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Barbara McNair, 72; versatile actress, nightclub singer

February 06, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

The backdrop for Barbara McNair's career -- as a Broadway actress, nightclub singer and host of a television musical variety show -- was her beauty. In the late 1960s and '70s, at the height of her fame, her looks won her comparisons to Lena Horne, a spot on the list of the 10 most beautiful people in the world and commentary that was sometimes ill-informed.

She responded with candidness and a sense of herself as a self-styled ambassador for her community.

"Lenny Bruce used to say about me that I was a Caucasian, that someone took a paintbrush and painted me brown," she told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1968. "White people are not aware that Negroes look all kinds of different ways. We don't all have wide noses and full lips."

McNair, a versatile performer who starred opposite Sidney Poitier and Rock Hudson, and described herself as the first African American woman to host a musical variety show, died of cancer Sunday at her home in Sherman Oaks, said her husband, Charles Blecka. She was 72.

In recent years, McNair played nightclubs and had a recurring role on the soap opera "General Hospital." In 2005, she opened for comedian Bob Newhart at appearances in Philadelphia and New Jersey.

Born March 4, 1934, in Racine, Wis., McNair began studying singing at an early age, encouraged by her parents to pursue her talents.

After high school, she moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA. She left after a year, reasoning that New York and the "school of hard knocks" would offer her a more useful education.

That bet paid off in 1957 when, while earning her keep doing secretarial work, the Village Vanguard club offered her a job. It was not what she expected. "People talked and smoked and drank while I sang," she told the New York Post in 1963. "People never did that in Racine. I was shocked."

The turning point in her career was a gig at the Purple Onion in New York, which led to performances at top nightclubs nationwide, including the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles and on TV's "The Ed Sullivan Show."

After starting out as a hard jazz singer, brought up on the likes of Sarah Vaughan, McNair began to turn to popular music, "not necessarily rock 'n' roll," she said, "but good solid standards."

"She's got a big great, wailing voice," her then-musical director Ralph Carmichael said in a 1966 Times story. "She swings so well I hate to hear her doing anything else."

That year, she produced an album, "The Livin' End." She also saw success with what she described as a "terrible rock 'n' roll record called 'Bobby.' "

The leap from the nightclub to the Broadway stage was a smooth one for McNair. In 1963, she replaced Diahann Carroll in the lead role of the Broadway hit "No Strings," a Richard Rodgers musical set in Paris in which an African American fashion model falls in love with a white American novelist.

The same performance that won her the praise of theater critics earned her hostility when the production traveled.

"In St. Louis and Kansas, I got a lot of hate mail and obscene phone calls," some of which included racial slurs, she told The Times in 1968. "There were no threats on my life, just messages like, 'How dare you ... stand up on stage and kiss a white man?' "

It was not the first time McNair encountered racism. She once walked out of a hotel in Miami that offered her a room but forbade her to swim in the pool. In another, she was forced to eat in the employees' dining room.

On screen, McNair had a variety of roles: a nun helping a physician played by Elvis Presley run a clinic in "Change of Habit" (1969); the wife of a black police detective played by Poitier in "They Call Me Mister Tibbs!" (1970); and a nightclub singer who is the girlfriend of an escaped prisoner in "If He Hollers Let Him Go!" (1968), which led to a controversial appearance in Playboy magazine.

Among her favorite roles was an episode of the television show "McMillan & Wife" in which she played Hudson's ex-girlfriend. One of her proudest moments came in 1969, when the syndicated "The Barbara McNair Show" premiered, said her husband, who survives her, along with a sister, Jacqueline Gaither, of Racine; and nieces and nephews. The show's guests included such stars as Bob Hope, Johnny Mathis and B.B. King.

McNair was married four times. Her husbands included Rick Manzie, her manager, who was murdered at their Las Vegas house in 1976.

Amid that notoriety, work for McNair began to dry up. She suspected the murder, which one writer would later link to alleged mob connections, was the cause, but pointed to other reasons.

"When I was making a lot of movies, they didn't want the women to look too black. But black people objected to that policy, so then the industry did a reversal -- went all the way in the other direction.... For the industry to limit itself to one look or another is unrealistic."

By then, McNair was also troubled by the all the shows that portrayed African Americans as underachievers. "There's so little to inspire the young black child," she told The Times.

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