By Michael A. Lipton
November 18, 2002 12:00 PM

Hattie Winston remembers growing up poor and black in Greenville, Miss., where the aunt who raised her worked as a housekeeper for a wealthy white family. “When I visited her at work,” says Winston, “I walked right up to the front door and knocked.” Whereupon the homeowner would chastise her: “Hattie Mae, you’re supposed to go through the back.” “I’d say, ‘Why?’ I never did get an answer. There is no answer for a question like that.”

There’s also no question that Winston, 57, who plays Margaret Wyborn, the no-nonsense head nurse to curmudgeonly Dr. John Becker (Ted Danson) on CBS’s hit sitcom Becker, has never hesitated to speak her mind. “She is the wise, mature anchor of the show,” says Danson. But “when she gets impatient,” says Shawnee Smith (daffy nurse’s aide Linda), “like Margaret, she takes no crap from nobody.”

Winston’s husband of 24 years, composer Harold Wheeler, laughingly concurs. “You cannot find a nicer person,” says Wheeler, 58, the orchestrator for the hit Broadway musical Hairspray. “But there’s a tough side to her that I love, and people don’t see it unless she’s really pushed.” Once, he recalls, while they were waiting in line to board a flight on which they had booked first-class seats, an airline employee walked up to them and asked, “Are you first-class?” “Now, somebody might answer yes and leave it at that,” says Wheeler. “But Hattie, she wanted to know why they hadn’t asked anyone else in line this. She makes people stop and think.”

Winston says she has been that way since childhood. Raised by her father’s sister Birtha Williams and Birtha’s husband, Louis Pampley, she recalls shooing away the white bill collectors who tried to barge into the family home. (Her birth parents abandoned her as an infant, and she has no contact with them.) Williams and Pampley, a lumber-mill foreman who died in 1970, “worked hard so I could attend parochial school,” says Winston. “They felt education was important.”

So was music. In the choir of Birtha’s Pentecostal church Hattie honed her singing skills. Her showbiz aspirations prompted her, at 13, to move to New York City, where she lived with a girlfriend’s parents, George and Viola Wray, before winning a voice scholarship to Howard University in 1963. A year later she dropped out to perform in Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. “My dream was starting,” she says. (Fulfilling a promise to Birtha, she is now working toward a B.A. in liberal arts from L.A.’s Antioch College.) While acting in Two Gentlemen of Verona on Broadway in 1971, Winston (who uses her birth father’s surname) met up with Wheeler, a Howard classmate and the play’s musical supervisor. “We bonded through the music,” she says, and began dating. They wed in 1978 and five years later adopted a baby, Samantha, now 19 and a college sophomore. Meanwhile Winston began to work steadily in films (Beverly Hills Cop III), (True Crime) and TV (Nurse, Homefront) before landing Becker in 1998. Still, “her passion is singing,” says Wheeler, with whom she shares a five-bedroom, Tudor-style home in Encino, Calif. With his help she is planning a one-woman cabaret show for Feb. 14 and hopes to do more. “You will hear about me singing in the city of L.A.,” she says. “Even if it means I’ll be standing on a corner of Ventura Boulevard!”

Michael A. Lipton

Lorenzo Benet in Encino