Schmoozing with Sinatra and The Beatles: The Amazing Life & Career of Leslie Uggams, Deadpool's Secret Weapon
The prolific actress and singer recalls a career which includes performing with The Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
There’s a semi-hidden Hollywood treasure in Deadpool.
Uggams’ entertainment career spans six decades, countless stages and screens. One which began at the ripe old age of 6 and includes a Tony, an Emmy and performances with icons like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Charlton Heston.
“I was a ham at 5, I was working at 6,” Uggams, 72, tells PEOPLE via a phone call from Chicago, where she is currently filming a guest arc on Empire. “I started very early. I came from a musical family.”
Her father sang in the Hall Johnson choir and her mother danced at New York’s historic Cotton Club. “She was a single woman then, way before she ever thought about me,” Uggams recalls with a laugh of her mother’s stint at the Harlem hot spot. “I had an aunt Eloise, my father’s sister who was on Broadway in The Blackbirds of 1928, then she did a stint with Ethel Waters and then she was in Porgy and Bess and St. Louis Woman, so she came from the theater world.”
Uggams eventually followed suit. Her résumé reads like the work of three people and includes multiple industry legends. Her first professional gigs were at New York’s famed Apollo Theater, where she opened for Armstrong, Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington.
“My first Broadway show was Hallelujah, Baby, I won a Tony award for that, so that was an exciting time in my life,” Uggams says of her early career. “I had my own variety TV show on CBS [she was the first African-American woman to do so] and was also in Roots, [in which she played Kizzy and was nominated for an Emmy and Golden Globe], that’s something that goes down in history. And then I got to work with people like Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. I also started at the Apollo when I was 9. The first person I got to work with was Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, so I got all this schooling from watching these incredible people.”
Those incredible people also treated her like she was family.
“Off the stage, they embraced me and my mother because my mother was always with me,” remembers Uggams. “I spent time at Louis’ home, it wasn’t just working at the Apollo, we were part of the family for a while. With Ella she just loved me and she was always trying to feed me, I worked with her in the summertime so inevitably when the ice cream truck would come along she’d buy me ice cream. And Dinah was a whole different thing because she was an extraordinary performer and she embraced me off the stage as well. Later on when I was at the New York Professional Children’s School where I went for elementary and high school, her two sons ended up coming to the school so I kind of looked after them while they were at the school. Whenever we had a bazaar or fundraiser or something, she’d buy all kinds of crap,” Uggams recalls with a laugh. “She’d spend about $500 on school stuff, she was very close with me.”
Uggams continued performing and kept with her schoolwork. She landed a record deal at 15 after an appearance on TV’s Name that Tune and released her first album while studying at Juilliard. The work kept coming, along with the accolades and the icons.
“I worked with Charlton Heston in Skyjacked and that was an interesting experience, he’s such an icon,” she says. “I remember saying, ‘Mr. Heston,’ and him saying, ‘Don’t call me Mr. Heston. Call me Charlton’ and I said, ‘Okay, but you don’t understand, I’ve watched you on the screen, I don’t know if I can do that.’ ”
Hobnobbing with Legends
And then there was her friendship with Sammy Davis Jr. and run-ins with Sinatra and the Fab Four.
“With Sammy, he was such a fan of mine and a personal friend, he always said ‘You should be doing more stuff! People don’t realize you’re talented, you should be doing more.’ ” Uggams recalls. “He was always trying to promote me. And of course, the great F.S. as I call him, [Frank Sinatra] I got to do a special with him and I remember I had Bob Mackie. Bob Mackie used to do my clothes and I had him make this special dress and on one side it was black and on the other side it was nude. I walked onto the set and he looked at me and he said, ‘Are you trying to entice me?’ ” Uggams remembers with a laugh. “We did the duet of The Lady is a Tramp and that is on YouTube. That was a fun, great experience to work with the great Frank Sinatra.”
Another great experience for Uggams, was when she worked with The Beatles.
“It was at the Paramount theater,” she recalls. “And I also met Bob Dylan, he was hanging out backstage with The Beatles. And I remember that Paul [McCartney] and John [Lennon] said to me, ‘Oh you remind me of Shirley Bassey,’ and at the time I didn’t know who Shirley was but I met her after and we became good friends. But it was like, ‘They must mean this as a good thing.’ I don’t remember what I sang. To tell you quite frankly, it was one of those moments where you are having an out-of-body experience, because you’re seeing all these teenagers, it looked like the balcony was moving because there were so many people. This is The Beatles – you couldn’t even hear what they were singing because people were screaming so loudly. I thought to myself, ‘I’m making history here.’ ”
From Australia, with Love
In the midst of Uggams’ incredibly enviable brushes with all kinds of fame, the multi-talented lady made time for romance when she met and fell in love with Aussie Grahame Pratt during a performance tour in Sydney.
“When I went there for the first time, the people were just so warm and so friendly,” Uggams says of her visit down under. “That’s why I fell in love with the country and fell in love with my husband.” The couple recently celebrated their 50th anniversary. Their secret? They still like each other.
“He is one of my biggest supporters and ra ra ra-ers,” Uggams says of Pratt. “My Aussie. He does all the business part of my career, so it works great for us because we love being together. Some people don’t, they get married and they don’t want to be together, but we love being together. It’s a lot of fun. We’ve been on the journey together.”
Diving into Deadpool
And what a journey it continues to be. Uggams says she is particularly excited to hear what her Australian relatives think of her performance in the very R-rated Deadpool, a role that came along when she least expected it.
“Every time I think I’m seeking out something, something comes along that I totally didn’t expect,” she says. “Deadpool being one of them. It was a funny time for me because I was doing a musical in Florida when I got sent the material to read. It was such a hush-hush project, I didn’t even know what I was playing, I just knew it was two pages of dialogue and I had to work it out for myself. That was an experience.”
But just as she has done for decades, Uggams had no problem sinking her acting chops into the role, F-bombs, drug references and all.
“I love Blind Al,” she says of her visually impaired, opinionated, strong character, who is also Deadpool’s roommate. “I love that she gives it right back to Deadpool, she doesn’t take any stuff from him and I think that’s why they have such a great relationship, because he knows he’s going to get the truth from her when he’s running his mouth off.” Uggams also had no trouble bonding with her equally mouthy leading man.
“Ryan and I had chemistry right away which was great,” she says. “That made a difference, same with [director] Tim Miller. “It was a great, great set to be on.”
Might we see Al in a sequel?
“Let me put it this way, they’re not kicking me to the curb,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not being evicted!”
Making Her Mark
Sequel or no, Uggams is in it for the long haul. Because there’s no business like show business.
“I love my craft,” she says, touching on the fact that while there is still work to do, she is especially grateful for the improved opportunities over the years for women of color in Hollywood.
“Compared to when I started, it’s a big, big wave of change. You didn’t see a lot of us being represented on the screen,” she says. “And if we were, it was as a maid and we’d have a rare actress, like Dorothy Dandridge when she did Carmen Jones, that was like ‘Oh my God, she’s starring!’ It’s come a long way compared to when I started out, but that doesn’t meant that we are where we should be. Women-wise, you hit a certain age and all of a sudden you’re not the leading person anymore. We’re still fighting that kind of battle, but when you see people like Meryl Streep who is over 40 and doing roles, at least they’re doing something.”
Uggams also includes Viola Davis in that “doing something important” category.
“That’s my girl! We did King Hedley II, the August Wilson play together,” she says. “I just love her and am so thrilled with her success. Every time she opens her mouth when she gets an award, she tells it like it is and I just adore her for that.”
Uggams is just as adorable. Her infectious attitude and passion for her work is as charming as it impressive. And she shows no signs of cynicism or slowing down.
“Listen, I still feel that the business is magic, when you are able to do what you love doing and you touch people’s lives,” she says. “That’s the most important thing. I have people who come up and say, ‘Oh my God, you changed my life when you did Kizzy,’ or they saw me at a concert and say, ‘I really loved what you sang, it reminded me of my mother and father.’ I have nothing to complain about. And here I am, not only in this successful movie but I’m doing Empire. Hel-lo!”
And what precisely is she doing on that fan-loved Fox drama, in the midst of those powerful, quotable characters?
“Oh I’m playing somebody that’s really interesting,” Uggams teases with a giggle. “You will see.”
That we will. Deadpool is now in theaters, and Empire returns March 30.