Leslie Uggams is an American actress and singer. She has been working in the entertainment industry since 1951, when she was just 6 years old, and then rose to become the first African American person to appear as a series regular on a variety show with her appearance on Mitch Miller’s “Sing Along With Mitch.” Uggams is best known for portraying the role of Kizzy Reynolds in the popular television series “Roots.” The actress earned nominations for an Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award for her performance on the show.
Uggams established her career on stage and performed in the critically acclaimed “Hallelujah, Baby!” which won her a Theatre World Award and the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. This musical is what launched her to stardom, and Uggams began to appear in plays on a regular basis. In 2001 she was in “King Hedley II,” by August Wilson and was again nominated for a Tony Award, this time for Best Actress in a Play.
Studying at the Professional Children’s School of New York, Uggams met her husband, Grahame Pratt. They fell madly in love but were separated when Pratt had to return to Australia. The couple was reunited sometime later, and Pratt became Uggams’ manager. The two were married in 1965 despite interracial marriage being illegal in some parts of the United States until 1967. Their daughter Danielle was born in 1970, and their son Justice in 1976.
Uggams and Pratt have been married for almost 60 years, but they have had to face adversity and hate mail just for being in love. Keep reading to learn more about Uggams and her relationship with Pratt.
Leslie Uggams was born on May 25, 1943, in Harlem, New York. Growing up, Uggams’ parents did everything they could to foster a loving and supportive home for their daughter. “They were happy to keep me busy,” Uggams said. “Because we lived in a tough neighborhood. And they were trying to keep me safe and motivated. So, I took every kind of lesson you can imagine.” Talented from a very early age, Uggams was a featured player at the prestigious Apollo Theater, where she performed alongside legendary artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. “Oh, I watched every single show. It was the best school because you were seeing everything on and off the stage,” Uggams shared.
When she began performing on “Sing Along With Mitch,” Uggams became a household name. “It was the first time that an African American was on every week on national television,” she said. “The South wouldn’t take the show in the beginning because I was on it. And so, the sponsors and NBC kept saying to Mitch, ‘Well, just have her on a few times.’ And Mitch said, ‘No, she’s part of the family, she’s gonna be on.’”
When asked if she was aware of the significance of being the first Black person to appear as a regular on a variety show, Uggams answered:
“Yes, I was. And it was a responsibility that I gladly took on. You couldn’t mess up. You couldn’t have any kind of scandal. But it was a lot of pressure because I knew that I was carrying my race on my shoulders, which I gladly wanted to do.”
Grahame Pratt, who would later marry the iconic Uggams, was born on Nov. 13, 1936, in Australia. While not a famous actress and TV personality like his wife, Pratt did star in a small number of movies and TV shows in the 1960s and 1970s. These were mostly small appearances as extras for one episode or small side characters. The 1972 disaster movie “Skyjacked” is one of these small productions.
The couple met more or less by accident in Sydney, Australia. As Uggams later recounted, she had her first appearance at the Chequers Club, a hot spot in Sydney in the 1960s. Pratt was at the club with some friends and already a bit drunk by the time he found his courage and asked Uggams to join them. The pair hit it off and continued seeing each other over the following days, but Uggams had to return to her life in the States. It would be 12 months until the couple saw each other again in the flesh.
The love between Uggams and Pratt is one for the ages. “He’s smart and witty and fearless,” Uggams told People in 2018. They took a leap in spite of their differences and never looked back. “He had never dated a Black woman before,” Uggams said. The couple was engaged for five months and have been happily married for nearly 60 years.
Things were not always easy, however. The first time Pratt introduced his parents to Uggams, he wrote them a letter that said: “Now I don’t wanna hear any problems, I’m gonna bring a Black woman home.”
But Pratt’s mother wasn’t worried about Uggams’ race. “She said, ‘Is she Presbyterian?’” Uggams recalled. “And how ironic it was that I am Presbyterian!” For the couple, all of the adversity was worth it, even though it was trying at times. “It was not as hard as I expected it to be,” Uggams shared. “I think the reason is that Grahame was not an American white man. But of course, we did get mail.” Uggams described the type of letters she received and said they included slurs and were “not pleasant to read.”
Uggams and Pratt have persisted even with the hardships and have a happy family of two kids and one grandchild. Their children, Danielle Chambers, born Pratt, and Justice Pratt, have both entered the performance industry.
Their daughter Danielle has chosen to focus on theater and music, performing several roles in musical and regional theater productions. According to IMDB, she was a cast member of the first national tour of the “Titanic” musical. Her brother Justice has entered the world of theater as well, performing at the Abbott Kaplan Theatre Purchase situated in New York. Unlike his sister, however, he has also branched out to minor roles in TV series such as “Crossing Jordan.”
The secret to a long marriage, according to Uggams, is: “We laugh all the time — but it ain’t always roses. We have fun together.” At age 79, Uggams is still working. She has recently been involved with the superhero franchise “Deadpool,” in which she plays the title character’s roommate Blind Al. Showing off her range of talent, Uggams excelled in the comedic role.
Which of Uggams’ works do you enjoy the most? Do you have opinions on the hate mail she received? Let us know, and feel free to pass this along to your friends and family.
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