Tuesday, September 4, 2012

James Earl Jones is THE MAN

Tonight, I will be watching the Democratic National Convention telecast.  Wow.  What amazing American history.  My party is campaigning to re-elect President Obama and give him a second term in the White House.  Wow!  I've blogged before that I was a youngster with my parents watching Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s historic March on Washington when it was a live network news telecast.  Black Americans were demanding the right to vote, the right to equality in the workplace and the right to an education.  It was the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.  And now a Black American president is up for re-election.  It makes my soul shimmer with racial pride.  Up to the early part of this 21st Century, if a black man was President of the United States in a movie or in a TV program, you could pretty much bet that the feature was a comedy.  Think Chris Rock in Head of State or Terry Crews as President Camacho in the overlooked and wickedly funny Mike Judge satire of a futuristic America, Idiocracy.  Soon after the March on Washington, there was one serious look at the possibility of a black man as President of the United States.  The Man was a best-selling 1964 novel by Irving Wallace about the first non-white man in the White House.  Originally given a budget to be adapted into a made-for-TV film, it was released theatrically instead.  Broadway star-turned-Oscar nominated film actor James Earl Jones played President Douglass Dilman.  The Man had a screenplay by the renowned creator/writer of TV's The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling.
A tragic construction mishap enabled Dilman to assume the role of president.  So, he got to the Oval Office not by election, but by accident.  I remember the book being a hit.  My dad was one of those folks who had a paperback copy.  Mia Farrow's character in Rosemary's Baby has a copy of it.  The film version, with Serling's reworked story, came out in the summer of 1972.  It co-starred Martin Balsam, Lew Ayres, Burgess Meredith, Barbara Rush and an actor we recently lost, William Windom. Click on that film poster and read what the Washington hostess played by Barbara Rush says:  "We've got a jigaboo in the White House."  Fast forward forty years to today and think of some comments we've heard and read from "teabagger" conservatives.  The Man is not on DVD and this Paramount Pictures feature is just about never seen on TV.  I'd like to see it.  I'd like to interview James Earl Jones and talk to him about that feature.  I'd like to see him in action as a former President of the United States in the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man.  The show closes this coming weekend.  Mr. Jones got rave reviews and a Tony nomination for his performance as the shrewd former President Arthur Hockstader.
The late Gore Vidal wrote the play and gave Hollywood a very good screenplay for the 1964 movie version.  Cliff Robertson and Henry Fonda did the roles of the presidential hopefuls and rivals that John Stamos and John Larroquette now do on Broadway.
(Movie trivia:  Both actors portrayed real-life future American presidents in other films.  Robertson was WW2 Navy commander John F. Kennedy in PT 109 and Fonda starred as lawyer Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln.)  Screen veteran Lee Tracy got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work in the President Hockstader role.
Long before James Earl Jones was a Tony nominee for playing the powerful ex-president in The Best Man and before he became the iconic voice of Darth Vader in the original Stars Wars trilogy, he was a Tony winner for being The Great White Hope.  In that drama, he was boxing's first black heavyweight contender early in the 20th Century.  He punched a hole in the USA's racial barrier with his skill but he couldn't knock all the barriers down.
He was a controversial, talented figure in love with a white woman.  Jones and actress Jane Alexander     were Tony winners for their Broadway performances.  They were Oscar nominees for doing their roles in the 1970 film version directed by Martin Ritt.
A couple of years after that celebrated and charismatic screen performance, which made him one of the two black men to be nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award in the 1970s, James Earl Jones was The Man -- President Douglass Dilman.
President Dilman had to deal with white racism and black critics who thought he was a "sell-out." The boxer in The Great White Hope had to deal with the same.  This week James Earl Jones is playing a formidable former President of the United States in a hit Broadway revival.  The part wasn't originally played by a black actor but, early in the 21st Century, America elected a black man, Barack Obama, to be our Commander-in-Chief.  What history!  Once again...how I wish I was able to be in New York City to see the magnificent Mr. Jones in The Best Man.  In his credits, he's played a black man being our U.S. president not as the punchline, but as a possibility.  He is just too damn cool.

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