*The fourth season of PBS’ “Pioneers of Television” will include a “Breaking Barriers” episode dedicated to the actors who changed the racial landscape of the small screen…often against improbable odds.
“The network was trying to get rid of me because the South would not carry the show,” says Leslie Uggams, discussing her first TV gig on NBC’s “Sing Along with Mitch” during the early 60s.
The New York City native started her career in 1950 as the niece of Ethel Waters in ABC’s “Beulah.” She made her singing debut soon after on “The Lawrence Welk Show” before becoming a regular on “Sing Along with Mitch,” starring record producer-conductor Mitch Miller. Her casting created serious problems for the network below the Mason Dixon line.
“We were blacked out; no pun intended,” Uggams told us. “We were only seen in certain markets because the South went, you know, this girl here.”
Below, Uggams reveals just how far NBC was willing to go to placate the South after Mitch Miller refused to fire her from his show,
Below, is what all the fuss was about. In this episode of “Sing Along with Mitch” with guest star Shirley Temple, Leslie Uggams saunters in to perform at the 2:29 mark.
Uggams went on to star in 1969’s “The Leslie Uggams Show,” TV’s first network variety series to feature an African-American host since Nat King Cole did it in the mid 1950s. She also earned television’s top honor, an Emmy Award, for her role as Kizzy in the 1977 miniseries “Roots.”
PBS’ “Pioneers of Television” premieres tonight at 8 with the episode, “Standup to Sitcom,” featuring stand up comics who transitioned to sitcoms.
Uggams appears in the “Breaking Barriers” episode, premiering Tuesday, April 29.