Actress and singer Leslie Uggams reflects on her career, Roots, and being unpredictable.
In 1969, Leslie Uggams made television history when she became the first African-American woman to star in her own variety series.
CBS had just canceled The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour — executives considered it politically controversial — and Uggams, a rising star who’d won a Tony award the year before, was offered the timeslot.
While her moment in the spotlight would be short-lived — The Leslie Uggams Show was canceled after 10 weeks — the performer would go on to a rich career of singing, dancing and acting. Less than a decade later, she would be nominated for an Emmy for her work in ABC’s historic miniseries Roots, portraying a slave who, in one scene, is torn away from her family — a scene that would become one of TV’s most iconic.
Born in New York City, Uggams had only to look to her parents for inspiration: her father, whose various jobs included elevator operator, sang with the local choir; her mother performed on Broadway.
At age three, she began to sing and at five, she was already auditioning for shows. “My parents got me into the business because they wanted to keep me occupied,” she says. “I was knock-kneed, so my mother believed if I took dance lessons, that would straighten everything out.”
Uggams was interviewed in June 2016 by producer for The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of that conversation.
Q: How did you get your start in television?
A: At that time, there were a lot of dancing schools for kids, and producers would go to pick out kids to audition. I was at auditions with Gregory and Maurice Hines, who were like brothers to me. Maurice and I used to get picked every time for Texaco Star Theater. That’s how I started doing TV.
I had won a contest and got an opportunity to be on Arthur Godfrey’s radio show. Then, when I was 10, I was on Your Show of Shows . Milton Berle always had segments where he used kids. I learned television very early because they used a lot of children.
Q: In 1951 you had a role on Beulah, an ABC comedy starring Ethel Waters….
A: Yes, I was six. They needed somebody to play the niece. That was my first time on television. She was very sweet to me and my mother, and whenever she would perform, she would invite us to watch her sing at these soirees.
Q: Early on, you were also seen on a talent show, TV Teen Club, hosted by Paul Whiteman….
A: Yes, it was a contest, and I won a refrigerator and a freezer. I had one more week before I would win the car, a Nash Rambler. But an African-American boy had won for tap dancing, and the sponsors decided they did not want to give a car to another African-American kid. It was between me and a trumpet player, and the trumpet player won. I watched from the stage, and I saw that they [fixed] the clock when it was my turn so the clock couldn’t move.
A: I was very disappointed, but my mother said, “Don’t you cry. Don’t you worry about it.” Later, I had to laugh — my parents couldn’t drive! What were they going to do with a car? It was bad enough with the freezer. We couldn’t even get the thing into the building where we lived. We had to sell the freezer and the refrigerator. So it was not meant to be.
Q: Another early show for you was Name That Tune ….
A: My parents and I would watch the show, and one night they said that if you sent in a certain number of songs, maybe your name would be picked. As a lark, I wrote some songs and sent them. Then, one night we were sitting there watching and they said to the contestant, “If you name these seven songs, your partner next week will be Leslie Uggams.”
I remember running out of the house and down to the corner. There were some friends there who had watched the show, and they said, “They mentioned your name!” I said, “I know!” That’s how I got on Name That Tune.
Q: What do you remember about your time on the show?
A: The first week I was there, I sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and the mail that came in from the audience was unbelievable. That’s how I got discovered by Mitch Miller — he kept hearing about the little chocolate girl that was on Name That Tune.
He had me do some demonstration records. He was head of Columbia Records at the time, and he signed me to a recording contract. I was 15, and my first album came out on my 16th birthday.
Q: You were also part of a Mitch Miller special that later became Sing Along with Mitch ….
A: Mitch had been trying to sell the show for four years, and nobody was interested. At the time, NBC had all these specials with big stars, but they weren’t getting the ratings. It came down to, “Okay, put that show on that Mitch Miller is trying to sell us.” The ratings went through the roof. I wasn’t supposed to be a regular, but the mail came in and Mitch said, “You’re going to be a regular.”
Q: In our interview with Mitch Miller, he said there were some objections to your being on the show, because of your race. Were you aware of that at the time?
A: No. I didn’t know until two years in that the sponsors and the network were trying to get rid of me. Because of me, the show wasn’t being shown in the South. They had blacked it out, no pun intended.
Naturally, they wanted it to air nationwide, so they would come to him every week with a different scenario: “Maybe if you put her in her own skit, then we could do like they did with Lena Horne in the movies…” — they would cut out her scenes in the version shown in the South. Mitch said no.
They then said, “In the sing-along, do you have to touch her?” We did some great numbers together, and Mitch said, “We’re a family.” Finally, he said, “If there’s no Leslie, there’s no show.”
Q: Were there other instances in which you experienced discrimination, particularly in your early career?
A: Yeah, there were times when it was, “Go around to the back. Do not come in the front way” — that kind of thing. When I did Beulah, they wanted me to wear my hair in “pickaninny” braids. Ethel Waters said, “You see how her mother has her hair? That’s how she’s going to be wearing her hair.”
There was still a lot of prejudice going on. Nat King Cole had a fabulous show, and even though he had some of the top people as guest stars, he couldn’t get a sponsor. So, when I did Sing Along with Mitch, it was the first time nationally that you would see an African-American woman singing on TV every week. That was quite a step.
Q: You then got your own show, The Leslie Uggams Show… .
A: Yes and no. At the time, I had a deal with CBS to come up with a sitcom. But then the Smothers Brothers got fired because they were being too political. The next thing I knew, my agent was saying, “You’re going to have your own variety show. You’re taking over for the Smothers Brothers.”
Q: Did you see the show as playing a part in the civil rights movement?
A: You want to talk about civil rights? What they put me through before I even did the show was unbelievable! My manager and I went to lunch with the head of the network — I’ll never forget it. He said, “Well, you’re not so bad-looking. You’re not pretty, but we’ll do something with you.” They put me through so many changes before I even got on the air.
The one thing that I was determined to do was to hire African-Americans. I had a black cameraman, which had never happened before. I also had a black choreographer. We had integrated dancers on the show, and I had a fabulous writer, John Amos [Good Times, Roots]. The music conductor was black. The show only lasted 10 weeks, but we got to hire talented people.
Q: Did you get mail from viewers?
A: I never saw any mail from CBS. I’m sure there were people who were not thrilled about it. Unbeknownst to us, we were there to take the heat off the fact that the Smothers Brothers had been fired. You bring in a black woman and that shut that up.
But they had plans for Hee Haw — I was sitting in the dentist’s office and read that we’d been canceled. What a way to tell somebody! But those ten weeks were a great experience, and I learned a lot.
Q: Besides The Nat King Cole Show, a few other shows were headlined by African-Americans, but they were all men. You were the first African-American woman to have her own variety show.
A: Yes, that was major. That’s how I met Bob Mackie and Ray Aghayan — great designers who later went on to do my clothes. But it was something to have that opportunity. We tried to do the best shows we could possibly do, but we knew we were having some ratings problems, compared to what they wanted.
Q: How did you come to be cast in Roots?
A: I was watching The Dinah Shore Show, and Richard Pryor was on. He had brought Alex Haley, a friend of his who had just written a book called Roots. They were talking about finding your roots — I was fascinated by the subject.
Then Alex Haley said, “ABC has bought the rights to do this as a show.” Later that day I mentioned it to my manager, then I went off to do some concert appearances. When I came back, my husband said, “You have an audition for Roots.”
Q: And how did you land the role of Kizzy, the daughter of Kunta Kinte?
A: I met with Lynn Stalmaster, the casting director, and one of the directors. They said, “Here are three parts. Read them and then come back tomorrow.” I came back the following day and they said, “Which one do you want to read for?” I said, ”Kizzy.”
To get the part, I had to be able to age, so I would look like Ben Vereen’s mother. They set up the screen test. I went in for makeup, and they applied glue and used a hair dryer to make wrinkles on my face. When I got dressed and they put this gray wig on me, I looked like a mummy.
I went home in tears. I said to my husband, “I’m going to lose this part because the makeup people don’t know how to do my makeup.”
My husband said, “I’m going to find out who did Cicely Tyson’s makeup for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.” It was Stan Winston. They gave me an opportunity to do another screen test, and Stan agreed to do the makeup. It was wonderful and I got the part. Thank God for Stan Winston. I went through hell to get there, but it was worth it.
Q: When did you first meet Alex Haley?
A: I met Alex the first day I was on the set, and I fell in love. What a wonderful, interesting, gentle man. People adored him. It was one of those sets where there was an energy about it. I used to talk to him a lot. Ben Vereen and I would drive him crazy.
Q: What did you do to imagine Kizzy and make the character your own?
A: From the time I read the script, it was like she became a part of me. I knew what was right for that character. She was strong. She didn’t let herself be a victim. I wanted to make sure that I got to tell that story — that even when terrible things happen, you can turn it around.
But every night I came home in tears. It made me realize why my grandmother never wanted to talk about what it was like when she was young.
She was one of 10 children, and the man who owned the plantation where they lived was the father of her mother’s children. He built the school on the property, and they were all educated — they became doctors and lawyers and dentists. But I could never get her to talk about what it was like.
Q: Tell us about filming one of the most famous scenes, in which Kizzy is sold and taken away in a wagon. How many takes did you do?
A: We only did two, luckily, because the next day I was so bruised. I just can’t imagine having children and then somebody decides, “Well, as a punishment, we’re taking your children away.” Back then, once you were sent away, you were away. There was no telephone; you were not supposed to be able to write.
I almost fainted when they said, “Cut!” because it was overwhelming. Sandy Duncan[who played the plantation owner’s niece, Missy Anne] told me that after that scene, there was a hush on the set. People were like, “I can’t believe this is happening.” Sandy said to me, “If I had really known this was part of what I was playing, I don’t know if I would have done it.”
Q: What was the relationship like between Missy Anne and Kizzy?
A: Kizzy knew that she was a slave and Missy Anne was wealthy, but they were best friends. They played together with their dolls, and Missy Anne was teaching her how to write and said, “I love you so much, Kizzy.” So, she thought they were equal. And she looked for the moment when her best friend was going to say, “You can’t sell her — that’s my friend!”
And Missy Anne does nothing because she’s ticked off that Kizzy would dare write a note for somebody. Kizzy’s mother had been trying to tell her, “She is not your friend. You may play together, but she is not your friend.”
Q: Years later, Kizzy and Missy Anne meet up again….
A: That’s the best scene. Missy Anne wants some water, and I go get the water and think, “You did all this to me and you’re still not acknowledging me? You don’t recognize me?” Kizzy has a little glimmer of hope that maybe Missy Anne will say something. Then Kizzy thinks, “You’re nothing to me, either.” And she spits in the cup of water. I love that.
Q: Chuck Connors played Tom Moore — you had a difficult scene with him.
A: Chuck was sweet to me when we weren’t filming. Because that was a hard scene to do, really hard, but he did it so well. That was one of my toughest scenes, when he rapes me. There was nothing she could do about it, and he wouldn’t let her leave the plantation and go someplace else. Then, of course, she has [her son] Chicken George and she has to see this man constantly.
Q: Why was Roots such a success?
A: Because America was shown the history that they were trying to keep quiet. And for African-Americans, connecting Africa with America was important — seeing where they came from and the good life they led, and then to be shown how these people were put on these ships, how they survived… then, when they got here, how they were sold like a piece of meat.
In many ways people were like, “How did this happen?” People started talking and wanted answers.
Q: You’ve continued to appear on television. How did your role as Lucious Lyon’s mother on Fox’s Empire come about?
A: They asked for me. I love that show. I watched it from the very first episode. And I’m having a ball. I love this character, Leah Walker — she’s something else. And people have responded to her, which is fascinating.
Q: Have you had mentors during your career?
A: Everybody I worked with was a mentor, because I always learn something. I’m a risk- taker — I like jumping off the cliff and figuring out how I’ll land. I like to reinvent myself. I don’t like to do what I did 20 years ago. I like playing against type, such as playing Blind Al in Deadpool — I have friends who went to the movie and then said, “Oh, my God, that was you!” I like not being predictable.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2017
To watch Leslie Uggams's full interview, click here.