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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : 'In the Heat of the Night's' Denise Nicholas finds the positive in past and present

January 16, 1994|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite her current visibility on "In the Heat of the Night," Denise Nicholas says that fans always want to talk about her past--specifically, "Room 222."

But Nicholas, who played counselor Liz McIntyre on ABC's landmark "Room 222" series from 1969 to 1974, doesn't mind. " 'Room 222" had a positive attitude about an integrated high school with an integrated teaching staff," she says.

Integration is also a crucial element to her "Heat" role. For three seasons she has played City Councilwoman Harriet DeLong, the love interest of Carroll O'Connor's Sheriff Bill Gillespie. Marriage is rumored to be in their future.

"About 98% of our mail is positive," she says, "but since it's about an interracial romance and we shoot in Covington, Ga. (the show is set in Mississippi), there have been some negatives."

She cites the experience of the show's prop man in a small gun store on location. He "was told--in no uncertain terms--that the 'fan' was not happy about the direction the show was going in that regard."

But, Nicholas says, "People in real life are much farther along than they are on television. Interracial romance is not that shocking to anybody. Daytime soaps deal in it heavily. It's not really new business. As an actor and traveling around, I'm really actually surprised at the joy that people seem to find in talking about it. People get giddy almost over it and say, 'Keep it up!' "

Nicholas, a native of Detroit, developed an early interest in the stage. She performed with a theatrical group throughout Mississippi and Louisiana during the 1960s.

Moving to New York, she worked off-Broadway before landing a role in "Room 222." The Emmy Award-winning series, which she says was a product of the turbulent '60s, offered "hope, right there on nighttime TV, that it would all work out. It dealt with the issues of the day and there hadn't been too many shows that did that before then."

Her favorite role, however, was opposite Bill Cosby in the Sidney Poitier-directed "Let's Do It Again" in 1975. "I crack myself up in that movie," she says, giggling.

Other movie roles include another Cosby vehicle, "Ghost Dad," which Poitier also directed. Nicholas also guest-starred in "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper," "The Cosby Show" and its spinoff, "A Different World."

She's been nominated for three NAACP Image awards for her "Heat" role, and won four NAACP Image awards for her performances in two Poitier films ("Let's Do It Again" and "Piece of the Action"), as well as for guest-starring roles on "Police Story" and "The Paper Chase." She'll be a presenter at this year's 26th annual show, which airs Jan. 22 on NBC.

Nicholas has authored six episodes of "In the Heat of the Night." This season she's written one script and collaborated with O'Connor, who is also executive producer, on another to air later in the season.

Currently, she's working on a screenplay that incorporates her favorite aspects of film: politics and romance. Moreover, Nicholas hopes that her writing credits will prove her abilities to other producers who might give her the same opportunity O'Connor has.

"Now the thing to do is to convince the industry that it's a general talent I have and that I can write for other things," she says. "That's the thing about this business, you're always convincing other people you can do things other than what you are doing at that moment."

"In the Heat of the Night" airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBS. Repeats air daily at 3 p.m. on KTLA and at 6 p.m. on KTTY. "The 26th Annual NAACP Image Awards" airs Jan. 22 at 11:30 p.m. on NBC.

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