Nicholas, Denise 1944–

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Nicholas, Denise 1944–

(Denise Nicholas Hill, Denise Nicholas-Hill)

PERSONAL: Born July 12, 1944, in Detroit, MI (some sources say Delaware); daughter of Otto Nicholas and Louise Carolyn Burgen; married Gilbert Moses (a theater artistic director), 1964 (divorced, 1965); married Bill Withers (a singer; divorced); married Jim Hill (a sportscaster), 1981. Education: Attended University of Michigan, 1962–64; University of Southern California, B.A. in drama, 1987; trained for the stage with Paul Mann and Lloyd Richards; studied dance with Louis Johnson and voice with Kristan Linklater at the Negro Ensemble Company.

ADDRESSES: HomeLos Angeles, CA. Agent—c/o Paul Kohner, Inc., 9300 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 555, Beverly Hills, CA 90212.

CAREER: Actress, writer, and producer. Appeared in productions with Media Forum Players, CA, and at Old Reliable Theatre Tavern, New York City; member of original acting company, Negro Ensemble Company, New York City, 1967–68; artist-in-residence, Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute, 1987–88; acting teacher, University of Southern California, 1987–89; founding member, Free Southern Theatre, New Orleans, LA; founder and co-owner, Masai Films, Inc., Hollywood, CA; producer, Artists and Athletes against Apartheid: A Benefit, Beverly Wilshire Hotel; producer, The Media Forum Presents, Wilshire Ebell Hotel. Chair, Fourth Annual American Airlines/Jet Celebrity Tennis Classic, United Negro College Fund Super Tennis Week, 1978; secretary, Negro Ensemble Company; works with Neighbors of Watts, Inc. (an organization for the care of children); and worked as a secretary for J. Walter Thompson. Sometimes works under name Denise Nicholas-Hill.

Film appearances include Blacula, American International Pictures, 1972; The Soul of Nigger Charley, Paramount, 1973; Mr. Ricco, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1975; Let's Do It Again, Warner Bros., 1975; A Piece of the Action, Warner Bros., 1977; Capricorn One, Warner Bros., 1978; Marvin and Tige, Lorimar, 1983; Ghost Dad, 1990; Ritual, Gotham Entertainment, 2000; Proud, 2004. Film work includes work as producer of short films, all with Masai Films: Navy Junior R.O.T.C. and Welcome Aboard, both for the U.S. Navy; Aquarius, for Mattel Electronics; The Road Rapper, for the California Department of Highways; also Doing Business in Nigeria.

Television series appearances include Room 222, ABC, 1969–74; Baby, I'm Back, CBS, 1978; In the Heat of the Night, 1989–94; The Rockford Files, NBC, 1997; Failure to Communicate, NBC, 2002. Also appeared in Yes, Inc., PBS. TV movie appearances include Five Desperate Women, ABC, 1971; Ring of Passion, 1978; Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, 1981; Super-carrier, 1988; Mother's Day, 1989; On Thin Ice: The Tai Babilonia Story, NBC, 1990; In the Heat of the Night: A Matter of Justice, CBS, 1994; In the Heat of the Night: Who Was Geli Bendl?, CBS, 1994; In the Heat of the Night: By Duty Bound, CBS, 1995; In the Heat of the Night: Grow Old along with Me, CBS, 1995; The Rockford Files: Murder and Misdemeanors, CBS, 1997. Appearances on TV miniseries include The Sophisticated Gents, NBC, 1981. Appearances on TV specials include Battle of the Network Stars IV, 1978; The Big Stuffed Dog, 1980; And the Children Shall Lead, PBS, 1985; Heart and Soul, 1989; The Nineteenth Annual Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1992. Appearances on TV pilots include Jacqueline Susann's "Valley of the Dolls," CBS, 1981. Also appeared in Over Here, Mr. President, HBO. Appearances on episodic television include "To Catch a Roaring Lion," It Takes a Thief, ABC, 1968; "Eye of the Storm," The F.B.I., ABC, 1969; "Logoda's Heads," Night Gallery, 1971; "A Community of Victims," Police Story, 1975; "Substitute Mother," Diff'rent Strokes, NBC, 1980; "I Witness," Magnum, P.I., 1984; "Birthday Blues," The Cosby Show, 1989; "Plates," B.L. Stryker, 1990; "Here's to Old Friends," A Different World, NBC, 1990; "My Dinner with Mark," Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, ABC, 1992; Storytime, PBS, 1994; "A Kiss Is Just a Kiss," The Parent 'Hood, The WB, 1995; "One Degree of Separation" and "Never Can Say Goodbye," Living Single, Fox, 1997. Also appeared in N.Y.P.D., ABC; Rhoda, CBS; Marcus Welby, M.D., ABC; One Day at a Time, CBS; The Paper Chase, CBS; The Love Boat, ABC; Masquerade, ABC; and Benson, ABC.

Stage appearances include Viet Rock, Martinique Theatre, 1966; The Song of the Lusitanian Bogey, Negro Ensemble Company, St. Mark's Playhouse, New York City, 1967; Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Negro Ensemble Company, St. Mark's Playhouse, 1968; Kongi's Harvest, Negro Ensemble Company, St. Mark's Playhouse, 1968; Daddy Goodness, Negro Ensemble Company, St. Mark's Playhouse, 1968; Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, Negro Ensemble Company, Pocket Theatre, New York City, 1968 then St. Mark's Playhouse, 1969; Dame Lorraine, Los Angeles Actors Theatre, Los Angeles, CA, 1982; Long Time Since Yesterday, New Federal Theatre, New York City, 1985; The Ohio State Murders, American Repertory Theatre, Hasty Pudding Theatre, Cambridge, MA, 2000. Also appeared in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute; in Poetry Show, Judson Poets Theatre, New York City; and in Buses, University of Southern California. Major tours include In White America, Free Southern Theatre, U.S. cities, 1964; Three Boards and a Passion, U.S. cities, 1966. Also appeared in Purlie Victorious, The Rifles of Senora Carrar, Does Man Help Man?, and Shadow of a Gunman, all Free Southern Theatre, U.S. cities; in An Evening of Afro-American Poetry and Song, Free Southern Theatre, U.S. cities; and assistant stage manager, Waiting for Godot, Free Southern Theatre, U.S. cities. Appeared in An American Daughter, Los Angeles Theatre Works, on National Public Radio.

MEMBER: Actors' Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Women in Film.

AWARDS, HONORS: CEBA awards for excellence for advertising and communications, 1981, 1982; Cultural Artist of the Year, Harvard University Harvard Foundation, 1995; five National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Awards; two Los Angeles Emmy Awards for Voices of Our People: In Celebration of Black Poetry.


The Denise Nicholas Beauty Book (nonfiction), Cornerstone Library (New York, NY), 1971.

Freshwater Road (novel), Agate (Chicago, IL), 2005.

Author of the play Buses. Author of scripts for the television series In the Heat of the Night. Contributor to The National Black Drama Anthology: Eleven Plays from America's Leading African-American Theatres, edited by Woodie King, Applause (New York, NY), 1995.

SIDELIGHTS: Though she was raised in Michigan, Denise Nicholas was intimately involved with the civil rights struggles of the American South in the 1960s, where she worked as a member of a traveling theater troupe. The troupe, the Free Southern Theater, was racially integrated, and put on free plays for black and integrated audiences throughout the South—highly dangerous work at the time. Nicholas later told Michael J. Bandler, as reported in the Cleveland, Ohio, Plain Dealer, that members of the Free Southern Theater had been shot at, bombs had been thrown at the stage, and troupe members were arrested. She herself had been terrified in New Orleans when a policeman pointed a gun at her head and threatened to "blow my brains out if I took another step."

With this background, it is hardly a surprise that much of Nicholas's writing is concerned, in one way or another, with civil rights and integration. Her play Buses is an imagined interaction between two women separated by nearly a century: Mary Ellen Pleasant, a freed slave who became known as the "mother of civil rights" for her work in San Francisco during the 1860s, and Rosa Parks, renowned for her refusal to move to the back of a segregated bus in the 1950s.

Nicholas went from her work in the Free Southern Theater to a role on the television show Room 222, in which she became one of the first black female stars of an episodic TV program. Her career suffered a setback after the end of the show in the mid-1970s, and she went through a period of depression heightened by alcohol and pill abuse, several failed marriages (including one to singer Bill Withers), and the unsolved murder of her half-sister at New York's LaGuardia Airport.

Nicholas's life had already begun to turn around, however, by the time a major career break came in 1990, when she was invited to join the cast of In the Heat of the Night. The idea came from Carroll O'Connor, star and executive producer, who suggested that they add the character of Harriet DeLong, a black councilwoman in the fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi. His wife Nancy knew Nicholas from their work on several Los Angeles charities, and soon she became a permanent part of the show.

Eventually DeLong and O'Connor's character, the formerly bigoted Sheriff Bill Gillespie, engaged in a May-December interracial romance, and in 1994 the characters married. In the South that Nicholas had known thirty years earlier, such a romance—not to mention the wedding—would have been scandalous, and could have gotten both participants killed. By 1994, however, television was filled with far more controversial material, but some viewers still objected.

In 2005, Nicholas displayed another side to her talent, publishing her debut novel, Freshwater Road, "a coming-of-age story about a Black college student involved in the Civil Rights Movement in 1964," as a contributor to Ebony described the book. Drawing on her own experiences as a civil rights activist at the time, Nicholas tells the story of Celeste Tyree, a Northerner who works in the South for equal rights and voter registration. Though Roger A. Berger, writing in the Library Journal, found the novel "uneven," he went on to note that it "clearly conveys the idealistic determination and heroism of the young volunteers." In an interview for Essence magazine, Nicholas commented on her inspiration for this first novel: "I want to show readers that, beyond the well-documented tragedies, Freedom Summer was a moment of great hope. It's important for us to remember that kids from all over the country put their lives on the line for folks they didn't know—for poor people who hadn't had the right to vote since Reconstruction."



Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 32, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.


Detroit News, January 15, 1993, Kevin Ransom, "Buses Drives Denise Nicholas to More Writing," p. C9.

Ebony, September, 2005, "Author Spotlight: Denise Nicholas," p. 32.

Essence, September, 2005, "First Person Singular: Denise Nicholas," p. 139.

Jet, July 9, 1981, "Denise Nicholas-Hill Has Success in Perspective," p. 61; August 6, 1990, "Denise Nicholas: Ghost Dad Star Tells of Experience with Ghost of Slain Sister," pp. 58-59; February 17, 1992, "Actress Denise Nicholas Directs Heat Episode on Black Woman's Fight to Vote," p. 6; May 9, 1994, "Denise Nicholas and Carroll O'Connor Wed on TV Drama In the Heat of the Night," pp. 54-57; November 14, 2005, "Denise Nicholas, Author," p. 54.

Library Journal, September 15, 2005, Roger A. Berger, review of Freshwater Road, p. 56.

Los Angeles Times, January 16, 1994, N.F. Mendoza, "With an Eye on … In the Heat of the Night's Denise Nicholas Finds the Positive in Past and Present," p. 80.

People, August 22, 2005, "The Summer of '64," review of Freshwater Road, p. 119.

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), January 19, 1993, Michael J. Bandler, "Denise Nicholas Finding Her Life Going Full Circle," p. C4.

Publishers Weekly, July 1, 2005, Nicole Bailey-Williams, "Her Second Act," p. 58.


Internet Movie Database, (September 29, 2006), "Denise Nicholas."

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Nicholas, Denise 1944–

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