Rosalind Cash was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on December 31, 1938. As a young woman, she took off with only $20 in her pocket to seek her fame and fortune in New York City. At first things were difficult: “I had a cold-water one-room apartment in Harlem sharing a kitchen I didn’t dare use because of the rats,” she told The Guardian. But Cash attended the City College of New York, and managed to ferret out the first stirrings of independent black theater in the city. She made her stage debut in 1958 in a production at the Harlem YMCA, performing in a play by Langston Hughes called Soul Gone Home.
In 1968 she landed a role in Washington, D.C., in a production of The Great White Hope, a play about the career of Black boxer Jack Johnson. The part was a choice one, but at the same time an even better opportunity opened up: a slot with the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), a pioneering organization devoted to presenting plays by Black writers and furthering the careers of Black actors and theater personnel. Cash pulled out of the Washington production, having to turn over two weeks’ salary to the theater involved, so that she could return to New York and join the NEC. She was one of the company’s founding members.
Cash emerged as a star of the company, appearing in several productions her first year, including a play called Kongi’s Harvest by the South African writer. The following year she played the lead in a production of Lonne Elder’s Ceremonies of Dark Old Men, one of the most-performed Black theatrical works of the day. Cash would reprise the role in a 1975 television version of the play. She continued to appear with the NEC through the 1970s, and also landed high-profile roles with other theatrical organizations; in 1973 she took on the role of Goneril in Shakespeare’s King Lear in a New York Shakespeare Festival production. That role, too, she would later play on national television.
Hollywood had its eye on the talented young actress, however, and the focus of Cash’s efforts gradually shifted in that direction. After a small part in 1971’s Klute, she broke through with the female lead role in the science-fiction action thriller The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston. The role, in one of the first Hollywood action films to feature a Black lead character, was one that several leading Black actresses of the day had set their sights on. Cash not only won the role, but blew audiences away with her powerful performance. “Her first appearance in the film is,” noted writer Stephen Bourne in The Independent, “Strong and aggressive, she looked ready to steal the film form under Heston’s nose…” The second half of the film, unfortunately, toned down Cash’s character. Still, she was named to the annual Top Ten Stars of Tomorrow list compiled by the industry firm Quigley Publications, the first Black named since the list had been created in 1941.
For several years, other lead roles came Cash’s way. In the Black-oriented murder mystery Melinda (1972), she had, in the words of film historian, “her best role of this period as a woman on the edge, holding on for dear life, struggling to keep a relationship with a man who hardly seemed her equal.” She also landed roles in mainstream hits like The New Centurions (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974), but these came at a price. Cash was cast as a good-natured; the role did not appeal to her, but like other serious Black actresses of the 1970s, she found that parts suited to her talents were very hard to come by.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cash turned her attention to television, winning guest slots on such series as “Starsky and Hutch,” “Police Woman,” “Kojak,” and “Hill Street Blues.” In 1977 she appeared opposite O.J. Simpson in the made-for-television movie A Killing Affair, in which Simpson played a police officer who has an affair with a white coworker. She chose her film roles carefully, appearing mostly in projects that she found significant. In Wrong Is Right (1982), she played the first Black woman to become U.S. Vice President. That year she was also featured in Sister, Sister, a film written by poet Maya Angelou that drew on her full range as an actress perhaps more than any other; she co-starred with Diahann Carrol and Irene Cara in a story of the reunion of three adult sisters. Sister, Sister earned Cash a nomination for an NAACP Image Award, as did Go Tell It On the Mountain (1986), based on a novel by James Baldwin.
Cash gradually gained greater recognition in the late 1980s and early 1990s, winning induction into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1992. Television work continued to come steadily, with appearances on The Cosby Show, thirtysomething, and other series. The onetime cold-water-flat-dweller finally found steady employment with a recurring role on the daytime soap opera General Hospital, on which she played the Matriarch of an extended Black family.
On October 31, 1995 Rosalind died of cancer at the age of 56 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Rosalind Cash’s Filmography:
- Klute, 1971
- The Omega Man, 1971
- The New Centurions, 1972
- Melinda, 1972
- Hickey and Boggs, 1972
- The All American Boy, 1973
- Amazing Grace, 1974
- Uptown Saturday Night, 1974
- Cornbread, Earl and Me, 1975
- Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, 1975 (made for television)
- Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, 1976
- The Monkey Hustle, 1977
- A Killing Affair, 1977 (made for television)
- The Class of Miss MacMichael, 1979
- Wrong Is Right, 1982
- Sister, Sister, 1982 (made for television)
- Go Tell It On the Mountain, 1984 (made for television)
- The Offspring, 1987
- Forced March, 1990
- Second Coming, 1992
- A Dangerous Affair, 1995 (made for television)
- Tales from the Hood, 1995
The Movie Posters are from the collection of The Museum of UnCut Funk