Saturday, September 16, 2023

Whatever happened to Denise Nicholas of Room 222?

Denise Nicholas is best known for her portrayal of guidance counsellor Liz McIntyre on ABC's groundbreaking series Room 222 from 1969 to 1974.  She also played City Councilwoman Harriet DeLong, alongside Carroll O'Conner, in 69 episodes of In the Heat of the Night, from 1989 to 1995.  In addition, she has enjoyed a second career as a successful author.

Denise Donna Nicholas (some sources say Donna Denise Nicholas) was born in Detroit, Michigan on July 12, 1944, the middle child of the three children of Louise and Otto Nicholas.  She had an older brother, Otto Jr, and a younger sister, Michele.  Denise grew up in Milan, Michigan, just south of Ann Arbor.  After graduating from Milan High Scholl, she attended the University of Michigan.

In 1964, at the age of 19, Denise dropped out of the University of Michigan and joined the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans.  She interrupted her pre-law studies to travel to the Deep South to become involved in the American Civil Rights Movement.  It was "Freedom Summer" and Denise had connected with the fledgling Free Southern Theater in order to read and critique plays.  

Denise Nicholas began her television career with an appearance in a 1968 episode of the adventure crime series It Takes a Thief., starring Robert Wagner.  The episode is entitled "To Catch a Roaring Lion" (Season 2, Episode 12, Air Date: December 31, 1968.  She then guest-starred on episodes of The F.B.I. (1969), and six episodes of the police drama N.Y.P.D. from 1967 to 1969.

After her stint with the Free Southern Theater, Denise moved to New York and worked off-Broadway.  She earned a spot in the groundbreaking Negro Ensemble Company.  During a performance with them at St. Mark's Playhouse, Denise was noticed by TV executives and was called to a edition for a new television show called Room 222.  She eventually landed the starring role of guidance counsellor Liz McIntyre and moved to California in 1969.  

On Room 222, Denise's Liz McIntyre character was the love interest of American history teacher Pete Dixon, who was portrayed by the late :Lloyd Haynes.  The show was set in Los Angeles at the fictional Walt Whitman High, an integrated school with an integrated faculty.  Denise appeared in all 113 episodes of Room 222 from 1969 until 1974.  In 1970, 1971 and 1972, she received Golden Globe nominations for Best TV Actress in a Drama for her role as Liz McIntyre in the series.

Below is a photo of the main cast members on Room 222.  In the front row are Michael Constantine, who portrayed principal Seymour. Kaufman.  To his right is Lloyd Haynes.  In the back row are Denise and Karen Valentine, who played English teacher Alice Johnson.

After Room 22 finished its run, Denise guest-starred in episodes of such TV series as Police Stary (1975), Rhoda (1975) and Marcus Welby, M.D, (1975).  From 1977 to 1978, Denise played the role of Olivia Ellis in 13 episodes of the short-lived CBS comedy Baby. . .I'm Back!   Her co-star in was  Demond Wilson of Sanford and Son fame.  He portrayed Olivia's wayward husband, Raymond Ellis, who returns home to Olivia and their two children after years of abandonment.  Complications arise because Raymond has been declared legally dead and Olivia has become engaged to someone else.

Denise and Demond Wilson

In February of 1980, Denise suffered a tragedy when her younger sister, Michele Burgen, a 26-year-old editor for Ebony magazine was shot to death.  Michele's body was discovered in a locked rental car at LaGuardia Airport in New York City.  Although Denise and her older brother, Otto, searched thoroughly, no suspect was ever brought to trial.

In the early 1980s, Denise worked on stage, and was featured in Voices of Our People: In Celebration of Black Poetry, which aired on PBS.  In the 1980s, she made guest appearances on episodes of such TV shows as Benson (1980), Diff'rent Strokes (1980), One Day at a Time (1983), Magnum, P.I. (1984), Hotel (1987),  Amen (1988) and The Cosby Show (1989).  She also played the role of Leddy Hutch in the 1987 television movie The Rockford Files: Shoot-Out at the Golden Pagoda, starring James Garner.

In 1985, Denise enrolled in USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.  In 1987, she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Drama from the University of Southern California.  In 1989, she began appearing as In the Heat of the Night, a crime drama about the adventures of the police forces in and around Sparta, Mississippi.  It is loosely based based on the 1967 movie and the 1965 novel of the same name.  

It wasn't until the show's third season that Denise began appearing as a recurring character - Sparta city Councilwoman Harriet DeLong.  Harriet eventually became a central character and the love interest of police chief Bill Gillespie (Carroll O'Connor). With the encouragement of O'Connor, Denise wrote six episodes of In the Heat of the Night,  She had approached Carroll, expressing her concern about he lack of black writers and directors on the show.  She told  him, "Carroll, you can't have all these black people on the show ad no black writers or directors ever."

Nicholas and O'Connor in In the Heat of the Night

When In The Heat of the Night was cancelled in 1995, Denise Nicholas decided to pursue a second career as a professional writer.  Denise enrolled in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California.  She eventually joined the Journeyman's Writing Workshop where she studied for five years under the guidance of author Janet Finch.  

"Moving to writing from Acting was a natural progression for me," Denise told USC News in 2016.  "I always loved reading and books and really absorbed the fantasy of being a writer.  It's very romantic to want to be a writer, especially when you've never written anything.  But I had always wanted to write."

Denise's first novel,, Freshwater Road, was published in 2005/  It was critically acclaimed.  New York Newsday called it "perhaps the best work of fiction about the Civil Rights Movement."  It is a coming pf age story set in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964.

According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), Denise's last TV acting role was in a 2002 episode of the sitcom My Wife and Kids.

Denise has been married three times.  In May1964, she married stage actor and civil rights activist Gilbert Moses, who founded the Free Southern Theater.  The couple wed at the American Theater in New York and moved to Jackson, Mississippi.  Denise joined Moses' Free Southern Theater.  With a small troupe of actors, the group performed plays for rural African-American audiences, many of whom had never witnessed live theatre before.  They performed Ossie Davis' Purlie Victorious and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.  Their production of In White America toured in New York City, as well as in Mississippi and Louisiana.  In 1965, the Free Southern Theater moved its base of operation to New Orleans, Louisiana.  Denise separated from Gilbert Moses and moved to New York City.

Gilbert Moses

On January 17, 1973, Denise married her second husband, soul singer Bill Withers, of  "Lean on Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine" fame.  It was reportedly a tumultuous marriage.  Denise filed for divorce in April of 1974 and the divorce became final in December of 1974.

Bill Withers in 1976

In June 0f 1980, while grieving the loss of her sister, Denise met sports anchor Jim Hill at a party in Sacramento, California.  Jim, a former NFL player, married Denise on Valentine's Day, February 14, 1981.  In October 1981, the couple separated, but soon reconciled.  However, Denise filed for divorce again in 1984.  The divorce became final in 1987.  In 1990, Denise told People magazine that she was at a low point in her life after her break-up with Hill in 1984.  She said, "'Dark Shadow' was my middle name.  I was really at ground zero.  The marriage was over, my career was in the toilet, and I was adrift."

Jim Hill


* Denise's first husband, Gilbert Moses, award-winning stage and TV director and producer, died of multiple myeloma on April 15, 1995.  He died in New York at the age of 52 .  He was known for his work on the ABC After School Specials and Roots.

 Denise's second husband, Bill Withers, passed away on March 30. 2020 at the age of 81.  The singer-songwriter died of heart complications in a Los Angeles hospital.

Jim Hill, Denise's third husband, is currently a sports anchor and sports director for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles.

* Denise's co-star on Room 222, Lloyd Haynes, died of lung cancer on January 1. 1987.  He was 52 years old at the time of his passing.  Her other Room 222 co-star, Michael Constantine, died on August 31, 2021 at 94 years of age. 

* Denise appeared on the cover of Jet magazine ten times.

* Denise's film credits include Biacula (1972), Let's Do It Again( 1975), A Piece of the Action (1977) and Ghost Dad (1990).

SOURCES: USC Dornsife ,"Actress and novelist Denise Nicholas draws from her experience in the civil rights movement," by Laura Paisley, March 25, 2016;  Los Angeles Times, "'In the Heat of the Night's Denise Nicholas finds the positive in past and present," by N.F. Mendoza, January 16, 1994; The HistoryMakers: The Digital Repository for the Black Experience,  Denise Nicholas Biographym Wikipedia; Internet Movie Database (IMDb)

- Joanne

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