Leslie Uggams is a Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress and singer whose career has brought her from Harlem (Uptown) to Broadway (Downtown), the big screen (Skyjacked) to television (The Leslie Uggams Show). Perhaps best known for her stirring portrayal of Kizzy in the landmark TV mini-series Alex Haley’s Roots (Critics Choice Award, Emmy and Golden Globe nominations), Leslie has performed to critical and popular acclaim ever since her first professional appearances at the age of nine at the famed Apollo Theater in New York City. There she opened for such musical legends as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. Now, after six decades on stage and screen, Leslie is a legend in her own right. She is now on the Board of Directors of the Apollo Theater, and she was recently honored with the American Artist Award in a gala ceremony held at Arena Stage in Washington, DC.
On BroadwayLeslie made her stunning musical theater debut starring in Hallelujah, Baby! earning both Tony and Theater World awards. Since then she has starred on Broadway in Blues in the Night, Her First Roman with Richard Kiley, Jerry’s Girls, Anything Goes at the Lincoln Center Theatre (also the first national tour), King Headley II with Brian Stokes Mitchell (Tony Award nomination), Thoroughly Modern Millie, and On Golden Pond opposite James Earl Jones. Off-Broadway Leslie has won Audelco Awards for several highly praised star turns including The Old Settler, Keb Mo’s blues musical Thunder Knocking on the Door, and First Breeze of Summer at the acclaimed Signature Theater.
Regionally Leslie has starred in A Little Night Music at Michigan Opera Theatre, The Rink at the Cape Playhouse, Hello, Dolly! and Into the Woods at Houston’s Theater Under the Stars, Master Class at TheaterFest in New Jersey, and Call Me Madam and Blue at Paper Mill Playhouse, NJ, and Mame at The Wick. Leslie also made theater history recently by becoming the first African-American actress to portray the iconic character of Mama Rose in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s acclaimed production of Gypsy.
Throughout her storied career Leslie has been making history. She first captivated audiences at the age of six portraying the niece of Ethel Waters on the national network television series Beulah. At the age of nine, she performed 28 shows per week on stage at the world-famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. Soon she was making special guest appearances on Your Show of Shows, The Milton Berle Show and The Arthur Godfrey Show. At 15, now enrolled in the New York Professional Children’s School, she appeared on the CBS-TV quiz show Name That Tune and famously won $12,500 toward her college education. She also memorably sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
That appearance and performance proved to be fortuitous. Mitch Miller, head of recordings for Columbia Records, was so impressed by her vocal talents that he signed her to a recording contract and then made her a regular on Sing Along With Mitch. As such, Leslie Uggams became the first African-American performer to be regularly featured on a weekly, national prime time television series.
Concurrent with her musical composition and theory studies at the Julliard School, Leslie released the first of 10 albums she was to record for Columbia Records, including her first hit single, “Morgan.” Alternating major nightclub appearances with her stage work, Leslie appeared in the musical The Boyfriend in Berkeley, California, and soon made her Broadway debut as the lead in Hallelujah, Baby! That performance earned Leslie the 1968 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Broadway Musical Comedy. She followed that with a starring role as Cleopatra in her next Broadway show, Her First Roman, opposite Richard Kiley.
In 1970, Leslie again made history by becoming the first African-American woman to star in her own musical variety television series, The Leslie Uggams Show, on CBS-TV. She also signed a new recording contract with Atlantic Records. In 1972, she made her dramatic film debut opposite Charlton Heston in the MGM motion picture Skyjacked, followed by Black Girl, the acclaimed film directed by Ossie Davis. However, it was Leslie's portrayal of Kizzy in the landmark 1977 television mini-series Alex Haley's Roots – at the time the most watched dramatic show in television history – that won her worldwide recognition as a dramatic actress. For her unforgettable performance Leslie earned the Critics Choice Award (Best Supporting Actress) and was nominated for both Emmy and Hollywood Foreign Press Association Golden Globe awards (Best Leading Actress).
Two years later Leslie starred in another acclaimed miniseries, Backstairs at the White House, in which she portrayed White House maid Lillian Rogers Parks. Based on Parks’ biographical account of her 30-year career that covered eight presidential administrations, the mini-series preceded the much heralded movie The Butler by 35 years! The ABC-TV movie of the week Sizzle was next followed by the HBO special Christmas at Radio City Music Hall. In 1982 Leslie won an Emmy as co-host of the NBC-TV series Fantasy.
Throughout her career Leslie has maintained a very active schedule of concert dates and television variety show guest appearances. She has shared the stage with such greats as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Tom Jones, Julie Andrews, Carol Burnett, Ben Vereen, Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan and The Beatles. In 1987, she received rave reviews for her concert tour with Peter Nero and Mel Torme in The Great Gershwin Concert, and her performance of “If He Walked into My Life” during the all-star tribute to the legendary Jerry Herman in Jerry Herman's Broadway at the Hollywood Bowl is considered to be one of the definitive interpretations of that iconic song.
Currently Leslie continues to split her time between theater, television, concert halls, and the recording studio. In addition to her starring role as the indefatigable Mama Rose in Gypsy, she also recently starred in the New York City Center Encores! presentation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream. That performance is gloriously preserved on a live audio recording. Previously Leslie took the theater world by storm starring as the legendary Lena Horne in the Broadway-bound musical Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Story. Not only did Leslie earn an Ovation Award nomination for portraying one of her own earliest role models. She and the show also broke the all-time house attendance record at the Pasadena Playhouse where the musical enjoyed its world premiere.
Recently Leslie has been touring nationally, performing to sold-out audiences, with her new cabaret show Classic Uggams and her autobiographical one-woman musical Uptown/Downtown which chronicles her extraordinary career in stories and song. To date these shows have earned the LA Drama Critics Circle Award, the NAACP Theatre Award, an IRNE Award, and Broadway World’s People’s Choice Award. From New York to Boston and Los Angeles, critics have raved, calling Leslie “dazzling,” “indefatigable,” and “delectable!” Leslie has also earned similar stellar reviews for her two-CD audio recording of Uptown/Downtown which includes all 21 of the show’s songs.
Leslie also tours the country appearing in concert halls with major symphony orchestras. She has performed with The National Symphony Orchestra, The Cincinnati Pops, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and The Rhode Island Symphony, to name a few. In addition, she has famously performed with the NSO before 300,000 people during a Memorial Day Concert on the West Lawn of the U. S. Capitol. That concert reached millions more as the event was televised live by PBS.
Recent television appearances include Memphis Beat; NYC 22; The Good Wife; and an upcoming three-episode arc on Nurse Jackie. Recent recordings include the cast recording of Pipe Dream; Uptown/Downtown; On My Way to You: The Songs of Alan and Marilyn Bergman; and Wishing You a Happy New Year with the Curtis McKonly Orchestra.