The Irresistible Leslie Uggams: Celebrating 75 Years in Show Business,
Stormy Weather or Not, She Manages to Bring Out the Sun.
By: Ellis Nassour
January 26, 2024: For an unbelievable 75 years, the indefatigable Leslie Uggams has covered all the bases in the game of show business. She began onstage while in the first grade, segued to becoming one of the most seen and beloved singers on countless TV variety shows – and even had her own, starred and guest starred in countless TV shows.
She’s also a best-selling recording artist, Vegas headliner, cover girl (TV Guide and Newsweek), and a Tony and Emmy winner and Golden Globe nominee, and had she had another poignant scene in the Oscar-nominated 2023 smash American Fiction opposite Oscar nominee Jeffrey Wright and ground-breaking Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown (for TV’s The Last of Us) she would be on every list as a Featured Actress nominee.
Then, there was playing Kizzy in one of TV’s ground-breaking events hits, 1976’s TV mini-series Roots. “That was extraordinary. Getting to know Alex Haley was thrilling.” The role won her an Emmy nomination for Best Leading Actress.
Of her early ground-breaking roles that eventually made her a household name, Sammy Davis Jr. said, “The first great step has happened with Leslie Uggams. Everybody identifies with her. Because of her infectious smile and vocal talent, she was invited long before the norm into nearly every household in America. Leslie bridged a very important space.”
[Incidentally, Uggams “fell madly in love” with Davis when she saw him on Broadway in Golden Boy.]
Uggams was honored to be invited to perform at the Kennedy and George H.W. Bush White House.
Going back to the beginning, Leslie Uggams’ professional career began at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre on the bill with legends such Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington. She was six and held her own as if she was 60.
Looking back on over three quarters of a century of memories, she discusses her ups and downs.
A “born and raised New Yorker,” as she likes to say, Uggams grew up in a four-room apartment in Washington Heights. Her father was an elevator operator, maintenance man, and a member of the Hall Johnson Choir “in their pre-movie days.” Her mother was a waitress and Cotton Club chorus girl. “We had a modest but stable life, where somehow my parents always made ends meet.”
As a tot, Uggams sang along to records, impressing family and their friends with a remarkably mature voice. She sang in church. Tap lessons led to appearances on NBC’s Milton Berle Show. At 10, she had best-selling records, such as “Missus Santa Claus,” “Every Little Piggy Has a Curly Tail” and “Easter Bunny Days.” In 1951, she made her acting debut on TV’s landmark Beulah.
“I played Ethel Waters’ niece and the producers wanted my hair in ‘pickaninny’ braids,” she recalls. “Miss Waters said, “Absolutely not! She has beautiful curls. That’s how it is going to be on the show.’ I was impressed with her even as a child. She invited mother and me to see her on Broadway in Member of the Wedding. It was an extraordinary performance and made quite an impact on me.”
[Grave-voiced Dooley Wilson, Sam the piano man in Casablanca (“As Time Goes By”), was Uggams’ boyfriend on Beulah; and Uggams and Brandon De Wilde, who played John Henry in Member of the Wedding were friends in school.]
Her first Broadway show was Porgy and Bess. “I was enthralled by Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway — and my aunt Eloise Uggams [Blackbirds of 1929] in the ensemble; and the incredible Gershwin music. That’s when the bug bit!” She says that her aunt wanted her to study opera “and become another Marian Anderson, but I wasn’t leaning that way.”
After third grade, Uggams attended Professional Children’s School, where she became friends with Mary Martin’s daughter Helen “and got to see tons of Broadway shows.” Soon, she was “going to auditions. I got lots of kiddie roles. I grew up with Gregory and Maurice Hines. We were the token black kids.”
At 14, she won $25,000 as a contestant on Name That Tune. She laughs, “The excitement in the neighborhood was like in the movies when everyone opens their windows and shouts the news!”
In 1961, while studying at Julliard, Uggams got the break that made her made her America’s sweetheart. Bandleader Mitch Miller broke TV color-barrier taboos and cast her on his weekly Sing Along with Mitch. She became an immediate hit with audiences. However, many stations in the South refused to air the show. Uggams reports, “Mitch told the network, ‘Leslie stays or there’s no show.’”
In the late 60s, Uggams starred in her own variety series. Slotted opposite Bonanza, it lasted a season.
TV stardom came at a price. “Being an African American performer on TV,” she says, “was a great honor, but also a heavy load. A lot was expected of me. I found it all frustrating. I was singing, singing, singing, but, more than anything, I wanted to act. I’d been studying since I was eight and all through my teens.”
That dream became a reality when she starred out West in The Boyfriend. “My notices were wonderful,” says Uggams, “and word filtered back to New York where gossip was spreading that Lena Horne had bowed out of a show and David Merrick was looking for a leading lady.”
Appearing in Atlantic City, Uggams suddenly found “all these Broadway folks coming to check me out. Then I got a call to audition. While I was reading, Mr. Merrick fell asleep. I thought, ‘I’m never going to get this part.’ But, next thing I knew, he was out and there were new producers. And the role was mine.”
The show was 1967’s Hallelujah, Baby!, a cavalcade of African-Americana from the turn of the 20th Century to the late 60s with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden and book by Arthur Laurents. “I was 23 and on Broadway in a show written by legends. I couldn’t believe it.” She won the Tony.
Other career highlights: the short-lived, much under-appreciated musical Her First Roman  as Cleopatra and Jerry’s Girls  with Dorothy Loudon and Chita Rivera. When she replaced Sheryl Lee Ralph in 2003 mid run of Thoroughly Modern Millie, you waited an hour for her entrance. But what an entrance! The set parted and there was Uggams, as 20s vamp Muzzie Van Hossmere wearing a jaw-dropping white fox coat. When she threw that coat open with great abandon, it was as if time stopped. In that sequin-studded, tight-fitting black, white and silver dress, she looked as she if she was an ingénue,
As she proved on Broadway in August Wilson’s King Hedley II [opposite Brian Stokes Mitchell and Viola Davis], as Ethel Thayer in the revival of On Golden Pond [opposite James Earl Jones], and in the blistering revival of Leslie Lee’s semi-autobiographical The First Breeze of Summer, Uggams never had a problem playing drama or older. The challenge is getting audiences to believe she’s older. Now, in American Fiction, she plays her age so effectively and lends such a golden presence you wonder why there isn’t more.
Uggams says she’s “fortunate that things seem to naturally come my way. It helps that I’m receptive to the right projects. So many talented actresses have had a difficult time, I consider myself blessed that in every decade I’ve been able to be doing something exciting.”
And it’s been a good, exciting life. “I wasn’t denied anything. I feel just the opposite. I look at what it’s given me. One thing it did was save me from being a thug. I lived in a tough neighborhood! No telling what I’d have gotten into. Back then, I had no idea I’d ever be in such a wonderful place and still doing what I love most.
“I have to admit that as much as I loved doing theater, eight shows a week for months is not easy. What I loved was going out to a different audience every show and having to win them over. It was deliver or else. You’re up there with no place to go. You’re challenged every performance.“
With glamour, grace, and an inner fire that has blazed a trail for generations, Leslie Uggams has never failed to amaze and delight.