Grammy Award-winning Natalie Cole is celebrating Christmas in a big way this year.

She’s recently released her first Christmas album, “Holly and Ivy,” in which she performs new songs as well as traditional holiday favorites. Of course, one of those Yuletide standards is the unforgettable “The Christmas Song,” which her father, the late, great Nat (King) Cole made famous.

Cole, 44, also headlines a “Great Performances” special on PBS--”Natalie Cole’s Untraditional Traditional Christmas”--which premieres this week. Taped at SUNY Performing Arts Center in Purchase, N.Y., the show features Cole performing holiday songs with the help of the New York Restoration Choir and “Sesame Street’s” adorable Elmo.

She seems most excited, though, about “Lily in Winter,” which premieres Thursday on the USA Network. In the heartwarming holiday drama, Cole plays Lily Covington, a maid and nanny working in New York City, circa 1957. When she finds herself in a desperate predicament, Lily escapes on a train bound for her Alabama hometown. Unbeknown to her, though, her young charge Michael (Brian Bonsall) has come along for the ride. When Michael’s parents think Lily has kidnaped their son, the FBI gets into the act.


“Lily in Winter” marks Cole’s movie debut and is directed by veteran Delbert Mann, who won an Oscar for 1955’s “Marty.”

Though “Lily in Winter” is set in New York, the production is being filmed in Los Angeles. Today, a stately old house on Adams Boulevard is doubling for the New York brownstone where Lily lives and works.

Cole made her first foray into acting nearly two years ago on the acclaimed 1991-93 NBC series “I’ll Fly Away” as an educator who opens an alternative school in the pre-civil rights South.

Acting, she says, is something she’s contemplated for a long time. “I just wanted to make an impact,” says Cole, who is dressed in black overalls, white blouse and matching black-and-white oxfords. “I didn’t want to start up and do little sitcoms or cameo things. I really wanted to play a character.”

And she definitely didn’t want to play a singer. Her father made several movies, including “Cat Ballou” and “Istanbul,” but was rarely cast in a non-singing role.

“That was my biggest beef,” she says. “I got offers: ‘Do you want to act? We have got a role for a singer.’ I didn’t want to do that. It wasn’t much of a stretch for me.”


A fan of “I’ll Fly Away,” she approached the producers. “I said, ‘I would sure like to do your show. Do you think you could find a character for me that doesn’t require me to sing?’ It took about a year and they found a story.”

Cole says she wasn’t too nervous her first time in front of a film camera. “It was neat,” she says, smiling. ‘I’m sure I was nervous, but the people I was working with were so professional. Quite a few of them had thought I had acted before.”

Her guest shot on “I’ll Fly Away” led to “Lily in Winter.” She says she immediately felt a real kinship with Lily.

“I just kind of slip into her,” Cole says. “When I first got made up and they put all the clothes on and the hat, I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen. There was a part of me that said, ‘I could be her.’ I was Lily for the first week more than I was Natalie. That took some getting used to for my family. I didn’t know who I was at the end of the week.”

Lily, Cole explains, “is a lady who, somehow or other, wanted to have more for herself than when she was living down South with her family. She found herself in a situation where she had a child at a very young age. She does end up in New York and has a good job. It’s almost like she’s substituted this family for her family back home. She really does love this little boy, but she also has a little girl that she has to pay attention to. She hasn’t done that for many years. Lily is someone who is very loving, just a little naive. She means well. She doesn’t always make good choices, like many of us.”

By the drama’s conclusion, Cole says, Lily grows up. “She makes some decisions that she wasn’t ready to make for whatever reason. Now, she makes some really smart decisions. They are tough decisions because basically she sacrifices a way of life. Michael gets a little lesson, and Michael’s parents get a lesson because if they hadn’t been so busy, Michael wouldn’t have run away with the maid. It’s really kind of neat.”


Cole considers herself blessed working with a director of the caliber of Delbert Mann. “He is a charm,” she says with enthusiasm. “He knows what he wants, which I really like.”

Mann has nothing but praise for his star. “She carries the whole picture,” he says. “She was totally professional, well-prepared, easy to work with, joyous to work with. She certainly doesn’t have great experience as an actress, but she has been a performer and subjected to rigid discipline of her profession. That carried over into her professionalism on the set. Beyond that, she has very good instincts as an actress. It is a lovely star performance.”

And Cole can’t wait to act again. Next time, though, she wants to play someone more contemporary. “I would like to do something with a little action. I would like to play a cop or a tough lawyer and just totally move away from this. I don’t want to be typecast.”

“Great Performances: Natalie Cole’s Untraditional Traditional Christmas” airs Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. on KCET and KPBS; 8 p.m. on KOCE and Thursday at 9 p.m. on KVCR . “Lily in Winter” airs Thursday at 9 p.m. on USA; it repeats Dec. 11 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 17 at 4 p.m.