Uggams, Leslie 1943–
Leslie Uggams 1943–
The versatile Leslie Uggams has enjoyed an extremely successful career as a singer and actress on stage, on television, and in night-clubs. She is also a pioneer among African Americans on television. As a regular cast member on the popular music program Sing Along with Mitch in the early 1960s, Uggams was then the only African American performer on network television, and joined a small number of African American performers who had ever appeared on television. Her good looks, infectious smile, and solid vocal talent won the hearts of television viewers. In a 1967 Newsweek interview, Sammy Davis, Jr. said of Uggams, “She’s very special. Everybody identifies with her…The first great step has happened with her… Leslie’s bridged a very important space.”
Leslie Marian Uggams, who is of African, European, and Native American ancestry, was born in New York City in 1943. Her father, Harold, was an elevator operator and floor waxer. Her mother, Juanita, was a waitress. It was Uggams’ older sister, Frances, who selected the name Leslie. “I hated my name. In those days I thought it was really a boy’s name. Now lots of girls are called Leslie and I don’t mind it so much,” Uggams told Hugh Curnow of Ebony in 1967. Family life in the Uggams home, a four-room apartment in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, was modest but stable. “We weren’t millionaires, but the ends always met,” Uggams told Rex Reed of the New York Times in 1967.
As a small child Uggams would sing along to records, exhibiting a remarkably mature voice. The fact that Uggams had vocal talent was not a total surprise. Her father was a member of the Hall Johnson Choir, and her mother was a chorus girl at the Cotton Club. In 1949, at age six, Uggams sang in public for the first time at St. James Presbyterian Church in New York City. The following year, she made her acting debut with a small part on an episode of the television comedy Beulah, which starred the legendary Ethel Waters as a wise African American housekeeper. Uggams played Beulah’s niece. “They wanted me to wear my hair in those terrible little pickaninny braids all over my head, and Ethel Waters said absolutely not, and she combed my hair long with two tiny bows,” Uggams recalled to Reed. By the time Uggams was 12 years-old,
At a Glance…
Born Leslie Marian Uggams in New York City on May 25, 1943, Daughter of Harold C. Uggams (an elevator operator and maintenance man) and Juanita (a waitress) Smith Uggams. Married Grahame Pratt (a businessman), 1965; two children, Education: Graduated from the Professional School for Children, New York City, 1961; attended Juilliard School of Music, New York City, 1961-63.
Career: A singer and actress on television, stage, and in films. Numerous television appearances include regular roles on Sing Along with Mitch, 1961-64; The Leslie Uggams Stow, 1969; High Rollers, 1974-80; All My Children, 1996. Principal roles on Roots, mini-series, 1977; and Backstairs at the White House, mini-series, 1979. Other television appearances include Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, I Spy, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., and The Cosby Show. Film appearances include Black Girl, 1972, Skyjacked, 1972; Heartbrek Motel, 1975. New York stage appearances include Hallelujah, Baby!, 1967; Blues in the Night, 1982; Black Girl, 1995; The Old Settler, 1998-99; Recordings include Hallelujah, Baby!, 1968; Leslie, 1970; Painted Mem’ries, 1995. Author of The Leslie Uggams Beauty Book, with Marie Fenton, 1996.
Awards: Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best actress in a musical for Hallelujah, Baby!, 1968; Emmy Award for outstanding host or hostess of a daytime variety show for Fantasy, 1983; National Black Theater Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, 1995; NAACP Image Award nomination for All My Children, 1997.
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she was a show business veteran with numerous television appearances to her credit, as well as variety show appearances at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and the Palace Theatre on Broadway. Wearing a frilly white dress and black patent leather shoes, Uggams would do a song and dance and sometimes an imitation of a then popular singer such as Frankie Laine or Johnny Ray. After completing the third grade, Uggams left her local public school to enroll at the Professional Children’s School, a private institution in Manhattan catering to children with show business connections.
Skinny and awkward in her early adolescence, Uggams withdrew from performing for a couple of years in the mid-1950s. When Uggams was almost 15 years-old, she was back on television as a contestant on the game show Name That Tune, where she won $25,000. “It was like a scene from a bad movie with all the neighbors opening their windows and shouting ‘We saw you on TV,’” Uggams told Reed. The Name That Tune appearance gave Uggams a chance to showcase her vocal skills. Her rendition of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” was noticed by record producer Mitch Miller who, as director of artists and repertory at Columbia Records, was one of the most influential figures in popular music during the 1950s. Miller signed Uggams to a contract, and her first album was released in 1959. Despite increasing career demands, Uggams continued to excel at school. At the Professional Children’s School, from which she graduated in 1961, Uggams was editor of the yearbook and president of the student body. Uggams later attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, where she studied every subject offered except singing. “They said they wouldn’t touch her voice,” Uggams’ mother told Newsweek. In 1963, Uggams left Juilliard a few credits short of a degree.
When Miller got his own television show, Sing Along with Mitch in 1961, Uggams was asked to appear on it, first as a guest vocalist, then as a regular member of the all-singer cast. She became the lone African American performer regularly appearing on network television. Sing Along with Mitch, a television version of Miller’s popular Sing Along records of the late 1950s, offered old fashioned entertainment and reflected Miller’s strong aversion to rock and roll music. Viewers were urged to sing along to old favorites such as “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “There is a Tavern in the Town,” while the lyrics to song choruses ran across the bottom of the screen. In keeping with the show’s style, Miller provided Uggams with a cheerful, wholesome image which Reed described as that of a “sepia-tone Shirley Temple.” In 1962, a reporter for Time called Uggams “the best girl singer since Rosemary Clooney. Her talent is evidence that not all teen-age singers are indiscriminately scraped up off the sidewalks and shoved into echo chambers. She has the range of mood and inflection to do everything from ‘Clang, Clang Clang Went the Trolley’ to religious songs at Christmastime.”
The presence of an African American singer on the Sing Along with Mitch show drew relatively little controversy, although some stations in the South refused to air the program. “Mitch was told either I go or the show goes. He said, ‘Either she stays or there’s no show.’ He loved that show, and he had been trying to sell it for so long that to turn around and do that was heroic,” Uggams told Nadine Brozan of the New York Times in 1994. Uggams sometimes found her position as television’s only African American performer difficult to bear. “It was a heavy load. I was responsible for having a clean image. I wanted people to have respect for black people,” Uggams told Dena Kleiman of the New York Times in 1986.
After Sing Along with Mitch was canceled in 1964, Uggams began appearing in nightclubs and variety shows in an attempt to move past the “girl next door” image she had been given by the Miller show. “I was dying to bust out and do something wild and sexy. Even after I was twenty-one, people would still come up to me and say ‘Aren’t you just a child, dear?’ Shouldn’t you wear high necks with Peter Pan collars?’” Uggams told Reed. Uggams efforts to change her image were complicated by the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s. “Like Doris Day, Dinah Shore, Julie Andrews, and other popular female entertainers of the ’60s, Miss Uggams found that her wholesome good looks and ladylike manner got lost in the face of an emerging public preference for stridency, black self-awareness and sexuality, embodied in such performers as Diana Ross,” wrote Kleiman.
Uggams moved further into acting in the 1960s, taking roles on episodes of television series such as I Spy and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. She found that acting was a greater challenge than singing. “Singing is like breathing to me. It’s something I know how to handle. If something doesn’t work, I can work it out. Acting is very involved. I’m just frightened of being bad,” Uggams told Newsweek. In 1967, Uggams was given an opportunity to exhibit both her singing and acting skills in the Broadway musical Hallelujah, Baby!. Uggams stepped into the show’s starring role after Lena Horne dropped out. With music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Hallelujah, Baby! told the story of African Americans in show business from the turn of the century to the 1960s. As the main character, Georgina, Uggams portrayed a kitchen maid who becomes a chorus girl, and finally a star. The show opened at Broadway’s Martin Beck Theatre in April of 1967, and received lukewarm reviews. Many critics found the show’s racial attitudes well-intentioned, but outdated. African American playwright Douglas Turner Ward said of Hallelujah, Baby! to Newsweek, “It’s a Broadway entertainment and the major Broadway white audience will take it as sheer entertainment – they still think we all sing and dance. Maybe in 1930 or 1940 this would have been seen as a step forward, but we’ve gone so far beyond, it’s an anachronism.” Walter Kerr of the New York Times dismissed the show as “old-fashioned platitudinizing”, but praised Uggams as “one of the most complete personalities to have descended upon us in many a mournful moon, ready-made, able for anything, proud as silk, intimate as velvet, cheery as gingham. She’s all there without having to prove it.” Uggams won the Tony Award as best actress in a musical for her work in Hallelujah, Baby!. Despite mediocre reviews, the show won the Tony for best musical.
In 1968, Uggams was back on Broadway playing Cleopatra in Her First Roman, a short-lived musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. Uggams’ next Broadway appearance came in Blues in the Night, a 1982 musical drama using old blues songs as its score. Uggams’ sultry manner in the show caused John Simon of New York to lament “We miss you, Miss U., as you used to be. Before Black Pride, Women’s Lib, or having to grow out of your twenties hit you. Charmers can have problems as they grow older, but overdoing everything is not the answer.” Uggams later performed in the Broadway work Jerry’s Girls, a revue based on the work of composer Jerry Herman. Her involvement with the show arose out of her friendship with Herman, whose music she loves to sing. “Jerry’s music speaks to the heart. Emotionally, he gives you so much in terms of music and lyric. And he writes well for women,” Uggams told Bernard Weinraub of the New York Times in 1998.
Uggams was given her own television variety show on CBS in 1969, but it was canceled after half a season. “It was my first big setback,” Uggams said to Kleiman about the failure of the show. In 1977, Uggams was a member of the stellar cast of the mini-series Roots. Based on Alex Haley’s book that traced his family’s history back to eighteenth-century Africa, Roots was a landmark event in television history that drew a recordbreaking number of viewers. Uggams’ portrayal of the aged slave, Kizzy, earned her an Emmy nomination. In 1979, Uggams starred in another popular mini-series, Backstairs at the White House, which took a look at life in the White House from the perspective of its African American housekeeping staff. On daytime television, Uggams intermittently served as “celebrity assistant” to host Alex Trebec, on the game show High Rollers from 1974 to 1980. In 1983, Uggams won a daytime Emmy as outstanding host or hostess of a variety series for Fantasy. This hour-long program, which was co-hosted by Peter Marshall, bestowed specially tailored prizes based on the personal fantasies of contestants. Uggams entered the world of daytime drama in 1996 when she played Rose Keefer, a woman with a checkered past, on All MyChildren. Her portrayal of Rose Keefer earned Uggams a nomination for the NAACP Image Award.
Uggams has further honed her acting skills off-Broadway. In 1995, she played an embittered mother of an aspiring dancer in J.E. Franklin’s drama Black Girl. Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote that Uggams “injects the evening with a veteran’s compelling presence and, at moments, real fire.” In 1998 Uggams appeared in The Old Settler, a gentle comedy by John Henry Redwood about two middle aged, unmarried sisters in 1940s Harlem whose lives are disrupted when a handsome young man rents a room in their apartment house. “Ms. Uggams in this relatively downhome context is a delight,” wrote Vincent Canby of the New York Times.
Making her home in New York City, Uggams has been married since 1965 to Grahame Pratt, an Australian-born businessman who manages her career. The couple has two children. Singing continues to be the mainstay of Uggams’ career, and acting assignments are fit into a busy concert schedule. Uggams would like to do more acting but, as she told Kleiman—“You can’t just sit around waiting for a good script. You can wait forever.”
Ebony, May 1967, p. 140-148.
Jet, January 16, 1995, p. 61.
Newsweek, December 30, 1963, p. 59; July 17, 1967, p. 63-67.
New York, June 14, 1982, p. 71; January 13, 1986, p. 50.
New York Times, April 27, 1967, p. 51; May 7, 1967, p. D1, 7; February 16, 1986, sect. 2, p. 1, 6; December 26, 1994, p. 22; November 14, 1995, p. C14; July 26, 1998, sect. 2, p. 6; November 8, 1998, p. sect. 2, p. 26.
Time, December 7, 1962, p. 66.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Smaggu Productions.
Uggams, Leslie 1943–
UGGAMS, Leslie 1943–
Full name, Leslie Marian Uggams; born May 25, 1943, in New York, NY; daughter of Harold (an elevator operator and maintenance man) and Juanita (a former Cotton Club chorus girl; maiden name, Smith) Uggams; married Grahame Pratt (a theatrical manager and television script writer) October 16, 1965; children: two. Education: Attended the Professional Children's School, New York City, and the Juilliard School of Music; trained as an actress with Robert Lewis.
Singer and actress. As a singer, has appeared in nightclubs and concert halls throughout the United States, Canada, England, and Australia. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, member of board; TADA (a children's musical theatre), member of board; BRAVO Chapter/City of Hope, founding member.
Actors' Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, American Guild of Variety Artists, American Guild of Musical Artists.
Best Singer on TV Award, 1963; Theatre World Award and Variety New York Drama Critics Poll Award, most promising new Broadway actress, 1967, Outer Critics Circle Award, outstanding new personality, Drama Critics Award, Antoinette Perry Award, best actress in a musical, 1968, all for Hallelujah, Baby!; Critics Choice Award and Emmy Award nomination, best supporting actress, 1977, Golden Globe Award nomination, best TV actress—drama, 1978, all for Roots; Emmy Award, best hostess of a daytime variety series, 1983, for Fantasy; Image Award nomination, outstanding actress in a daytime drama series, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1997, for All My Children; Antoinette Perry Award, best lead actress in a play, Outer Critics Circle Award nomination, outstanding featured actress in a play, 2001, both for King Hedley II; AUDLECO Award, for Thunder Knocking on the Door; AUDLECO Award, for The Old Settler.
(Stage debut) The Boy Friend, summer theatre production, Berkeley, CA, 1966.
(Broadway debut) Georgina, Hallelujah, Baby!, Martin Beck Theatre, 1967.
Cleopatra, Her First Roman, Lunt–Fontanne Theatre, New York City, 1967.
Sally Bowles, Cabaret, Westbury Music Fair, Westbury, Long Island, NY, 1970.
Woman Number One, Blues in the Night, Rialto Theatre, New York City, 1982.
Jerry's Girls, St. James Theatre, New York City, 1985.
Reno Sweeney, Anything Goes, 1988–89.
Elizabeth Borny, The Old Settler, Geva Theatre, NY, then Virginia Stage Company, Norfolk, VA, 1998, later Primary Stages, New York City, 1998–99.
Play On!, Crossroads Theatre Company, New Brunswick, NJ, 2000.
Elizabeth Borny, The Old Settler, TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT, 2000.
Maria Callas, Master Class, TheatreFest, Memorial Auditorium, Upper Montclair, NJ, then Coconut Grove Playhouse, Miami, FL, both 2000.
The witch, Into the Woods, Arena Theatre, TX, 2001.
Ruby, King Hedley II, Albert Iva Goodman Theatre, Chicago, IL, 2000–2001, then Virginia Theatre, New York City, 2001.
Heaven Can Wait, Westport Country Playhouse, 2001.
Good Sister Dupree, Thunder Knocking on the Door, Minetta Lane Theater, New York City, 2002.
Mack & Mabel, Avery Fisher Concert Hall, New York City, 2003.
Blue, Paper Mill Playhouse, Milburn, NJ, 2003.
Muzzy Van Hossmere, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Marquis Theatre, New York City, 2003–2004.
Ethel Thayer, On Golden Pond, DuPont Theatre, Wilmington, DE, then Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, 2004, later Cort Theatre, New York City, 2005.
Also appeared in Play On!, Crossroads Theater.
Jerry's Girls, U.S. cities, 1984.
The Great Gershwin Concert, 1987.
Anything Goes, U.S. cities, 1988.
Stringbean, U.S. cities, 1991.
Broadway on Ice, U.S. cities, 2004–2005.
Chanteuse, Two Weeks in Another Town, Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer, 1962.
Netta, Black Girl, Cinerama, 1972.
Lovejoy Wells, Skyjacked (also known as Sky Terror), Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer, 1972.
Liz Wetherly, Poor Pretty Eddie (also known as Black Vengeance, Heartbreak Motel, Redneck County, Poor Pretty Eddy, and Redneck County Rape), Group 1 International Distribution Organization, 1975.
Doris Holly, Sugar Hill (also known as Harlem), Twentieth Century–Fox, 1994.
Television Appearances; Series:
Regular, Sing Along with Mitch, NBC, 1961–64.
Host, The Leslie Uggams Show, CBS, 1969.
Assistant, High Rollers (also known as The New High Rollers), 1974–80.
Host, Fantasy, syndicated, 1982–83.
Cohost, The Book of Lists, CBS, 1982.
Host, Rooms for Improvement, HGTV, 1994.
Rose Keefer, All My Children, ABC, 1996.
Television Appearances; Miniseries:
Kizzy, Roots, ABC, 1977.
Lillian Rogers Parks, Backstairs at the White House, NBC, 1979.
Also appeared as (scenes deleted) Barbara Jordan, Freedom to Speak.
Television Appearances; Movies:
Vonda, Sizzle, ABC, 1981.
Television Appearances; Specials:
Performer, The 22nd Annual Tony Awards, NBC, 1968.
Presenter, The 23rd Annual Tony Awards, NBC, 1969.
Saloon singer, Swing Out, Sweet Land, NBC, 1970.
Herself, Jack Lemmon in 'S Wonderful, 'S Marvelous, 'S Gershwin (also known as 'S Wonderful, 'S Marvelous, 'S Gershwin), NBC, 1971.
Super Comedy Bowl I, CBS, 1971.
The American Film Institute Salute to John Ford, 1973.
Herself, The 30th Annual Tony Awards, ABC, 1976.
Presenter, The 29th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, 1977.
Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes, CBS, 1977.
Sinatra and Friends, NBC, 1977.
General Electric's All–Star Anniversary, ABC, 1978.
Kraft's 75th Anniversary Special, NBC, 1978.
A Special Sesame Street Christmas, CBS, 1978.
The Bob Hope Special, NBC, 1979.
Placido Domingo … Steppin' Out with the Ladies, ABC, 1980.
The Book of Lists, 1982.
Herself, The 36th Annual Tony Awards, CBS, 1982.
Small World, NBC, 1982.
Christmas at Radio City Music Hall, HBO, 1983, 1986.
The 38th Annual Tony Awards, CBS, 1984.
The Night of 100 Stars II, ABC, 1985.
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, NBC, 1985.
The 39th Annual Tony Awards, CBS, 1986.
The 40th Annual Tony Awards, CBS, 1986.
The 54th Annual King Orange Jamboree Parade, 1987.
Happy Birthday Bob—50 Stars Salute Your 50 Years with NBC, NBC, 1988.
Herself, The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts, CBS, 1988.
That's What Friends Are For: AIDS Concert for '88, Showtime, 1988.
The Ice Capades with Jason Bateman and Alyssa Milano, ABC, 1989.
The 43rd Annual Tony Awards, CBS, 1989.
The National Memorial Day Concert 1992, PBS, 1992.
Herself, Broadway at the Hollywood Bowl (also known as Jerry Herman's "Broadway at the Hollywood Bowl"), PBS, 1994.
A Capitol Fourth, PBS, 1995.
The 50th Annual Tony Awards, CBS, 1996.
NYTV: By the People Who Made It (documentary), PBS, 1998.
National Memorial Day Concert, PBS, 1998.
The Ninth Annual Trumpet Awards, TBS, 2001.
Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over (documentary), Arts and Entertainment, 2001.
Roots—Celebrating 25 Years: The Saga of an American Classic (documentary), NBC, 2002.
Herself, Inside TV Land: African Americans in Television (documentary), TV Land, 2002.
Television Appearances; Episodic:
(Television debut) Beulah's niece, Beulah, ABC, 1950.
Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, CBS, 1952.
American Bandstand, 1958, 1959, 1971, 1975.
Herself, "The Mitch Miller Variety Show," Startime, NBC, 1960.
The Ed Sullivan Show, 1964, 1965, 1966.
Herself, Hullabaloo!, 1965, 1966.
Herself, "A Musical Tour of Tin Pan Alley," The Bell Telephone Hour, NBC, 1965.
Herself, "The Music of Harold Arlen," The Bell Telephone Hour, NBC, 1965.
Herself, "Music That Mirrors the Times," The Bell Telephone Hour, NBC, 1966.
The Hollywood Palace, 1966.
Tonia, "Tonia," I Spy, NBC, 1967.
Herself, The Dean Martin Show, NBC, 1967, 1971, 1972.
Mystery guest, What's My Line?, CBS, 1967.
"Our First Christmas," That's Life, 1968, 1969.
Herself, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, 1969.
The Andy Williams Show, NBC, 1970.
Herself, The Flip Wilson Show, NBC, 1971.
The Carol Burnett Show, 1971.
Dina Lane, "Kill Gently, Sweet Justice," The Mod Squad, ABC, 1972.
Dina Lane, "Shockwave," The Mod Squad, ABC, 1972.
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, NBC, 1973, 1975, 1982.
"Feedback," Marcus Welby, M.D., ABC, 1974.
Soul Train, 1975.
Herself, The Muppet Show, syndicated, 1978.
Callie Reason, "Lady from Sunshine Gardens/Eye of the Beholder/Bugged," The Love Boat, ABC, 1981.
Marion Blake, "Two Grapes on the Vine/Aunt Sylvia/Deductible Divorce," The Love Boat, ABC, 1981.
Alexis Carter, "Paradise Blues," Magnum P.I., CBS, 1984.
Amanda Price, "Discoveries," Hotel, ABC, 1987.
Voice of herself, "Jack, The Seal, and the Sea," Reading Rainbow, PBS, 1990.
Kris Temple, "Return of the Clairettes," The Cosby Show, NBC, 1991.
Dr. Eileen Redding, "College Kid," A Different World, NBC, 1993.
Voice, "Mind over Murder," Family Guy (animated), Fox, 1999.
Herself, "Been Vereen: The Hard Way," Biography, Arts and Entertainment, 2000.
Radio Appearances; Episodic:
Appeared in The Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy Show; The Milton Berle Show; The Arthur Godfrey Show; Star Time.
Hallelujah, Baby! (original cast recording), Columbia, 1968.
Also recorded 'S Wonderful, 'S Marvelous, 'S Gershwin, Daybreak; More, BMI; Hallelujah Baby!; Just to Satisfy You; More Leslie Uggams on TV; What's an Uggams?; A Time to Love; On My Way to You; and numerous albums for Columbia, Atlantic, and Motown.
(With Marie Fenton) The Leslie Uggams Beauty Book (nonfiction), 1966.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 23, Gale Group, 1999.
Notable Black American Women, Book 2, Gale Research, 1996.
American Theatre, May, 2001, p. 8.
Ebony, March, 1989, p. 154.
Jet, January 16, 1995.
Leslie Uggams Official Site, http://www.leslieuggams.com/, December 8, 2004.