Born the middle child in Chicago, Illinois to working class parents, Laverne Scott grew up in the Woodlawn neighborhood on the South Side. At a high enrollment elementary school she attended the morning session, and her older siblings went to school in the afternoon. When the school released her at noon she was escorted to a neighborhood theater where she was minded by a friend of her mother. While attending Hyde Park High School, she joined the drama club. Her class went to see a performance of A Day of Absence, featuring Douglas Turner Ward, a co-founder of The Negro Ensemble Company. It was the first time she saw professional black actors on stage. After graduating high school in 1967, she attended Northwestern University. She left after one year and went to work full-time as an operator at Illinois Bell. She got married and had a son. She transferred her credits to Loyola University-Chicago and earned a bachelor's degree in Theater Arts and Communications.
Caldwell started her career in 1978 as a member of the famed Negro Ensemble Company, making her Broadway debut two years later in the Tony Award nominated play Home. She has starred in world premier and regional productions across the country, including works by Wole Soyinda, Athol Fugard, Neil Simon, and Regina Taylor. Caldwell earned a degree in Theater Arts and Communications from Loyola University Chicago. She has an extensive background in theater, feature films, and television. Her film credits include Waiting to Exhale, The Net, The Fugitive, Like Dandelion Dust and Powder Blue. In 2010, Caldwell played the lead role in the short film Lisa Trotter, directed by fellow Chicagoan Hawthorne James. Caldwell had recurring roles on Judging Amy, Lost, The Secret Life of the American Teenager and Southland. She has guest-starred in over fifty television series episodes and made for television movies including JAG, Chicago Hope, City of Angels and Promised Land. Her additional television credits include The Practice, Any Day Now, Murder One, The Pretender, ER, Nip/Tuck, L.A. Law, Ghost Whisperer, Cold Case, Saving Grace, State of Mind, and The Cosby Show. In 2003, she was a cast as a main character, Judge Rose Barnea, in the CBS series Queens Supreme. In Broadway, Caldwell won a 1988 Tony Award for her portrayal of Bertha Holly in Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Her other Broadway credits include Proposals, A Month of Sundays and Home. She has also appeared off Broadway in About Heaven & Earth, Colored People's Time, Old Phantoms, A Season to Unravel, The Imprisonment of Obatala" and Going to St. Ives. Her most recent appearances have been in the television series Southland and The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and films Powder Blue, Like Dandelion Dust, and Gridiron Gang. Caldwell is most widely known for her portrayal of Rose on Lost. In May 2014, she appeared in the world-premiere stage adaptation of sci-fi icon Ursula LeGuin's classic The Wife's Tale at Sci-Fest LA: The Los Angeles Science Fiction One-Act Play Festival.