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Donna Denise Nicholas (born July 12, 1944)[1] is an American actress and social activist who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Denise Nicholas
Nicholas in 2011.
Donna Denise Nicholas

(1944-07-12) July 12, 1944 (age 74)
EducationMilan High School
University of Michigan
OccupationActress, social activist
Years active1968–2004
Gilbert Moses (m. 1964–1965)
Bill Withers (m. 1973–1974)

Jim Hill (m. 1981–1984)

She is known primarily for her role as high-school guidance counselor Liz McIntyre on the ABC comedy-drama series Room 222, and for her role as Councilwoman Harriet DeLong on the NBC/CBS drama series In the Heat of the Night.


Early lifeEdit

Nicholas was born in Detroit to Louise Carolyn and Otto Nicholas.[1] She spent her early years in Detroit. With the remarriage of her mother to Robert Burgen, she moved to Milan, Michigan, a small town south of Ann Arbor.

At the age of 16, she appeared on the August 25, 1960, cover of Jet magazine as a future school teacher prospect at the National High School Institute at Northwestern University.[2] She graduated from Milan High School in 1961. Nicholas is the middle child of three, with an older brother, Otto, and a younger sister, Michele, who was murdered in 1980.[3]

She entered the University of Michigan as a Pre-Law major. While at Michigan, she switched her major to Latin-American politics, Spanish, and English. She subsequently transferred to Tulane University, where she majored in Fine Arts. Her acting debut was in a Spanish-language play presented by her language class.[2]

She left college early to join the Free Southern Theater (FST), during the Civil Rights Movement. After spending two years touring the deep South with the FST, Nicholas went to New York City and joined the Negro Ensemble Company, working in all productions during the first season of that theatre ensemble.[3][4]

From the stage of the St. Mark's Playhouse in New York, Nicholas was cast as Liz McIntyre, the Guidance Counselor on ABC series Room 222. Nicholas received her Bachelor of Arts in Drama from the University of Southern California, after living in Southern California for a number of years.[3]


Nicholas began her television acting career in 1968, with an episode of It Takes a Thief.

Nicholas had three consecutive (1970-72) Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress in a Drama TV Series, for her role as Liz McIntyre on the ABC comedy-drama series Room 222. Following Room 222 (1969–74), she won two Image Awards in 1976 for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture and Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series, for her role as Beth Foster in Let's Do It Again (1975).[5]

She later appeared as Harriet DeLong in the cast of NBC/CBS' In the Heat of the Night (1989–95). Nicholas wrote six episodes of the series, beginning her second career as a writer. When that show was cancelled, she enrolled in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, eventually finding her way to the Journeymen's Writing Workshop under the tutelage of author Janet Fitch. She worked with Fitch for five years. Nicholas also attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Workshop, and the Natalie Goldberg Workshop, in Taos, New Mexico.

Her first novel, Freshwater Road, was published by Agate Publishing, in August 2005. it received a starred review in Publishers Weekly and was selected as one of the best books of 2005 by The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Newsday and The Chicago Tribune. The novel won the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award for debut fiction in 2006, as well as the American Library Association's Black Caucus Award for debut fiction the same year. Freshwater Road was reprinted by Pocket Books.

Brown University commissioned Nicholas to write a staged adaptation of Freshwater Road, which was presented in May 2008.

Personal lifeEdit

At 19, Nicholas dropped out of the University of Michigan and signed up with the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans, headed by Gilbert Moses, whom she married in 1964.[6]

Nicholas married soul singer-songwriter Bill Withers on January 13, 1973.[7][8] Their relationship had been tempestuous prior to their nuptials. In November 1972, Nicholas reported to authorities that Withers flew to Tuscon, Arizona where she was filming The Soul of Nigger Charley, and beat her in her motel room after she threatened to end their relationship over the telephone, but she refused to press charges.[9] The couple divorced in 1974.[7]

In February 1980, Nicholas's younger sister Michele Burgen, a 26-year-old editor for Ebony magazine was shot to death. Her body was found in a locked rental car at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. Nicholas and her older brother, Otto searched the country for clues, but no suspect was ever taken to trial.[3]

While coping with the loss of her sister, Nicholas met CBS sports anchor Jim Hill at a Sacramento poetry reading in June 1980.[3] They married on Valentine's Day in 1981. The couple separated in October 1981 and she filed for divorce,[10] before reconciling soon after.[11] Nicholas filed for divorce the final time in 1984.[3]

Acting creditsEdit




Year Production Playwright Role Theatre(s) Notes
1982 Dame Lorraine[1] Steve Carter Angela Moulineaux Los Angeles Actors Theatre
1968 Song of the Lusitanian Bogey[12] St. Mark's Playhouse Revival of earlier production.
Daddy Goodness[13] Lena St. Mark's Playhouse
Kongi's Harvest[14] Wole Soyinka Praise Singer St. Mark's Playhouse
Song of the Lusitanian Bogey[15] St. Mark's Playhouse
1967 One Last Look[16] Steve Carter April Baylor Old Reliable Theater Tavern
1966 Viet Rock[17] Megan Terry Martinique Theatre


  1. ^ a b c d "Denise Nicholas biography"., which notes "Some sources give 1945.". Retrieved July 8, 2012.
  2. ^ a b Johnson, John H., ed. (November 27, 1969). Jet. Chicago, Illinois: Johnson Publishing Company Inc. 37 (8): 56–58.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Park, Jeannie; Armstrong, Lois (May 7, 1990). "In the Heat of the Night's Eerie Parallels to Her Sister's Murder Allow Actress Denise Nicholas to Finally Conquer Her Grief". People. 33 (18). Retrieved July 8, 2012.
  4. ^ Paisley, Laura. "The Civil Rights Experience of Novelist Denise Nicholas Inspired Her Artistry: The alumna's involvement with social causes led to a successful career as an actress and writer". Los Angeles, California: University of Southern California, April 5, 2016.
  5. ^ "Three Big Surprises Mark NAACP Image Awards Show". Jet. Vol. 49, No. 22. Feb 26, 1976.
  6. ^ Wiltz, Teresa (October 25, 2005). "Denise Nicholas, Mind, Body and Soul". The Washington Post.
  7. ^ a b "Divorce Action Splits Singer Bill Withers, Actress Denise Nicholas". Jet. Vol. 46, No. 6: 15. May 2, 1974.
  8. ^ "Bill Withers: The Soul Man Who Walked Away". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2018-06-21.
  9. ^ "Room 222 star refuses to charge singing artist in alleged beating". Indianapolis Recorder. November 12, 1972.
  10. ^ "Denise Nicholas Files For Divorce From Sportscaster". Jet. Vol. 61, No. 9: 61. Nov 19, 1981.
  11. ^ "Actress Denise Nicholas Reconciles With Husband". Jet. Vol. 61, No. 13: 26. Dec 17, 1981.
  12. ^ "Song of the Lusitanian Bogey (Revival)". New York, New York: Lortel Archives: The Internet Off-Broadway Database. Retrieved 2009-12-05.
  13. ^ "Daddy Goodness". New York, New York: Lortel Archives: The Internet Off-Broadway Database. Retrieved December 5, 2009.
  14. ^ "Kongi's Harvest". New York, New York: Lortel Archives: The Internet Off-Broadway Database. Retrieved December 5, 2009.
  15. ^ "Song of the Lusitanian Bogey (Original Production)". New York, New York: Lortel Archives: The Internet Off-Broadway Database. Retrieved December 5, 2009.
  16. ^ Carter, Steve (1986). Plays by Steve Carter. New York, New York: Broadway Play Publishing, Inc. pp. 81–104. ISBN 0-88145-043-X.
  17. ^ "Viet Rock". New York, New York: Lortel Archives: The Internet Off-Broadway Database. Retrieved December 5, 2009.

External linksEdit