A biography of Denise Nicholas

Award-winning author-actress-producer Denise Nicholas’' career, an intense journey from apprentice actress and founding member of the American Civil Rights Movement’'s Free Southern Theatre, to founding member of off-Broadway’s legendary Negro Ensemble Company, to starring roles on television and film dramas and comedies, has  settled into the work of her earliest dreams.  All the joys and sorrows of living life fully have culminated in her current career as writer and award-winning author of Freshwater Road.


Nicholas'’ extraordinary 2005 debut novel, Freshwater Road, which draws upon her compelling personal story during 1964’'s “"Freedom Summer,”" has been hailed by The Washington Post as “"Superb…... a memorable book…...it is impossible to praise this book too much…...surely the best novel about the Civil Rights Era since ‘"The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.’”" Newsday called it “"A breathtaking debut”" and Entertainment Weekly described it as “Hypnotic.”

Freshwater Road has been optioned for motion picture development by Scott/Burns Productions and Appledown Films with Nicholas joining them as a co-producer and screenwriter, adapting her own novel.

Nicholas'’ semi-autobiographical Freshwater Road, (Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books Division) is the coming-of-age story of Celeste Tyree, a University of Michigan student who volunteers for the One Man, One Vote drive in Mississippi during 1964’'s “"Freedom Summer.”" It was originally published by Agate in August 2005 to critical praise, including a starred review in Publishers Weekly which heralded Nicholas’' novel as “"A rich absorbing debut…...sometimes gorgeous, sometimes terrifying, the debut of a talented writer.”"

Selected as one of the “"Best Books of 2005”" by The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Newsday and The Chicago Tribune, the novel won the 2006 Zora Neal Hurston / Richard Wright Award for debut fiction as well as the American Library Association's Black Caucus Award for debut fiction the same year.  Freshwater Road received a 2006 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award Honorable Mention and was added to Wayne State University’'s Arthur L. Johnson African American Literature Special Collection in 2007. Freshwater Road was a Simon & Schuster Book Club Pick. In May 2008, Brown University presented a theatrical adaptation of the novel to full houses and critical acclaim. 

As an actress, Nicholas has been acclaimed for her portrayals of complex, resilient, resourceful women on film, television and the stage, most memorably her ground-breaking starring role as high school guidance counselor, "“Liz McIntyre"” on the ABC comedy-drama series Room 222, and for co-starring as “"Councilwoman Harriet DeLong"” opposite Carroll O’Connor  on the long-running NBC/CBS drama series In the Heat of the Night. Nicholas also costarred opposite Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier in several films and television programs.  Along the way, Nicholas has garnered three consecutive Golden Globe Award nominations for “"Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series"“(Room 222) and three NAACP Image Awards. Nicholas is the recipient of two local Los Angeles Emmys for producing and narrating the 1981 PBS special Voices of My People: In Celebration of Black Poetry.


In addition to her co-starring role on In the Heat of the Night, Nicholas wrote six episodes of the dramatic series and thus began her second career as a writer. When the series 6-season run concluded, Nicholas enrolled in the Masters Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, eventually finding her way to the Journeymen's Writing Workshop under the tutelage of author Janet Fitch who mentored Nicholas for the next five years. Nicholas also attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Workshop, and the Natalie Goldberg Workshop, in Taos, New Mexico.

In the newly released, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC” (University of Illinois Press), Nicholas writes of her time with the Free Southern Theater in Mississippi and Louisiana during the most violent days of the Civil Rights Movement. 

As a youngster, Denise appeared on the August 25, 1960 cover of Jet Magazine as an honor student at Northwestern University’'s National High School Institute.  Over the years, Nicholas has graced the Jet Magazine cover over 10 times.


Nicholas attended the University of Michigan as a pre-law major, leaving early to join the Free Southern Theater in Mississippi. After two years touring the South, she went on to New York and joined the Negro Ensemble Company participating in its rigorous training program and its first season of productions. From the stage of the St. Marks Playhouse in New York, Nicholas was cast as "Liz McIntyre," the guidance counselor on the ABC series Room 222.


Nicholas received her BA  from the University of Southern California. She makes her home in Southern California where she has completed work on the screen adaptation of Freshwater Road and is working on her second novel.

Freshwater Road