Few kids have their professional lives mapped out before they reach their preteens, but when a 5-year-old Niecy Nash saw Lola Falana in her “long black dress and eyelashes like butterflies,” she turned to her grandmother and said, “I want to be black, fabulous and on television.”
So four years later, when she spotted “a man she knew from TV” while visiting the Hollywood Walk of Fame with her father, she had no qualms about approaching him. That man was Ed Asner, and Nash yelled after him to remember her name, because one day it would be etched onto one of the stars she was standing on.
It took a few decades, but on July 11 Nash’s childhood prophecy comes true as she receives a star commemorating a career that has included such shows as “Reno 911!,” “Getting On” and her newest series, “Claws” on TNT.
It’s a full-circle moment for the actress following years of hard work, paying it forward and always having the self-confidence to stay true to herself.
“I never forgot that moment with Ed Asner. I knew early on what I know right now,” she says. “I was always very clear about my purpose. Time, maturation, seasoning and opportunity all had to catch up with what I knew. So the knowing it was never a question; when it was going to manifest was a whole other conversation.”
After her Walk of Fame achievement was announced, Asner sent Nash a card with a star on it and her name inside, she continues. Inside it, he wrote, “Of course I know your name,” she says. “And I just cried like a baby.”
Nash may have had the confidence, but finding the opportunity to pursue those dreams was another matter. Nearly two decades ago, after she gave birth to her third child, she turned to her then-husband, Don, and outlined a plan for finally giving acting a real go.
“I said, ‘three times in my life I’ve given my body over for nine months, for somebody else. I would love the opportunity to have nine months just for me. To pursue my dream full out, and to be diligent about it,’” she says, recalling that she promised to return to work if it didn’t pan out.
And so she booked auditions and dragged her preschool kids with her, putting acting back in sight. “Seven or eight” months later she had landed the home-makeover show “Clean House,” (for which she won a producing Emmy), had booked “Reno 911!,” and been hired to recur on “The Bernie Mac Show” as the titular comic’s sister.
What Nash didn’t predict for herself was the steep comedic path into which she’d unexpectedly veer. As a young actress, Nash auditioned for dramatic roles, but no one would hire her.
“People would tell me I was so funny and I would get offended,” she recalls. And then on the day before her 23rd birthday tragedy struck when her brother was murdered at an L.A. high school campus.
“My mother went into a deep depression, and the only thing I knew at that young age was [that] I could make my mama laugh. I performed at the foot of her bed every day, and she went from laying down in the bed to sitting up. And then from sitting up in the bed to inviting neighbors from across the street to come and watch me perform,” she continues.
“When I realized that comedy was a gift, I went outside and I said, ‘I’m Niecy Nash and I’m funny.’ And people said, ‘Little girl, yes, you are. Get over here.’”
Finding the positive in an impossible situation seems to be Nash’s other gift. In an industry full of “high highs and low lows,” she’s the first to tell others about an audition in hopes of paying it forward, and when she does book a gig, she ensures someone else she knows gets a job out of it, too. That may be the reason she’s appeared in myriad guest-starring, recurring and ensemble roles over the years, from short stints on “Modern Family” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” to longer gigs on “Scream Queens,” “Masters of Sex” and “The Mindy Project.”
“I’ve never gotten a job and not gotten somebody else a job once I got that job, ever,” she says. “There are always going to be a number of reasons why you don’t book: too big, too thin, too light, too dark, too much, too whatever. My assignment is to be of service. My job is what I do, but my ‘who’ is to be an extension of God’s love and his grace in the world. If I get a job, other people I know should benefit and eat because of it. That’s just the way I do it and I think because I’ve always moved that way it keeps coming back to me.”
In 2013 things came full circle once again when Nash booked the role of Didi Ortley on HBO’s “Getting On.” Although the series is classified as a comedy, it was the first time Nash was finally allowed out of her usual “lane” to test-drive more dramatic material. She credits executive producers Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer for their “philosophy that people who can make you laugh can also make you cry,” and casting her in the role that landed her back-to-back Emmy nominations, a part in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” and now her first leading role on “Claws.”
“So many things have happened as a result of being in a different part of the industry, including my first leading role,” she says. “I worked my way up the call sheet, but this is the first time my name has a one in front of it. And I like it.”
As for Asner? He plans on attending the ceremony if production on his current New York-based project allows. Nash she says she’ll “take one of my mama’s nerve pills and cry my freaking eyes out” if he does show up, but if not, the legacy of what she’s being honored with isn’t lost on her, and she may cry anyhow.
“Living in gratitude has been my biggest takeaway in the business,” she says. “It’s one thing to have a dream and it’s another thing to live long enough to see it manifest. This is happening in my mom’s lifetime. My grandmother is still living; my daddy is around. To be able to share it with people whom you love and who have supported you along the way is just … I am beyond grateful.”