Providence Journal, September 27, 1970
Children have to be supervised, but adults like to think they’re mature enough to go out in public without chaperones. However, if you happen to be an actor on tour to talk about a big studio movie or a network television show, and you are unusually intelligent and outspoken, you may find you are dogged every step of the way by someone whose job is to prevent you from saying the wrong thing.
As much as studios and networks value good publicity, they have a well-founded distrust of the press and the public. An actor’s slip of the tongue can be magnified into inaccurate and damaging headlines which could take away precious dollars from a movie or precious ratings points from a TV show. Or an actor might get stoned or bombed or just plain pissed off and say, “I’ll tell you about my latest film — it stinks!”
WHICH INTRODUCES lovely Denise Nicholas, who briefly visited Providence and New Bedford recently to promote one of television’s finest half-hours, “Room 222.” It was the first day of a four-day tour Ms Nicholas made as part of her contract with 20th Century Fox.
“You agree to make four promotional visits each year. I’ve already been out in the public 16 times, but they were voluntary and with young kids, so they didn’t count,” she said.
Ms. Nicholas plays guidance counselor Liz McIntyre on the ABC series, which, good as it is, tends to bleach out her blackness. The actress herself is a frank, extremely intelligent person who is resisting efforts to turn her off-screen persona into a Barbie Doll who smiles and small talks her way through innocuous interviews and public appearances.
THAT'S ONE REASON she was accompanied by a public relations watchdog, Miss Bette Ashley (a former Hartford TV weather girl, by the way). Miss Ashley turned out to be a pleasant, but typically high-strung member of the watchdog club, keeping a constant eye and ear on what Ms. Nicholas did, and how she did it.
Relations between the women were pleasant — Ms. Nicholas constantly joked about the situation — but undoubtedly there was some strain. there always is when one person is assigned to look over the shoulder of another. The strain was eased a bit by the presence of Ms. Nicholas’s hair stylist, Ann Wadlinton, a young black woman from California who apparently had never been East before.
“Ever since we arrived, Ann has done nothing but point out things like trees and wooden houses like she’s never seen them before,” Ms. Nicholas laughed. “It’s like traveling with a little kid.
Ms. Nicholas paid for those remarks because her hair stylist began making even sillier remarks. “Look, Denise, there’s an Esso station! Look there! Isn’t that a pretty street sight?”
BECAUSE MS. NICHOLAS has made volunteer appearances before groups of young blacks in Los Angeles, the people at WTEV (Channel 6), the local ABC affiliate, scheduled most of her time here among young blacks, too. She spent the morning at New Bedford’s Sgt. William H. Carney Academy, an elementary school, with an assorted group of about 30 youngsters, ages 5 to 17. She was dressed in a one-piece slack outfit of several subdued colors, over which she had what I would describe as a maroon vest that didn’t know when to stop — it almost touched the floor. She also wore an attractive wig in a style more associated with Mary Tyler Moore.
The afternoon activity involved a ground-breaking ceremony for a community center to be built by the New Bedford chapter of the NAACP. For that she wore a long, baggy, colorful (“and very, very comfortable”) dress and her own hair pulled tight above her head. (Good-bye Mary Tyler, hello Melba Moore. Definitely more militant.)
That afternoon stop proved a severe test for both Ms. Nicholas and Ms. Ashley. The actress was the guest of honor and was to turn the first shovel of dirt, but before she could do so, the ceremony was interrupted by a small group of Black Panthers who engaged NAACP members in a loud argument.
MS. NICHOLAS SAID her natural inclination was to participate, but through most of it she bit her lower lip and looked at the ground. Afterward she told me she did fire one brief shot. “I saw a young Panther sitting by the shovel, and I said, “What do you think you’re doing, you little #$%&?” If Ms. Ashley had hear that, she might have gone into cardiac arrest.
Enough became enough and Ms. Ashley signaled for Ms. Nicholas to leave, which she did — quietly and quickly. (NAACP officials eventually broke ground several minutes after she left)
On her way to Channel 6’s limousine, the actress was subjected to an unnecessary and personal verbal attack from a Panther who resented her because of her occupation. (“We don’t want no actresses comin’ down here. We gonna take care of our problems ourselves!”)
Ms. Nicholas didn’t speak until she was inside the car.
“Those Panthers are a bunch of leaderless idiots!” she exploded. “I never want that to happen again!”
Ms. Ashley and Channel 6’s Peter Mandell assured her it wouldn’t.
WHAT PARTICULARLY galls Ms. Nicholas is that she considered herself attuned to black problems and resents that her career forces her to keep her mouth shut and that her success has made her sort of an Uncle Tom-type to people such as the Panthers.
“I was very active in SNCC (Stokely Carmichael’s Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) when I was at the University of Michigan,” she said, “and I’ve always considered myself something of a radical. Now some people put me down for being a member of the establishment.”
Efforts to walk both sides of the street — to be a concerned, involved person as well as a TV star — are frustrating.
“I wish Americans would allow entertainers to express opinions, to be political.”
SHE WOULD have liked to confront the Panthers at the ground-breaking ceremony, but not because she thinks they were wrong.
“I don’t know enough of the situation. Maybe they were right. I just know they were going about it the wrong way.”
Ms. Nicholas also was disturbed by a remark made that morning during her meeting at Carney Academy It was not an easy session,, thanks to a 17-year-old boy who threw a series of tough questions at her. Not only did he want opinions about television, but also about violence as a means of achieving justice. At one point he tied television and violence together, saying programs such as “It Takes a Thief” inspire kids to steal.
That was the remark that stayed with her. And while she can see worth in TV shows such as “Room 222,” she can also be upset that people waste too much time in front of the tube.
HER HONESTY makes it difficult for her to discuss her series the way stars usually do. There’s never any gushing. She lets the program speak for itself and acknowledges — especially to young people — that “Room 222” does not try to be real, but is presented primarily for entertainment.
“The big criticism I’ve heard has come from high school students at integrated schools who say we are avoiding too many problems. they say things are just too good at Walt Whitman High. I tell them we are just a television show and have only 30 minutes a week. We cannot attempt to resolve problems in that amount of time.”
Her own criticism is that the show’s cast and writers seldom meet, and that Liz McIntyre’s relationship with teacher Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haynes), the show’s hero, has reached an awkward stage where something — such as marriage — should happen, but won’t.
THE MENTION of marriage caused Ms. Nicholas to think out loud — briefly — about her own situation.
She was married a few years ago to Gill Moses, an actor who founded the Free Southern Theater, and who was responsible for persuading Ms. Nicholas, then a pre-law student at the University of Michigan, to pursue a career in acting.
She pursued it and in the process lost a husband. Now she finds it difficult to get along with many men “who just don’t believe you when you tell them you can’t stay out and swing all night because you have an early call the next day.”
I think she was only half-kidding when she said, “I’d really like to have children, but I don’t want to get married again.”
“ROOM 222” is her second series, but even if you saw her in her first, “NYPD,” you might not remember her. She was a semi-regular in the role of the wife of Robert Hooks, who was one of the three policemen in the show.
She discovered early in her television career that black bodies with their frequently high waists and large hips present problems for white wardrobe mistresses. Black faces present problems for white make-up artists.
“Whenever they do any work on my skirts at the studio, they do it in such a way that calls attention to my big rear,” she said (and I didn’t even notice she had one). “Many black women are just as bad. A very good friend of mine used to insist on wearing hip-huggers. Every time she bent over, the slacks would come off, but she kept wearing them just the same.”
TO HELP such women, Ms. Nicholas set out last spring to write a beauty book. It will cover everything from wardrobe, to hairstyles, to skin care, and other physical problems (“Black women usually have terrible posture”) and will be published his fall.
She wasn’t finished writing it, and she takes the manuscript with her wherever she goes. (She made a few changes in one chapter during our interview.)
The book has turned out to be a much more involved project than she imagined.
“When I submitted the idea, I did it in one of the most complete outlines the publishers had ever seen. The problems has been filling in that outline. You wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve had to interview.”
The title hasn’t been decided. She wants to call it “A Primer of Black Beauty,” but the publisher, Cornerstone Library, wants to call it “The Denise Nicholas Book on Beauty,” or something similar that would put her name in the title.
Like many things she does, her book will serve two causes. She’d like to help young blacks, but also wants to make money, which is why she realistically is pushing for an early publishing date “because I’ll have more time to promote the book in the early fall than I will in November and December.”
Yes, Denise Nicholas is an interesting woman, but I can’t help but wonder how much more interesting she might be without a chaperone listening in.