"You're never too big that you can't be nice to people."
-- Denise Nickerson

Denise Nickerson
Dark Shadows Characters:
Amy Collins, Amy Jennings, Nora Collins

Appeared in: 71 episodes

First episode: #632, November 26, 1968

Last episode: # 1049, July 2, 1970

Born: New York City, April 1, 1959

Though Dark Shadows fans remember her fondly as the wide-eyed innocent Amy Jennings (or perhaps the precocious Nora Collins), Denise Nickerson played her most famous role-as a big human blueberry, a year after leaving the soap's cast. Denise played Violet Beauregarde in the classic film Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory in 1971.

Denise's mom, Flo, helped guide her into show business from an early age. Her first professional gig was at age 2, in a Florida Home Heating commercial (the family lived in Coconut Grove, Florida at the time).

Zev Buffman, a neighborhood playhouse producer, spotted the youngster in a Coconut Grove fashion show when Denise was 4, which led to stage roles. Her big break came when she played Wendy's daughter in a Coconut Grove Theatre production of Peter Pan starring Betsy Palmer. Buffman selected Denise to work with the production in Washington, D.C.

When Peter Pan's run ended, when Denise was 7, she moved with her older sister, Carol, to New York. The young actress quickly landed a job on the NBC soap The Doctors. She also appeared on Broadway in the chorus 1967's Sherry!, a short-lived musical version of The Man Who Came to Dinner.

In 1968 Denise played Bill Bixby's daughter in a pilot called Rome Sweet Rome. She then did a ten-week tour of The Music Man, and on her return to New York, she joined the Dark Shadows cast in 1968.

After years of working mostly with adults, Denise was thrilled to have a castmate near her own age. She and David Henesy became pals. They spent hours together on the set, playing practical jokes on each other and occasionally being naughty, sneaking into Joan Bennett's dressing room to smoke.

"We used her dressing room because Joan wore massive amounts of Jungle Gardenia perfume, which masked odors up to six blocks," Denise confessed years later.

In 1970, the busy little actress left Dark Shadows and made her first TV movie, The Neon Ceiling, starring Lee Grant and Gig Young. A year later she originated the role of Liza Walton on Search for Tomorrow.

At age 13, Denise took a controversial role: as the seductive title character in the musical Lolita, My Love. The show was bound for Broadway, but it closed in Boston in March 1971, after disastrous reviews. (Most critics couldn't grasp why anyone would want to turn the dark tale into a musical.)

Accompanied by her sister, later that year, Denise went to Germany and danced with the Oompa Loompas in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). In the film adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, she played Violet Beauregarde, a gum-snapping know-it-all who goes against the wishes of Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) and eats a piece of candy that hasn't been properly tested. Violet's skin turns, well, violet, and she plumps up into a giant human blueberry who has to be rolled away to an off-camera "dejuicing machine."

Back in America, Denise took the stage as the heroic deaf mute in a regional production of Helen Keller.

Next she played Allison, a member of the Short Circuits rock band on the educational PBS series, The Electric Company. Developed by the Children's Television Workshop, it was aimed at children a little older than those served by its Sesame Street.

The impressive cast of The Electric Company included Rita Moreno who'd already won an Oscar for West Side Story, and Skip Hinnant, whose Broadway credits included originating the part of Schroeder in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown (at the same time Denise was appearing in Sherry!) Denise took a spot vacated when Irene Cara (later famous for acting in Fame, and singing the theme to Flashdance) left the show after the first season. (Bill Cosby was in the first season as well, but was gone by the time Denise joined the cast.) Denise left The Electric Company at the end of the 1972/73 season.

A few years after leaving Dark Shadows, the young actress guest-starred on a show featuring a family very different from the Collinses: The Brady Bunch. In the 1974 episode "Two Petes in a Pod" she played a girl caught up in the mayhem caused when Pete discovers he has a look-alike.

She made another pilot, If I Love You, Am I Trapped Forever? (1974), and in 1975, she played Miss San Diego, a beauty pageant contestant in the film Smile (also starring Melanie Griffith and Annette O'Toole). And in 1976 she played a little girl whose life is disrupted by divorce in another TV pilot, The Dark Side of Innocence. Other TV appearances included episodes of Flipper and The Jackie Gleason Show.

An accident interrupted Denise's career in November 1976. While crossing the street, she was struck by a car, and ended up in a full leg cast for eight months. From then on suffered from persistent leg and back pain.

After her recovery, she made a couple more films -- Child of Glass (a 1978 TV movie for Disney) and Zero to Sixty (1978). (In a press release for Zero to Sixty, the petite actress summed up her personal philosophy: "You're never too big that you can't be nice to people.")

After lifetime of being told what to wear, where to go, and how to act, 21-year-old Denise was ready to step out of the spotlight. She took a job as a hospital clerk, where she met an ex-Marine named Rick Keller. They wed in 1981, but their marriage was cut short when he died in 1983, at age 25, of a brain aneurysm. "We were very happy," Denise later told People magazine, "and then one day somebody pulls a rug out from under you."

Denise at the 2001 Dark Shadows Festival.


She moved to Iowa and married again, in 1995. She and Mark Willard had one son, Josh. After Denise and Mark divorced in 1998, mother and son moved to Colorado, where Denise now works as an accountant.

In 2001 the former Violet Beauregarde experienced a resurgence of fame when the 30th anniversary of Willy Wonka led to numerous magazine interviews, TV interviews, and personal appearances.

Career Highlights:
Search for Tomorrow (Liza Walton, 1971), The Doctors (Katie Harris).

PRIMETIME TV: Bert D'Angelo (1976), The Brady Bunch, Flipper (Little Tina, 1968).

TV FILMS: The Dark Side of Innocence (Gabriela Hancock, 1976), If I Love You Am I Trapped Forever (Sophie Pennington, 1974), The Man Who Could Talk to Kids (Dena Pingitone, 1973), The Neon Ceiling (Paula Miller, 1971), Wonderful World of Disney: Child of Glass (Connie Sue, 1978)

TV COMMERCIAL: Campbell's Soup.

SCREEN: Zero to Sixty (Larry, 1978), Smile (Shirley, 1978), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Violet Beauregard, 1971).

THEATER: Lolita My Love (Lolita, Boston), The Music Man (Amaryllis, 1968), Gypsy (Baby June), The King and I (Princess Ying Yaowalak), Peter Pan, Milliken, Our Town (Rebecca Gibbs, 1969, Florida).

BROADWAY: Our Town (Rebecca Gibbs, 1969).


Dark Shadows © Dan Curtis Productions. All rights reserved.
Dark Shadows Online © 2004 Craig Hamrick

Visit the rest of
Dark Shadows Online


TV Series
Behind-the-scenes history

Bios, photo galleries, and exclusive feature articles

Photos and facts about DS toys, books, and more

Books by Craig Hamrick
About DS books written by DSO's webmaster

House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows

Your portal to other DS websites and merchandise

About This Site


Buy the Books

Visit Barnes & Nobel.com
to buy Craig's books:
Big Lou and Barnabas & Co.