Leslie Uggams is a pioneering figure in show business, starting as a child actor playing the niece of Ethel Waters on “Beulah” in 1950, singing on “The Lawrence Welk Show,” and as a regular on “Sing Along with Mitch.” In 1969 she starred in her own variety show, “The Leslie Uggams Show,” the first network variety show to feature an African American host since “The Nat King Cole Show” in the 1950s. She is perhaps best known for her stirring portrayal of Kizzy in the landmark 1977 television mini-series based on Alex Haley’s “Roots,” for which she received a Critics Choice Award and Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and for her role as Lillian Rogers in “Backstairs at the White House,” the 1979 miniseries for which she was nominated for an Emmy as Best Actress. On Broadway, she made her musical theater debut starring in “Hallelujah, Baby!” earning both Tony and World Theatre awards. Her Broadway credits include “Blues in the Night,” “Jerry’s Girls,” “Anything Goes,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and “On Golden Pond,” with James Earl Jones.
She spoke with UConn Today while preparing for the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series production of “Gypsy: A Musical Fable,” in which she stars as Mama Rose. The show runs from July 10 to July 20 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre. The interview has been edited for length.
Why did you decide to take the role of Mama Rose?
Arthur Laurents [writer of “Gypsy”] wanted me to do this part. … I was familiar with a lot of the songs. Ironically, the opening number in my new concert act is “Some People.” I was thinking: Arthur Laurents, I’m doing “Some People” and I also went to school with Eric, Gypsy Rose Lee’s son. I thought: The universe is trying to tell me something. And, of course, CRT has a wonderful reputation and everyone told me I would love it up here.
You have some direct experience with the theme of “Gypsy,” which is about a stage mother’s dream to have her daughter succeed in show business.
I grew up as a kid being around stage mothers. At auditions, you’d see mothers telling another mother the audition was at a particular time when it was two hours earlier, because they didn’t want the competition for their kids. I saw mothers slapping their kids because they didn’t get the part. It’s familiar territory for me.
Have you performed before at a place like CRT that is affiliated with a university, where you are working with a lot of students?
A long time ago, but it was not on a par with this. Let me put it this way: The kids in this show are amazing. You know they can go on and really be in the business. I’ve done some shows where you go: OK, get it out of your system. I was watching the students in this production yesterday and I said: Oh, my goodness. They can act. They can sing. They can dance. They’re going to go far.
Your life and career have been intertwined with a lot of historic events. Do you ever think about how often you were a pioneer in some of the situations you found yourself in, and did you feel pressure?
There were not a lot of people like me on television, even in commercials. Anytime I did something on television, it was for the black community – look what she is doing. When I got to do “Sing Along with Mitch,” that’s when I really felt the pressure because I knew that one false move and the whole black race was condemned. I was not aware until years later that Mitch was being pressured not to have me on as a regular. We were blacked out – no pun intended – in the South because of me. The network kept going to Mitch to not have me on the show, or if I was on the show to isolate me so they could cut me out. Mitch kept saying: No, No, No, we’re family. She’s a part of this show and that’s how it’s going to be. We became such a smash hit; the South said we’ve been hearing so much about this show, we changed our mind. That was the end of that. We got some hate mail. We had the FBI with us.
There were a lot of variety shows on television that you appeared on later, which provided a lot of exposure that eventually led to your role in “Hallelujah, Baby” on Broadway.
There were tons of wonderful shows you were able to be on. The great thing about doing those shows is that if you were doing a club show, people could see you perform and they would come to the club. We’ve lost that venue for people who can’t fill arenas.
You’ve said your role in “Roots” really is what you think about when you look at your career. Why is that so?
Because of what it was about – a man, Alex Haley, who wanted to find out about his background, and the sacrifices he made to do it. He was determined, and he wrote this amazing book and ABC decided they were going to do it and it changed history. I was in Las Vegas, rehearsing “Guys and Dolls” and the casinos were empty. Ann Margaret was doing her act there and she called me up and said: Leslie, we’ve changed the time of the show because nobody’s coming. They’re all staying home watching you guys on “Roots.” That was huge to me. What was interesting about the show is that they really told the story. In America, we have a history and a lot of times, we don’t like to talk about it. This talked about it. It was wonderful because young people were curious – white and black. They would come up to me and say: We didn’t know. They weren’t getting this history in the books. This character I played, Kizzy, was a strong woman. She chose not to be victimized. It was extraordinary.
After “Roots” did you start to have more acting opportunities?
Television-wise it took two more years, when I got a project called “Backstairs at the White House.” It was based on a real person who had a job as a maid at the White House. They finally came out with a DVD about four years ago. People were constantly asking me about it. Television is still television. Thank God for cable. You’re getting really great programming. They’re doing these scripts that wouldn’t be done on a regular network.
Is that what you’re seeing because of the diversity of cable?
I think so. The regular stations still have a certain kind of formula that they constantly do. For African American actors and actresses, you get a wider range of opportunity on cable because they deal with good stories and don’t say, we’ve got two black people in this series. They do wonderful series that are great stories about African Americans. It gives us more choices to audition for great parts, because there are more of them. Before there were two parts, and all of us were up for them.
You have said that you think of yourself as a working actor and are always looking for the next opportunity.
Yes. I’m always trying to open up a new horizon for me. I can’t go by what I did before. This is what I’m doing now, and I better do it well. One thing I’ve always been is very disciplined. I tell young people, when you do a musical you have no life because your responsibility is to be there. The audience is paying their money to see you. They’re not very happy when they go and see the playbill and that paper falls out because you’re not there.
You have been like Woody Allen’s Zelig character by being present at many historic moments, but also creating some of those moments. Are you ready to write your memoirs?
I was born at the right time. Great things were happening in America. It was the Civil Rights era, and all of those doors started opening. My father came from South Carolina. He would look at me and see through me how the world was changing, seeing me on television each week. I’ve been asked [to write a memoir]. I’m going to start. I’ve kind of put it off, saying I haven’t done enough. Then I start looking at the clips and I say, yeah, you’ve done a lot.
“Gypsy: A Musical Fable” will be performed from July 10 to July 20 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre. In conjunction with the “STAGECRAFT: 50 Years of Design at Hartford Stage” exhibition at The William Benton Museum of Art, patrons can save $5 on a ticket for the Nutmeg Summer Series by using the offer code “BENTON” when ordering a regular price ticket. For more information, visit www.crt.uconn.edu .