Leslie Uggams(Photo © Peter Berberian)
Leslie Uggams
(Photo © Peter Berberian)
Leslie Uggams had no idea how her life would change when she checked her phone messages one evening last fall. "My husband and I had spent a nice, leisurely day just hanging out and going to the movies," she recalls. "When we got home, the answering machine in the office was blinking and Grahmme suggested we wait until morning to listen, but I thought it might be from someone in the family. Well, there were all these frantic messages from the producers of On Golden Pond at the Kennedy Center; Diahann Carroll had to bow out of the show and they wanted me to do the part. The first preview was in one week. Next thing I know, I'm talking to them and they're sending the script over that night. So I'm reading and reading, and they're already calling back. I told them, 'I'm only on page 39. Give me until the morning!'"

When morning came, Uggams accepted the role of Ethel Thayer -- a decision that has led to both a Helen Hayes Award nomination for Best Actress and a return to Broadway. On Golden Pond is now playing at the Cort Theater, with the iconic James Earl Jones co-starring as Ethel's husband Norman and Linda Powell as their daughter Chelsea. "When I walked into the rehearsal room that first day, the cast looked shocked," Uggams recalls. "They had been making a list of people who were crazy enough to do this, but I don't think I was on it."

Uggams had one primary consideration in tackling the role on such short notice: "I couldn't pass up the chance to work with Jimmy, who is one of the greatest actors of all time, since we've never worked on stage together. In fact, in those early performances at the Kennedy Center, all I could really think about was, 'I am on stage with James Earl Jones and I can't embarrass him or myself.' From the beginning, we had great chemistry. We're both inquisitive about every little thing having to do with our characters and every detail in the play -- and our director, Lenny Foglia, has allowed us to do that." Indeed, Uggams has nothing but the highest praise for the entire company. "We all love each other and work so well together," she says. "Linda is not only a wonderful actress and a total sweetheart, but she also looks exactly like my daughter Danielle. And little Alex Mitchell [who plays Chelsea's boyfriend's son Travis] really knocks me out."

Though all of the leads in this production are African-American, audiences will be hearing essentially the same text as they did in the original 1979 Broadway staging of the play, which starred Frances Sternhagen and Tom Aldredge. "Nothing's been changed to make this show African-American, nor is it trying to reflect that experience," says Uggams. "It's just a story about family and about always being the summer people in a community. It's a beautiful play, but it's very easy to get lost in sentimentality. I think we're getting a lot of the stuff that's

James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams in On Golden Pond(Photo © Joan Marcus)
James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams in On Golden Pond
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
underneath. Also, the play is a lot funnier than many people expect; we were constantly told that by audiences in Washington and Delaware." By the way, those who think that she is way too young to play Ethel may be amazed to hear that Uggams is in her early 60s. (She looks about 40.) "I don't want to give away all the secrets on how they make me look older, but I will say that they do put a lot of gray in my hair," she says with a laugh.

Uggams made her name as a young singer on such TV shows as Sing Along With Mitch and The Bell Telephone Hour, so it was no big surprise that Broadway came calling in 1967: She earned a Tony Award for her performance as Georgina in the musical Hallelujah, Baby! "It was a great opportunity, and I have always said that the show has one of the best scores out there," she remarks. (Uggams brought down the house when she sang "My Own Morning" from the show in last fall's City Center Encores! Bash.)

For the past 35 years, Uggams has divided her time between television (including her celebrated performance in Roots), concerts, and theater. Most recently, she starred on Broadway in August Wilson's King Hedley II (earning a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Play) and then took over the role of Muzzy in Thoroughly Modern Millie for the final 14 months of the musical's run. "That year and a half just flew by," she says. "Some people loved the show so much, they came back to see it over and over. There were these two priests who were there every Wednesday night. I think they saw it 66 times." Uggams has only one tiny regret about the Millie experience: "When we closed, they snatched that fabulous wardrobe away from me so fast!"

Along with the rest of the theater community, Uggams was saddened by the passing of the great Ossie Davis in February. She fondly recalls being directed by Davis in the 1972 film Black Girl, in which she played the part of Netta, a young woman from a poor neighborhood who betters herself by going to college. "It was on cable recently," Uggams says, "and I really liked seeing it again. We shot the whole thing in two weeks. I think it didn't do better at the time because the men who gave Ossie the money to make it didn't know anything about marketing, and they tried to sell it as a blaxploitation picture. I remember that they used this image of one of the girls with a knife!"

Doing a show like On Golden Pond at this point in her career was always part of Uggams' game plan. "I first began performing as an actress at age six [on the TV show Beulah], and I always kept studying acting," she says. "I was never this singer who just decided at one point that acting might be fun -- but there weren't a lot of opportunities for me. Some years ago, Woodie King, Jr. asked me to play the mother in a production at the New Federal Theater, and that's what got the ball rolling for me to do straight plays again." On Golden Pond's audiences will be very thankful for that.