Denise Nicholas

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Denise Nicholas
Nicholas in 2011
Donna Denise Nicholas

(1944-07-12) July 12, 1944 (age 77)
OccupationActress, social activist
Years active1968–2004

Donna Denise Nicholas (born July 12, 1944) is a retired American actress, author, and social activist who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement.[1]

She is known primarily for her roles as high-school guidance counselor Liz McIntyre on the ABC comedy-drama series Room 222 and Councilwoman Harriet DeLong on the NBC/CBS drama series In the Heat of the Night.

Early life[edit]

Nicholas was born in Detroit to Louise Carolyn and Otto Nicholas.[1] She spent her early years in Detroit. With the remarriage of her mother to Robert Burgen, she moved to Milan, Michigan, a small town south of Ann Arbor.[2]

At the age of 16, she appeared on the August 25, 1960, cover of Jet magazine as a future school teacher prospect at the National High School Institute at Northwestern University.[3] She graduated from Milan High School in 1961. Nicholas is the middle child of three, with an older brother, Otto, and a younger sister, Michele, who was murdered in 1980.[4]

She entered the University of Michigan as a Pre-Law student. She then switched her major to Latin-American politics, Spanish, and English before dropping out after just one completed academic year. Nicholas moved to New York City, and worked for the J. Walter Thompson (JWT) advertising firm.[2] She subsequently transferred to Tulane University, where she majored in Fine Arts. Her acting debut was in a Spanish-language play presented by her language class.[3]

She dropped out of Tulane University as well, this time to join the Free Southern Theater (FST), during the Civil Rights Movement.[5] After spending two years touring the deep South with the FST, Nicholas went to New York City and joined the Negro Ensemble Company, working in all productions during the first season of that theatre ensemble.[4][6][7][8][9]

From the stage of the St. Mark's Playhouse in New York, Nicholas was cast as Liz McIntyre, the Guidance Counselor on ABC series Room 222. Nicholas received her Bachelor of Arts in Drama from the University of Southern California Theater Program in 1987, after living in Southern California for a number of years.[4][10]


Nicholas began her television acting career in 1968, with an episode of It Takes a Thief.

Nicholas had three consecutive (1970–1972) Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress in a Drama TV Series, for her role as Liz McIntyre on the ABC comedy-drama series Room 222. Following Room 222 (1969–1974), she won two Image Awards in 1976 for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture and Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series, for her role as Beth Foster in Let's Do It Again (1975).[11] Nicholas also played Olivia Ellis on Baby... I'm Back!, a sitcom that aired on CBS in 1978[12]

Nicholas wrote the song "Can We Pretend," which her then-husband Bill Withers recorded on his 1974 album +'Justments.[13]

She later appeared as Harriet DeLong in the cast of NBC/CBS' In the Heat of the Night (1989–1995). Nicholas wrote six episodes of the series, beginning her second career as a writer.[14] When that show was cancelled, she enrolled in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, eventually finding her way to the Journeymen's Writing Workshop under the tutelage of author Janet Fitch. She worked with Fitch for five years. Nicholas also attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Workshop, and the Natalie Goldberg Workshop, in Taos, New Mexico.

Her first novel, Freshwater Road, was published by Agate Publishing, in August 2005. it received a starred review in Publishers Weekly and was selected as one of the best books of 2005 by The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Newsday and the Chicago Tribune. The novel won the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award for debut fiction in 2006, as well as the American Library Association's Black Caucus Award for debut fiction the same year. Freshwater Road was reprinted by Pocket Books.

Brown University commissioned Nicholas to write a staged adaptation of Freshwater Road, which was presented in May 2008.

Personal life[edit]

At 19, Nicholas dropped out of the University of Michigan and signed up with the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans, headed by Gilbert Moses, whom she married in May 1964 at the American Theater in New York, and divorced in 1967.[15][2]

Nicholas married soul singer-songwriter Bill Withers on January 17, 1973.[16][17] Their relationship had been volatile prior to their nuptials. In November 1972, Nicholas reported to authorities that Withers flew to Tucson, Arizona where she was filming The Soul of Nigger Charley, and beat her in her motel room after she threatened to end their relationship over the telephone; she refused to press charges.[18][19] The marriage ended in divorce, filed in April 1974, and finalized in December 1974.[16][20]

In February 1980, Nicholas's younger sister Michele Burgen, a 26-year-old editor for Ebony magazine, was shot to death. Her body was found in a locked rental car at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. Nicholas and her older brother Otto searched the country for clues, but no suspect was ever taken to trial.[4]

While coping with the loss of her sister, Nicholas met CBS sports anchor Jim Hill at a Sacramento poetry reading in June 1980.[4] They married on Valentine's Day in 1981.[21][22] The couple separated in October 1981 and she filed for divorce, before reconciling soon after.[23][24] Nicholas filed for divorce again in 1984. The divorce was final in 1987.[4][10]

Acting credits[edit]




Year Production Playwright Role Theatre(s) Notes
1982 Dame Lorraine[1] Steve Carter Angela Moulineaux Los Angeles Actors Theatre
1968 Song of the Lusitanian Bogey[25] St. Mark's Playhouse Revival of earlier production.
Daddy Goodness[26] Lena St. Mark's Playhouse
Kongi's Harvest[27] Wole Soyinka Praise Singer St. Mark's Playhouse
Song of the Lusitanian Bogey[28] St. Mark's Playhouse
1967 One Last Look[29] Steve Carter April Baylor Old Reliable Theater Tavern
1966 Viet Rock[30] Megan Terry Martinique Theatre


  1. ^ a b c d "Denise Nicholas biography"., which notes "Some sources give 1945.". Retrieved July 8, 2012.
  2. ^ a b c Nicholas, D. (2007, May 19). The HistoryMakers® Video Oral History Interview with Denise Nicholas. by Julieanna L. Richardson (9 Betacam SP videocassettes (4:23:50)). Identification: A2007_177. The HistoryMakers, Chicago, Illinois.
  3. ^ a b Johnson, John H., ed. (November 27, 1969). Jet. Chicago, Illinois: Johnson Publishing Company Inc. 37 (8): 56–58.CS1 maint: untitled periodical (link)
  4. ^ a b c d e f Park, Jeannie; Armstrong, Lois (May 7, 1990). "In the Heat of the Night's Eerie Parallels to Her Sister's Murder Allow Actress Denise Nicholas to Finally Conquer Her Grief". People. 33 (18). Retrieved July 8, 2012.
  5. ^ Jacobs, H. (1966, July 31). Setting: A Ghetto Named Desire. New York Times, pp. 87.
  6. ^ Paisley, Laura. "The Civil Rights Experience of Novelist Denise Nicholas Inspired Her Artistry: The alumna's involvement with social causes led to a successful career as an actress and writer". Los Angeles, California: University of Southern California, April 5, 2016.
  7. ^ Barnes, C. (1968, January 3). Theater: 'Lusitanian Bogey' Opens: Peter Weiss Denounces Portugal in Africa. New York Times, p. 52.
  8. ^ Barnes, C. (1968, June 5). Theater: 'Daddy Goodness' Has St. Marks Premiere: Negro Troupe Essays a Religious Theme. New York Times, p. 37.
  9. ^ Ward, D.T. (1968, September 1). 'Being Criticized Was To Be Expected...': Criticism Was Expected' New York Times, p. D1.
  11. ^ "Three Big Surprises Mark NAACP Image Awards Show". Jet. 49 (22). February 26, 1976.
  12. ^ Smith, C. (1978, January 26). Denise Nicholas and Sitcoms: She Is Back: Denise Nicholas: Back to a Sitcom. Los Angeles Times, p. E1.
  13. ^ Neal, Mark Anthony (April 4, 2020). "Bill Withers' Legacy Is So Much Deeper Than The Hits We All Know". NPR Music. Retrieved December 26, 2020.
  14. ^ Mendoza, N.F. (1994, January 16). WITH AN EYE ON . . . 'In the Heat of the Night's' Denise Nicholas finds the positive in past and present: [Orange County Edition]. Los Angeles Times, p. 80.
  15. ^ Wiltz, Teresa (October 25, 2005). "Denise Nicholas, Mind, Body and Soul". The Washington Post.
  16. ^ a b "Divorce Action Splits Singer Bill Withers, Actress Denise Nichols". Jet. 46 (6): 15. May 2, 1974.
  17. ^ Greene, Andy (April 14, 2015). "Bill Withers: The Soul Man Who Walked Away". Rolling Stone. Retrieved October 20, 2019.
  18. ^ "Room 222 star refuses to charge singing artist in alleged beating". Indianapolis Recorder. November 12, 1972.
  19. ^ "'Not Denying It,' TV Star Says Of Alleged Beating". Jet. 43 (9): 58. November 23, 1972.
  20. ^ Petitioner: Denise Nicholas Withers vs. Respondent: William Harrison Withers. Case Number: D 844 387. Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles. Final Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage entered in Judgment Book Number 6981, Page 34, on December 18, 1974
  21. ^ County of Los Angeles, Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Local Registrar's Number: 3721. State File Number: 9715. Groom: Jim W. Hill. Bride: Denise Nicholas. Marriage: February 14, 1981. California, Marriage Index, 1960-1985 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007. Original data: State of California. California Marriage Index, 1960-1985. Microfiche. Center for Health Statistics, California Department of Health Services, Sacramento, California.
  22. ^ (1981, March 5). Actress Denise Nicholas Marries TV Sportscaster in Story Book Wedding. "Jet." 59 (25). p. 62(2).
  23. ^ "Denise Nicholas Files For Divorce From Sportscaster". Jet. 61 (9): 61. November 19, 1981.
  24. ^ "Actress Denise Nicholas Reconciles With Husband". Jet. 61 (13): 26. December 17, 1981.
  25. ^ "Song of the Lusitanian Bogey (Revival)". New York, New York: Lortel Archives: The Internet Off-Broadway Database. Archived from the original on September 14, 2007. Retrieved December 5, 2009.
  26. ^ "Daddy Goodness". New York, New York: Lortel Archives: The Internet Off-Broadway Database. Archived from the original on October 7, 2012. Retrieved December 5, 2009.
  27. ^ "Kongi's Harvest". New York, New York: Lortel Archives: The Internet Off-Broadway Database. Archived from the original on September 17, 2007. Retrieved December 5, 2009.
  28. ^ "Song of the Lusitanian Bogey (Original Production)". New York, New York: Lortel Archives: The Internet Off-Broadway Database. Archived from the original on September 11, 2007. Retrieved December 5, 2009.
  29. ^ Carter, Steve (1986). Plays by Steve Carter. New York, New York: Broadway Play Publishing, Inc. pp. 81–104. ISBN 0-88145-043-X.
  30. ^ "Viet Rock". New York, New York: Lortel Archives: The Internet Off-Broadway Database. Archived from the original on October 7, 2012. Retrieved December 5, 2009.

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