LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Singer and actress Barbara McNair, who starred opposite Elvis Presley and Sidney Poitier and became one of the first black women to host her own television variety show, has died at 72, her husband said on Monday.
McNair died on Sunday after a long battle with throat cancer, husband Charles Blecka told Reuters. McNair, who started singing in church as a girl, was still performing as recently as late last year.
“She was the strongest person I knew,” Blecka said. “She was powerful in a strong way. If she set her sights to do something, she did it and did it in a dignified way.”
McNair broke into show business as a nightclub singer and had nearly a two-decade recording career but she parlayed her early fame into a series of TV appearances and ultimately became better known as an actress.
After making her feature film debut in the 1968 crime drama “If He Hollers Let Him Go,” she went on to star along with Mary Tyler Moore and Jane Elliott opposite Presley in his last movie, 1969’s “Change of Habit.” McNair, Moore and Elliott all played nuns and Presley portrayed a doctor.
McNair may have been best known in movies for her role as Poitier’s wife in the 1970 classic “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!” and its 1971 sequel “The Organization.”
She hosted a syndicated musical variety series, “The Barbara McNair Show” in 1969 when few black women were given such opportunities. Entertainers who appeared on the show during its brief run included Tony Bennett, Sonny and Cher and Bob Hope.
“A lot of people think celebrity comes with a burden,” said Blecka, who also served as McNair’s manager. “Barbara never did. Along with her inner strength she had this ability to just accept everybody, in all walks of life. Ask anybody in the business, she was one of the most wonderful people you’d ever want to come across.”
McNair also appeared on Broadway in productions of “The Body Beautiful,” “No Strings” and “The Pajama Game.”
Acting roles dwindled for McNair in the 1970s and ‘80s but she continued to sing at nightclubs and cabarets and made occasional TV appearances on shows such as “The Jeffersons” and the “Redd Foxx Show.”