Harriet DeLong's storyline during In the Heat of the Night mirrored Denise Nicholas's reality

The character suffered the same loss that the actress had years earlier.

Although she joined the cast of In the Heat of the Night during the show’s third season, Denise Nicholas had already begun blazing her trail as an actress years before. She previously starred as a guidance counselor in the high school series, Room 222. However, when she joined In the Heat of the Night, she found herself in a new situation when the cast moved to shoot the two-part season finale, Citizen Trundel.

The episodes show the team investigating the murder of Harriet Delong’s sister. In a sense, the culprit was eventually brought to justice (Spoiler alert: He crashed his plane while still inside of it), but it was still one of the show’s more emotional episodes. 

Actress Denise Nicholas had a more personal connection to Harriet Delong than viewers might have previously realized. It turns out that years earlier, her own younger sister, Michele, was murdered during a weekend trip to Manhattan. At the time, Michele was working in Chicago for Ebony magazine but had gone to New York for the weekend before going to Los Angeles.

Nicholas spoke to the Courier-Post about the experience, and explained, “I think it was a random thing. The police detective spent a lot of time piecing together information and he had a suspect in mind.” Although Nicholas spent hours discussing the case with the detective, and even flew out to New York multiple times, the District Attorney didn’t believe that enough evidence had been gathered to support the case. Unfortunately, it was never pursued. Though it was hard, Nicholas said that she had to move on with her life.

However, when the time came to shoot the two-part finale, Nicholas found those old memories resurfacing. She said, “I hadn’t spoken to the detective on the case since 1981, but when I got to the ‘Heat’ location in Georgia, I had this overwhelming desire to talk to him. I thought he must have retired.” It turns out he hadn’t, and he had been looking to speak to Nicholas as well. She said, “I called him from the hotel in Georgia and he said, ‘You’ll never believe it. I was just talking to someone about your sister.’ He said he may have found some new evidence.”

At the time of the interview, Nicholas had planned to meet with the detective again and hopefully find some sort of closure in her sister’s murder. Although much time had passed, Nicholas explained that the pain of losing a sibling would always be there. She said, “There’s a hole left in the family that never goes away, an empty chair at the table that’s always there.” She also said, “Someone will walk up to me at some party and say, ‘I knew your sister’ and this, like, electrical charge goes through my body and I want to absorb whatever the person knew about her. It doesn’t ever end.”

Still, with so much of Harriet’s plot coincidentally mirroring Nicholas’ real life, nobody could blame Nicholas if she disowned the storyline altogether. Quite the opposite, Nicholas said that she was happy that the finale chose to depict a messier, open ending. “This country is so full of murder that we almost take it for granted. There’s no way the detectives can even make a stab at all the cases. It gets to be just numbers and we forget that it’s a life, it’s a person, someone who has something to offer.”

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