Versatile singing star of television, stage, screen, and cabaret Leslie Uggams (b. New York City, May 25, 1943) is certainly best known across America for her role as Kizzy in the most-watched television series in history, Alex Haley’s Roots (1977). But more typical of her performance style was her work in Hallelujah, Baby! on Broadway, for which she won the 1968 Tony Award® for Best Actress in a Musical. She has won many other awards and nominations besides.
Leslie Uggams probably cannot remember a time when she was not in show business. At the tender age of six she was on television, playing the niece of Ethel Waters on the series Beulah (1950). She charmed audiences singing on Your Show of Shows, The Milton Berle Show, and The Arthur Godfrey Show, and at seven was opening at the Apollo Theater in Harlem for jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Dinah Washington. She continued to perform while attending the New York Professional Children’s School, and at fifteen appeared on Name That Tune, where she caught the eye of Mitch Miller. Miller signed her up as a regular on his popular Sing Along with Mitch (“Follow the bouncing ball!”), making Uggams one of the first African-Americans to be featured in prime time.
Miller was also a producer at Columbia Records, where Uggams recorded her first album, including the hit single, “Morgan.” She studied theory and composition at Juilliard, but found herself increasingly busy in night clubs and musical shows, even traveling to the West Coast to sing in films (Inherit the Wind 1960, Two Weeks in Another Town 1962). In Berkeley, California, she starred in The Boyfriend. Her role in Hallelujah, Baby! – written originally for Lena Horne – was her Broadway debut, and it won her the Tony®.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Uggams acted in television shows like The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, The Mod Squad, Marcus Welby, M.D., while continuing to appear as herself on variety shows. In 1969 she even had a variety show of her own. Between 1969 and 1977 she appeared on sixteen episodes of Hollywood Squares.
Uggams made a dramatic film debut in the thriller Skyjacked in 1972, following up with Black Girl (1972) and Poor Pretty Eddie (1975). For her performance in Roots in 1977, she gained worldwide recognition as well as a Critics Choice Award for Best Supporting Actress and a shower of nominations (Emmy®, Golden Globe®). It made her guest appearances with Big Bird on The Muppet Show (1978) all the more exciting. More television specials and mini-series came after (Backstairs in the White House 1979, Sizzle 1981, Plácido Domingo Stepping Out with the Ladies 1985, Christmas at Radio City Music Hall 1986), climaxing when Leslie Uggams won an Emmy® as the co-host of the series Fantasy in 1982.
Uggams returned to Broadway several times in the 1980s, in Blues in the Night (1982), in Jerry’s Girls (1985), and as Reno Sweeney in a revival of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes at Lincoln Center (1988). She toured with Peter Nero and Mel Torme in The Great Gershwin Concert (1987), and played her old friend Ethel Waters in 1991, touring in a new musical play called Stringbean. In 1996, Uggams was a regular on All My Children, playing Rose Keefer.
Leslie Uggams has appeared often in concert with the nation’s leading orchestras and delivered memorable performances in regional theatres. She sang a Memorial Day Concert with the Washington (D.C.) Symphony Orchestra for over 300,000 people gathered on the Mall, televised live to millions on PBS. At the Hollywood Bowl she was featured in Jerry Herman’s Broadway, an all-star tribute to the legendary songwriter. At TheatreFest in New Jersey, she handled the dramatic portrayal of opera diva Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, and in early 2009 at the Pasadena Playhouse, took on the role of jazz singer Lena Horne in Stormy Weather.
New roles for Uggams on Broadway in the twenty-first century have included Ruby in King Hedley II (2001), society heiress Muzzy Van Hossmere in Thoroughly Modern Millie (2003), and Ethel Thayer in the revival of On Golden Pond (2005), opposite James Earl Jones.
Leslie Uggams has recorded ten solo albums of songs.