Donna Denise Nicholas (born July 12, 1944) is an American actress and social activist who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement. She is known primarily for her role as high-school guidance counselor Liz McIntyre on the ABC comedy-drama series Room 222, and for her role as Councilwoman Harriet DeLong on the NBC/CBS drama series In the Heat of the Night.
Nicholas was born in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of Louise Carolyn and Otto Nicholas. She spent her early years in Detroit. With the remarriage of her mother to Robert Burgen, she moved to Milan, Michigan, a small town south of Ann Arbor. At the age of 16, she appeared on the August 25, 1960, cover of Jet magazine as a future school teacher prospect at the National High School Institute at Northwestern University. She graduated from Milan High School in 1961. Nicholas is the middle child of three, with an older brother, Otto, and a younger sister, Michele, who was murdered.
She entered the University of Michigan as a Pre-Law major. While at Michigan, she switched her major to Latin-American politics, Spanish, and English. She subsequently transferred to Tulane University, where she majored in Fine Arts. Her acting debut was in a Spanish-language play presented by her language class. She left college early to join the Free Southern Theater (FST), during the Civil Rights Movement. After spending two years touring the deep South with the FST, Nicholas went to New York City and joined the Negro Ensemble Company, working in all productions during the first season of that theatre ensemble. From the stage of the St. Mark’s Playhouse in New York, Nicholas was cast as Liz McIntyre, the Guidance Counselor on ABC series Room 222. Nicholas received her Bachelor of Arts in Drama from the University of Southern California, after living in Southern California for a number of years.
Nicholas began her television acting career in 1968, with an episode of It Takes a Thief. Following Room 222 (1969–74), she eventually appeared as Harriet DeLong in the cast of NBC/CBS‘ In the Heat of the Night (1989–95). Nicholas wrote six episodes of the series, beginning her second career as a writer. When that show was cancelled, she enrolled in the 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. She worked with Fitch for five years. Nicholas also attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Workshop, and the Natalie Goldberg Workshop, in Taos, New Mexico.
Her first novel, Freshwater Road, was published by Agate Publishing, in August 2005. it received a starred review in Publishers Weekly and was 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 Zora Neal Hurston/Richard Wright Award for debut fiction in 2006, as well as the American Library Association‘s Black Caucus Award for debut fiction the same year. Freshwater Road was reprinted by Pocket Books.
Brown University commissioned Nicholas to write a staged adaptation of Freshwater Road, which was presented in May 2008.
In the 1970s, Nicholas married soul singer-songwriter Bill Withers. The couple later divorced. Nicholas later married former football player and CBS sports anchor Jim Hill, whom she divorced in 1984.