Carol Speed, the leading lady of the cult blaxploitation films “The Mack” and “Abby,” who used her sex appeal for poignant drama in one and campy horror in the other, died on Jan. 14 in Muskogee, Okla. She was 76.
Her family announced her death in a statement published online. It did not specify the cause.
A button-nosed Californian, Ms. Speed became a B-movie headliner in the 1970s playing a demon and a prostitute. For those roles, her fresh-faced prettiness provided a dramatic contrast, making it all the more striking for her to portray a lurid desire or a melancholy plight.
The blaxploitation genre — a burst of low-budget movies in the 1970s that starred Black actors and dealt with gritty urban themes — often featured female characters who were forced against their will into danger and squalor, but it also accorded them powers unusual for women in mainstream Hollywood movies of the time. Like blaxploitation’s most famous actress, Pam Grier, Ms. Speed fit that mold.
In the horror film “Abby” (1974), Ms. Speed played the title character, a middle-class marriage counselor in Louisville, Ky., who dotes on her husband and sings in the choir of the church where he preaches — until she is possessed by an ancient Nigerian devil known as Eshu. It was the sort of movie where the resident exorcist wears bell bottoms and a luxurious mustache, and where Satan’s playing field lies under a disco ball.
Ms. Speed’s smile caused her to scrunch up her face, a seemingly sweet gesture she turned into a twisted instrument for expressions of lust and violent glee. During one sequence, she toggled back and forth between embodying a distraught loving wife and a demon with super strength.
A few months after it was released on Christmas Day, The New York Times called “Abby” among the most financially successful B movies of its time. Yet following a lawsuit from Warner Bros. that accused it of stealing the plot of “The Exorcist” (1973), it was pulled from theaters. In the years to come, viewing “Abby” became a rare and sought-after opportunity for fans.
Ms. Speed appeared in several other blaxploitation movies, most notably “The Mack” (1973), a classic of the genre in which she played the girlfriend and head prostitute of the pimp protagonist (played by Max Julien, who died this month). In the 1970s, Ms. Speed also acted in other low-budget movies and on TV shows including “Julia” and “Sanford and Son.”
“Seems like everywhere I turn I’m getting one offer or another,” she told Jet magazine in 1973.
Ms. Speed made frequent appearances in the Black press of that era as a quotable and photogenic celebrity. She was among the “Bachelorettes ’72” featured in Ebony, and she was on the July 1976 cover of Jet, which said she “often has been characterized as a sex symbol.” A photograph of her at a 1975 charity tennis tournament appeared in Jet alongside pictures of Bill Cosby and Aretha Franklin at the same event. Her semi-autobiographical 1980 novel, “Inside Black Hollywood,” was “scandalous” and became “the talk of the town,” according to Jet.
Carol Ann Bennett Stewart was born on March 14, 1945, in Bakersfield, Calif., to Cora Valrie Stewart and Freddie Lee Stewart. At San Jose City College, she staged a popular production of “The Bronx Is Next,” Sonia Sanchez’s play about Black revolutionaries. She soon received a scholarship to study at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
Her career started at a casino in Reno, Nev., where she worked as a backup singer to the pop star Bobbie Gentry.
Ms. Speed’s real life had its share of blaxploitation-style drama. While she was filming “The Mack,” her boyfriend was fatally shot in Berkeley, Calif. Around that time, she was struggling to afford her home in Hollywood Hills; trying to support her son, Mark Speed; and throwing another man out of her house. He left, but he took many of Ms. Speed’s possessions with him — even her bedspread.
Then she was cast in the movie for which she would become best known. “Abby took me out of California into a new adventure,” she said in an interview published on a website devoted to William Girdler, the director of “Abby.”
Ms. Speed is survived by a sister, Barbara Morrison, and a grandson.
During the filming of “Abby,” Ms. Speed said, 99 tornadoes tore through Louisville. A mansion where the cast had attended a lavish party was destroyed. When Ms. Speed appeared on set in her demonic get-up, the generator started malfunctioning.
Perhaps she inhabited her role too well. Her colleagues were rattled, Ms. Speed said, adding, “The crew had almost started to believe that I was possessed by the powerful sex-crazed Eshu.”