Leslie Uggams, first African-American performer to be featured on a weekly, national prime time TV series

Michael Eli Dokosi June 06, 2020
Leslie Uggams via John Mathew Smith

By 1969, Leslie Uggams, who had a taste of show business as early as six, had her own television variety show, The Leslie Uggams Show on CBS-TV. It was the first network variety show to be hosted by a black woman and the second African-American person to host a show since The Nat King Cole Show of the mid-1950s.

Earlier in 1951, Uggams played the niece of Ethel Waters on Beulah. She made her professional debut at six on Jack Barry’s NBC show Stars And Stardust. She also performed on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and Paul Whiteman’s TV Teen Show as well as The Lawrence Welk Show.

At age nine, Uggams opened for such musical notables like Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Louis Armstrong at the Apollo Theater in New York City. Another high for her was playing the lead role in Alex Haley’s 1977 miniseries Roots, for which she received an Emmy nomination playing Kunta Kinte’s daughter, Kizzy. She earned the Critics Choice Award (Best Supporting Actress).

Her singing credentials span reworking the Santa Baby song to Uncle Santa in 1954 as a ten-year-old and singing off-screen in Give Me That Old Time Religion in the film Inherit the Wind in 1960. Her records One More Sunrise and House Built on Sand made Billboard magazine’s charts.

She starred as Lillian Rogers Parks in the miniseries Backstairs at the White House, made guest appearances on such television programs as Family Guy, I Spy, Hollywood Squares, The Muppet Show, The Love Boat and Magnum. In 1982, Uggams won an Emmy as co-host of the NBC-TV series Fantasy.

Her film credits include roles in Skyjacked (1972), Black Girl (1972) and Poor Pretty Eddie (1975). She also appeared in Sugar Hill (1994) opposite Wesley Snipes, and played Blind Al in Deadpool (2016) in February 2016. In April 2016, she portrayed Leah Walker, the bipolar mother of Lucious Lyon in the hit Fox series Empire. Uggams appeared as Sadie in the 2017 television film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and in 2018, she returned as Blind Al in Deadpool 2.

On Broadway, Uggams made her musical theater debut starring in Hallelujah, Baby! The musical premiered on Broadway in 1967 and “created a new star” in Uggams. She won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a musical (in a tie with Patricia Routledge) as well as a Theater World award.

She also appeared on Broadway in the revue Blues in the Night in 1982 as well as Jerry Herman’s Jerry’s Girls in 1985.

Uggams was born in Harlem to Juanita Ernestine (Smith), a Cotton Club chorus girl/dancer and Harold Coyden Uggams, an elevator operator and maintenance man. She attended the Professional Children’s School of New York and Juilliard.

When Mitch Miller, head of recordings for Columbia Records saw her perform, he was so impressed by her vocal talents that he signed her to a 10-album recording contract and then made her a regular on Sing Along With Mitch. With that, Uggams became the first African-American performer to be regularly featured on a weekly, national prime time television series.

In her over six decades on stage and screen, Uggams has shared the stage with greats such as Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.

She’s also toured the country appearing in concert halls with major symphony orchestras. Uggams is married to Australian actor Grahame Pratt, who is also her manager.

She continues to tour nationally, performing to sold-out audiences, with her cabaret show Classic Uggams and her autobiographical one-woman musical Uptown/Downtown which have earned her the LA Drama Critics Circle Award, the NAACP Theatre Award, an IRNE Award, and Broadway World’s People’s Choice Award.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: June 6, 2020


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