Emmy nominated and legendary actress Leslie Uggams (Roots, Empire) has joined the cast of HBO Films’ Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks alongside Oprah Winfrey, Courtney B Vance, Reg E. Cathey, Reed Birney, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, John Douglas Thompson, Adriane Lenox and Roger Robinson.
Based on the New York Times bestseller by Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks revolves around the story of Henrietta Lacks, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry, a poor mother living in Baltimore who died of cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31. Told through the eyes of her daughter, Deborah Lacks (Winfrey), the film chronicles her search to learn about the mother she never knew and to understand how the unauthorized harvesting of Lacks’ cancerous cells in 1951 led to unprecedented medical breakthroughs, changing countless lives and the face of medicine forever. Uggams will play Sadie, Henrietta’s cousin and best friend.
In 1951, doctors at Johns Hopkins removed lacks’ cancerous cells from her body eight months prior to her death, and her cells are still alive today. They became known worldwide as HeLa, and were the first immortal human cell line ever grown in culture that became one of the most important tools in medicine. Research on HeLa was vital to the development of the polio vaccine, as well as drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease. It helped uncover the secrets of cancer and the effects of the atom bomb, and led to important advances like cloning, in vitro fertilization, and gene mapping. To this day, Lacks’ cells are still among the most widely used in labs worldwide and have been bought and sold by the billions. Since 2001 alone, five Nobel Prizes have been awarded for research involving HeLa cells.
This has been a passion project for Winfrey for the past six years. Alan Ball, creator and exec producer of HBO’s True Blood and Six Feet Under, began pursuing the rights after he received a pre-publication copy November 2009. In January 2010, Harpo Films producer Kate Forte also began her attempts to acquire the rights to the book. As soon as Ball and Forte realized they were going after the same property they decided to team up on the project.
Winfrey and Ball will executive produce alongside Peter Macdissi (Banshee), Carla Gardini (The Hundred-Foot Journey) and Lydia Dean Pilcher (You Don’t Know Jack), a Your Face Goes Here Entertainment, Harpo Films and Cine Mosaic production. Rebecca Skloot will serve as co-executive producer, and Henrietta Lacks’ sons David Lacks, Jr. and Zakariyya Rahman and granddaughter Jeri Lacks are consultants on the project.
Uggams is known for her role as Kizzy in the 1977 version of the television series Roots, and has starred in countless television series’ and film projects over the past three decades. In the 90’s she appeared in Sugar Hill opposite Wesley Snipes, and most recently she starred in Deadpool. Uggams currently portrays Leah Walker, the bipolar mother of Lucious Lyon in the Fox hit series Empire.