Leslie Uggams is a legend.
Uggams is the commencement speaker for the University of Connecticut’s School of Fine Arts.
Now 71-years-old, Uggams’ career as an actress started at the age of 6. She has been on Broadway, the silver screen, television and has worked as a recording artist for over half a century.
A movie co-star with Charlton Heston, an award winner for her starring role in the famous TV miniseries “Roots,” a Tony award winner for best lead actress in a musical for “Hallelujah, Baby!” and an Emmy award winner for outstanding hostess in a variety series, Uggams has had an unbelievably distinguished career (she was also the first black woman to host a musical variety show).
During her career, Uggams performed with Dean Martin, Julie Andrews, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Carson. She toured the country with symphony orchestras.
Uggams has recently appeared on such shows as “The Good Wife” and “Nurse Jackie.” She is also casted in a new film for 20th Century Fox, Deadpool. Uggams is currently on the Board of Directors of the Apollo Theater.
UConn and Uggams have a special relationship. Last year, she performed with the help of many of UConn’s theater students on campus in the musical “Gypsy.”
“I feel a kinship to UConn,” Uggams said. “We had a great production with a lot of the students as a part of the show. We formed a bond, and I was honored when they gave me this honor of being a graduation speaker.”
Uggams also marveled at “the beauty of the campus” and “what’s been done.” She even convinced her dentist’s daughter to consider UConn from out of state, saying that when she visited, it “really knocked her socks off.”
Speaking of her career, Uggams said she doesn’t necessarily prefer any type of performing arts she’s involved in, be it the movies, television, singing, or Broadway, though she did mention that she thrives in the presence of a live audience.
“You can’t do better than live,” Uggams said. “You have an audience right there, and you get an immediate response. You have more control when you do a concert or you’re performing live.”
The actress and singer’s lengthy career began with Uggams performing alongside the likes of Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, and the artists mentioned earlier. She thinks this early exposure to great talents is what taught her how to lead a successful career.
“I got to work with so many legends,” Uggams said. “I looked up to all of them because they knew what they were doing, they knew their craft. I was working with them at such an early age, that my tutelage under them, well, I learned so much from them, that was my college.”
Uggams credits her longevity to personal traits essential to surviving in show business.
“I’m curious, and I don’t mind taking risks,” Uggams said. “I don’t try and live in the past of what I did. It never gets stale for me.”
“Roots,” a TV miniseries from the mind of Alex Haley, whom many, including Uggams, consider the defining moment of her career, is looked back upon by Uggams as being one of her favorite ensembles to work with.
“As far as a whole group at once, I would have to say “Roots” was the best,” Uggams said. “All those incredible actors and actresses that were apart of “Roots,” they hadn’t had a chance to show what they could do, because they had been working in a bunch of stereotypical roles, and they really shone.”
Uggams further spoke to her cultural impact as a black woman.
“Well, I was aware of some cultural breakthroughs because there wasn’t a lot of us being seen on television, so I knew that I was breaking down a lot of barriers,” Uggams said. “But I loved what I was doing, and I was determined that I was gonna do it. It had a lot to do with my father saying: ‘don’t ever say you cant.’ Growing up, I used to say ‘Hello, world, aren’t you lucky that I’m in it?’”
Uggams is a knowledge dispensary, fueled by experience. She spoke about getting her foot in the door in show business, explaining how difficult the field really is. To Uggams, though, every challenge is an opportunity.
“It’s a tough business, a lot of it has to do with luck,” Uggams said. “Sometimes a lot of things in your career you think you can plan for, you can’t. Most of the great stuff I’ve done in my career came out of the blue. I was prepared for every opportunity because I had studied, I knew my craft, I had been taking acting and dancing and singing since I was five, and I never stopped taking those lessons. When opportunity knocked I was ready for it. You still have to learn your craft, but preparedness and discipline is very important in any career that you do. This is a business where you can’t be thin-skinned, you are always being rejected,”
One of Uggams’s most memorable moments was a personal one with her father.
“I think when my father said to me ‘I’m very proud of you,’ that stuck with me,” Uggams said. “He wasn’t that crazy about show business in the beginning. He wasn’t a man of a lot of words, and he didn’t think show business was a real future. But when he said: ‘I just want you to know that I’m very proud of you,’ that was quite something.”