Denise Nicholas (1944- ) is an American actress best known for the television shows “Room 222” in the early 1970s and “In the Heat of the Night” in the early 1990s.
In the middle 1960s she worked in the civil rights movement for two years and later wrote what is probably one of the best works of fiction about it, “Freshwater Road” (2005).
She is also a beauty (what eyes!), and one-time wife of singer Bill Withers. She appeared on the cover of Jet magazine at least ten times from 1960 to 1994:
Her main television shows:
1969-1974: “Room 222”: She played Miss Liz McIntyre, a high school guidance counselor. This made her one of the first black female leads on American television. She liked playing a black middle-class character, which was rare, but as a civil rights activist some said she was selling out. The show was written by whites but it was probably the first American television series to regularly show blacks as if their lives seriously mattered in and of themselves – not as something to laugh at or which only mattered through service to whites.
1977-1978: “Baby I’m Back”: a sitcom where she plays Olivia Ellis, the estranged wife of Raymond Ellis, played by Demond Wilson of “Sanford & Son”.
1993-1995: “In the Heat of the Night”: A police drama set in Sparta, Mississippi where she played councilwoman Harriet DeLong. She falls in love with police chief Bill Gillespie (Carroll O’Connor, famous for playing racist Archie Bunker). It was the best-known interracial couple on American television of the time. She wrote six episodes.
She made guest appearances on other shows too, like “It Takes a Thief” in 1968, “Rhoda” in 1975, “227” in 1988 and “Living Single” in 1997.
Film: She played supporting characters in films like “Blacula” (1972), “A Piece of the Action” (1977) and “Capricorn One” (1978). She was in love with Bill Cosby in “Let’s Do It Again” (1975) and “Ghost Dad” (1990).
Stage: Like Larry Fishburne, Angela Bassett and Phylicia Rashad, she got her start in acting in New York at the Negro Ensemble Company, an off-Broadway theatre by and for blacks.
Nicholas is from the west side of Detroit, not far from where Michael Eric Dyson is from. Her family later moved to Milan, Michigan, near the University of Michigan, where she later went.
In 1964 she went to Mississippi as part of Freedom Summer to register blacks to vote. She received death threats and one time a policeman held a gun to her head. This was the time and place where civil rights workers Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman were killed by the Klan and a year after Medgar Evers was shot dead because whites did not want blacks to vote.
Hollywood made that time and place into two White Saviour films: “The Help” (2011) and “Mississippi Burning” (1988), showing white heroes saving helpless blacks. Having lived it she made it into a novel, “Freshwater Road”, a thing of beauty and terror. It won a Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award.
Thanks to commenter Matari for reminding me about her on the Best Black Women on Television thread. Now I need to do a post on Nichelle Nichols too!