It’s not unusual for Hattie Winston to be approached by strangers seeking medical advice.
Her portrayals of nurses on television shows, including “Nurse” and “Becker,” are so believable that many fans think Winston’s nursing expertise extends beyond the small screen.
The multitalented African-American stage, TV and film actress most recently played a nurse on the CBS television series “Becker,” starring opposite Ted Danson. Her portrayal of Margaret Wyborn, the show’s strong, levelheaded office manager and head nurse, earned Winston an NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a comedy series.
Prior to her nurse role on “Becker,” Winston, 59, starred in the 1980s series “Nurse,” also on CBS. While many actors might resist being typecast, Winston says she loves portraying a nurse. “My mom was a nurse and I base my characters on her and the other nurses I knew growing up in Mississippi,” she adds.
Offering viewers an accurate depiction of nurses has always been one of Winston’s top priorities. “Although ‘Becker’ was a comedy, we took the medical part of the show very seriously,” she says. “We had nurses who would come to the set and teach us how to draw blood or give injections. We all felt it was important to portray doctors and nurses with the respect they deserve.”
For their efforts, Winston and other “Becker” cast members received letters from fans praising them on their realistic depictions of health care professionals. The show, which is now in syndication, was committed to addressing the same medical situations that doctors and nurses deal with on a daily basis.
“Despite being a comedy, our show revolved around stories, not jokes,” Winston explains. “We dealt with many serious issues, including a child who was HIV-positive, and had story lines that centered around death, impotence and teen sex.”
Many fans also wrote to Winston to say they enjoyed seeing a person of color receive so much airtime.
“I would love to think that my television characters encouraged other young women of color to pursue a career in nursing,” the actress says. “I consider it an honor to portray an African-American nurse on television.”
Winston draws on many real-life experiences for her roles. Growing up in a household where her mother worked as a nurse taught her respect for the profession.
“Nurses take care of both the bodies and souls of their patients,” she says. “They do an incredible job of multitasking and they are overworked and underpaid for all they do.”
Winston received a first-hand glimpse of nurses in action when her daughter Samantha, now 22, underwent open-heart surgery 11 years ago. “We will never forget the nurses who cared for Samantha and our family during that difficult time,” she declares. “I know it comforted my daughter to see that many of her caregivers were people of color.”
When Winston auditioned for the role of Margaret on “Becker,” there was no ethnicity assigned to the character. In fact, a multitude of actresses from different backgrounds read for the part.
“I felt very proud to have landed the role,” Winston says. “The writers felt my portrayal best embodied the characteristics they saw in Margaret.”
Currently between acting jobs, Hattie Winston is keeping busy with her other passion--philanthropy.
An accomplished performer who began her career on Broadway and was a founding member of the barrier-breaking Negro Ensemble Company, Winston’s commitment to giving back to the community is an integral part of her life. She is an enthusiastic participant in outreach programs such as Break the Cycle, a project dedicated to ending domestic violence by working proactively with youth.
“We’re really hoping to reach young people with our messages,” Winston explains. “We want to teach kids who live in abusive households what they can do to legally protect themselves, and to also show youth that violence isn’t the answer.”
Winston is also actively involved in Classic and Contemporary American Plays (CCAP), a non-profit organization that works to get youth interested and involved in theater and literature through readings and acting workshops.
“So many young people have never seen a live theater production,” she says. “[Without efforts like ours], live theater could ultimately become a thing of the past.”
Perhaps taking a subconscious cue from her Margaret character, Winston and her husband, Tony-nominated composer/conductor/arranger Harold Wheeler (“The Wiz,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and the Broadway musical version of “The Full Monty”), have made their own health a priority this past year by embarking on a low-carb lifestyle.
“We both wanted to lose weight and improve our health,” Winston says. “We’ve started walking every day and cooking low-carb meals. Much to my dismay, Harold claims he hasn’t eaten this well in years. We’ve totally modified our eating habits and we hope the result will be having the energy to play with our future grandchildren.”
Winston’s devotion to children is evident in her charitable activities. She personally established Heritage Kids and Onyx Village, two organizations that provide black children with an understanding of their own history and culture by exposing them to the literature, music, theater and traditions of African Americans. Her lifelong dream is to establish a school where young people can learn about the arts and culture. In addition, she and her husband have sponsored antiviral medications for two children living in South Africa who were born HIV-positive.
With such active involvement in humanitarian efforts, it’s no wonder so many fans assume that this remarkable woman is a nurse both on and off screen. For Hattie Winston, being someone who cares compassionately for others is more than just a part she plays on TV--it’s literally the role of a lifetime.