do It Again” (1975), both directed by Sidney Poitier and starring Poitier and Cosby.
Some years later, she and Jones worked together again, this time as husband and wife in a CBS police drama, “Paris.”
Lee Chamberlin was born Alverta La Pallo on Feb. 14, 1938, in Upper Manhattan. She changed her first name for her acting career. She grew up there and later graduated from New York University. She married Daniel Edward Chamberlin in 1960.
One of Chamberlin’s earliest parts was in a short-lived 1970 Off Broadway production of “Slave Ship,” by the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones.
From 1983 to 1995, she was the supportive mother of the character played by Debbi Morgan on the ABC soap opera “All My Children,” her longest recurring part. She also appeared on sitcoms like “Diff’rent Strokes” and “What’s Happening!” and dramas like “N.Y.P.D. Blue.”
In 2010, she founded the Playwrights’ Inn Project in Paris. The project helps African-American playwrights develop their work.
Her husband died in 1999. In addition to her son, she is survived by her father, Bernando La Pallo; a sister, Nandra Gant; a daughter, Erika Chamberlin; and two grandchildren. — (AP)