Born Jan. 1, 1934, and raised in Wisconsin, Ms. McNair first caught the public's attention as a cabaret artist. A gig at Max Gordon's Village Vanguard led to a week-long stint on "The Arthur Godfrey Show," a recording contract at Coral Records and stands at such clubs as The Purple Onion and The Persian Room at the Plaza Hotel, as well as most of the hotels of Las Vegas. She would go on to tour with Nat King Cole twice.
By 1958 she landed her first Broadway role in Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's short-lived The Body Beautiful, in which she sang two songs, "Fair Warning" and "All of These and More." In 1962 she replaced Diahann Carroll in No Strings, Richard Rodgers' musical about an interracial romance. Later, she toured with the show opposite Howard Keel.
In 1973, she originated a starring role on Broadway, playing sexy labor representative Babe Williams in a George Abbott-director revival of The Pajama Game. Her co-star was Hal Linden, making the story's romantic match an interracial one—albeit, unlike No Strings, one created by casting rather than storyline.
Ms. McNair, who was blessed with large dark eyes, strong cheekbones and a shapely figure, made news in 1968 when she appeared nude in the film "If He Hollers, Let Him Go!" She did an about face the following year, donning a nun's habit in "Change of Habit," Elvis Presley's last film. She played the often frustrated wife of Sydney Portier's police lieutenant Virgil Tibbs in both "They Call Me MISTER TIbbs!" and "The Organization." Around this same period, she hosted her own syndicated variety show "The Barbara McNair Show."
Her film and television careers never achieved much traction, however, and the 1970s proved a troubled time for her. She and her husband Rick Manzi were charged with heroin possession in 1972, according to the New York Times. She was later cleared of the charge. And in 1976 she suffered a personal tragedy and a great deal of adverse publicity when Manzi was shot and killed. Mafia boss-turned-FBI-informant Jimmy "The Weasel" Frattiano later wrote in his book, "The Last Mafioso," that Manzi was a Mafia associate who had attempted to put a contract on the life of a mob-associated tax attorney with whom he had a legal dispute. Manzi was murdered before the contract could be carried out. In lieu of flowers, it is asked that donations be sent to the Actors' Fund of America.