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Wed, 07.12.1944

Denise Nicholas, Actress, and Writer born

Denise Nicholas

*Denise Nicolas was born on this date in 1944.  She is a Black retired actress and writer. 

From Detroit, MI, Nicholas attended the University of Michigan and studied acting in New York.  Her stage career began as an apprentice with the Free Southern Theater, touring rural Louisiana and Mississippi during the American Civil Rights Movement.  In 1969, she came to television as “Liz McKintyre” on Room 222. The role of the fictional High School’s guidance counselor earned Nicholas two Golden Globe Award nominations.  Nicholas also played councilwoman “Harriet DeLong” on the TV series In the Heat of the Night. Her stretch on the TV crime drama included acting, writing six episodes, and a two-hour TV movie. 

Nicholas married soul singer-songwriter Bill Withers on January 17, 1973. Their relationship had been volatile before their nuptials. In November 1972, Nicholas reported to authorities that Withers flew to Tucson, 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; she refused to press charges. The marriage ended in divorce, filed in April 1974, and finalized in December 1974.   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 tried.   

While coping with the loss of her sister, Nicholas met CBS sports anchor Jim Hill at a Sacramento poetry reading in June 1980. They married on Valentine's Day in 1981. The couple separated in October 1981, and she filed for divorce before reconciling soon after. Nicholas filed for divorce for the final time in 1984, and the divorce was finalized in 1987.   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 in August 2005. it received a starred review in Publishers Weekly. It 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 and the American Library Association's Black Caucus Award for debut fiction the same year.  Brown University commissioned Nicholas to write a staged adaptation of Freshwater Road, which was presented in May 2008.  

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