March 14, 1959
McKeesport, Pennsylvania, USA
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A member of an elite circle of actors whose celebrity spans both the daytime and nighttime worlds simultaneously, American actress Tamara Tunie was recognized as one of television's most reliable players. Best known by day as lawyer Jessica Griffin Harris on the long-running soap opera, "As the Word Turns' (CBS, 1956- ), Tunie assumed her other identity at night - that of Medical Examiner Melinda Warner on the hit drama, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (NBC, 1999- ).
Born in McKeesport, PA, on March 14, 1959, Tunie grew up literally surrounded by death. The daughter of an undertaker, Tunie was raised in a funeral home, where she often helped with services provided. Not interested in joining the family business, Tunie applied to Pittsburgh's famed Carnegie Mellon University and was accepted in 1977. It was there that Tunie discovered the theater department and found her calling. After graduating in 1981 with a Master of Fine Arts in drama, Tunie was introduced to Billie Allen, an esteemed African-American stage actress who became her drama coach and mentor. Under her tutelage, Tunie honed her skills and gradually developed into a formidable thespian in her own right.
After wowing audiences in a New York Shakespeare Festival production of "Troilus and Cressida" in Central Park, Tunie felt the beckoning of Broadway. In 1982, the aspiring actress got a chance to share the stage with one of her lifelong heroes - the legendary Lena Horne - in the Broadway musical, "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music." Tunie's love affair with the stage would continue throughout her career. In 2001, Tunie once again showed her range by taking on the role of Maggie the Cat in the first all-black production of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on A Hot Tin Roof."
In 1987, Tunie landed the role for which she was arguably the most famous. As Jessica Griffin Harris on "As the World Turns," she portrayed one of the show's first strong and independent black women. Compassionate and professional, Tunie made Harris one of the leading characters on the program. In gratitude for all that her mentor, Billie Allen, had done for her career early on, Tunie lobbied the writers to create a role for Allen on the soap. As a testament to Tunie's clout, the writers did just that, creating the role of Jessica's mother, Louise, expressly for Allen.
Toward the mid 1990's, Tunie began doing double duty, popping up in primetime dramas as well. One of her earliest high-profile roles was on the detective crime drama "NYPD Blue" (ABC, 1993-2005), in which Tunie played the recurring role of Lillian Fancy, the wife of supporting character Lieutenant Arthur Fancy, (portrayed by James McDaniel). Though viewers often got to see glimpses of Fancy's home life during the cop show's first four seasons, these moments became few and far between as the show progressed. By 1997, most of the show's focus had shifted toward the two lead characters, Sipowicz and Simone (played by Dennis Franz and Jimmy Smits, respectively). As Fancy's role diminished, less attention was paid to his personal life. Eventually the subplot - and hence, Tunie - was dropped entirely.
Despite this small setback and leaving "World" in 1995 to spread her wings a bit, Tunie did not sit idle for long, landing roles in feature films including "The Devil's Advocate" and "Eve's Bayou" (both 1997). In the latter, Tunie was cast as the film's narrator; thus, only her voice was heard. Tunie also had a small role in the Brian DePalma thriller "Snake Eyes" the following year.
In 1999, Tunie returned to the role she'd created, once again playing lawyer Jessica Griffin Harris on "As the World Turns." In 2000, Tunie landed the recurring role of Dr. Melinda Warner on the crime drama, "Law & Order: SVU." In 2005, after playing the role off and on for five seasons, Tunie was finally bumped up to a regular and received main cast billing, starting in the show's seventh season. For a brief period, Tunie also held down a third job, playing the recurring character of Alberta Green in the first season of "24" (Fox, 2001- ). In doing so, Tunie earned the distinction of being the only actor in television to appear simultaneously on three different series, for three different networks. Not surprisingly, however, the taxing effort of commuting back and forth from New York to Los Angeles every single week eventually began taking its toll. Forced to lighten her workload for her own health, Tunie left "24," which shot in L.A., after its first season, allowing her to remain full-time in New York, where both "World" and "Law & Order: SVU" were shot.
In addition to being twice nominated for the Soap Opera Digest Awards, Tunie was honored with two nominations for the NAACP Image Awards. In addition, she served as Vice-Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Figure Skating for Harlem, Inc. - a non-profit organization that teaches education and life skills to young girls in the Harlem community through the art of figure skating.
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