Not entirely unlike Sydney Poitier, Denise Nicholas was a quietly dignified, cool yet powerful on-screen performer who was instrumental in the civil rights movement during the late 1960s and early '70s. After touring America as part of a progressive theater group, she began acting on television and almost immediately landed her signature role as compassionate guidance counselor Liz McIntyre on the socially conscious college dramedy "Room 222" ('69-'74). During her run on the show, which regularly dealt with issues such as race relations and women's rights, she also broke barriers in the world of cinema, co-starring in such blaxploitation classics as the absurdly inspired horror send-up "Blacula." She remained a fairly prolific TV force throughout the '70s and into the following decade, but it wasn't until she joined the cast of the gritty, hot-button crime drama "In the Heat of the Night" ('88-'95) that she again found a truly resonant role. While portraying "Night"'s Councilwoman Harriet DeLong, Thompson took part in a momentous, close-to-home story line which not only provided her with a sort of personal closure for her own sister's murder but also inspired her to pursue a writing career. She penned several episodes of the series before heading back to school to formally study her second craft. Her first novel, "Freshwater Road," was adapted into a stage show at Brown University in 2008. Following a string of decidedly lighthearted roles in projects such as the feel-good family comedy "Ghost Dad," she retired from acting in '04.