Sunday, January 20, 2013

MLK on NBC Late Night

I've told this story about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before, but now there's a very cool update.  It's about the battle Harry Belafonte had with network brass to get Dr. King on late night entertainment TV as a guest.  Did you know that Dr. King was on The Tonight Show?  Johnny Carson was the host back then and the show was broadcast from 30 Rock in New York City.  Dr. King had already made international headlines and modern American history with his March on Washington for Civil Rights.
The March on Washington with the now-famous "I have a dream" speech was in the summer of 1963.  In 1964, King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  In 1968, some NBC executives didn't think he'd be a good booking for The Tonight Show.  I got this story from Charles "Chiz" Schultz, a film and TV producer who happened to be a Tonight Show production staff member at the time.  That job marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship with Belafonte.  After my VH1 years, in 1991, I was a occasional host on CNBC's Talk Live.  I had Chiz on as a guest and we talked about this.
Belafonte was a big recording star in the 1960s  He'd done movies and TV specials.  He was a popular singer on variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, also out of New York City.  Johnny Carson was on vacation for a week.  Carson tapped Harry Belafonte to be fill in for him.  That was major for black viewers.  You didn't see black performers host a late night network entertainment show.  (Come to think of it, you still don't)  This was during the Civil Rights era and Carson's embrace of diversity was most generous.  And wise.  Belafonte had A-list guests that week -- actors, singers, comedians, newsmakers.  He and Dr. King were friends.  When he made it known that he wanted to book Dr. King on the show, reportedly NBC brass got nervous.  They felt that having one black person (Belafonte) on the show was enough.  They saw King as too radical and were afraid of losing sponsors.  Belafonte did not back down.  He booked his friend on the show.  Today, we honor his friend's birth with a federal holiday in his memory.

Here's Belafonte telling PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley about Dr. King's arrival to NBC.

Not only was it a great booking, it was the first and only appearance Dr. King made on a late night network entertainment talk show.  He was casual, amusing, warm, relevant.

Harry Belafonte was Johnny Carson's substitute host one week in February 1968.  Sadly, in early April 1968, our Dr. King would be gone -- felled by an assassin's bullet.
Through the decades, a clip of Dr. King on The Tonight Show has been played.  He tells a story and the camera is just on him in the clip.  So folks assumed Carson was at the desk.  When Johnny Carson died in 2005, movie critic and entertainment contributor Jeffrey Lyons did a tribute piece on the late night superstar for NBC News.  He credited Carson with interviewing Dr. Martin Luther King.  Wrong.  It was guest host, Harry Belafonte.

In 2011, HBO premiered an excellent documentary on the singer/actor/activist entitled Sing Your Sing.
I was thrilled to see footage from his week subbing for Johnny Carson in the documentary.  Hallelujah! Now he will get credit where credit is due.  He pushed to book Dr. King.  He did the interview.  Chiz Schultz backed him up on the booking.  NBC is lucky to have the historic appearance in its archives.  Chiz went on to do film work.  Norman Jewison's 1984 film, A Soldier's Story, has Charles Schultz in the credits as a producer.
This film adaptation of Charles Fuller's 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning play about racial segregation in the troops during World War II and a murder investigation co-starred current Best Actor Oscar nominee, Denzel Washington.
Jewison directed 1967 Best Picture Oscar winner In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, Steve McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair and Oscar-winner Cher in Moonstruck.  He'd direct Denzel Washington to one of his Best Actor Oscar nominations for 1999's The Hurricane.

Said director Norman Jewison:  "No one really wanted to make this movie" because it was an African-American story.  He and many actors worked for less money in order to have the budget to make it.  The cast included Howard Rollins, David Alan Grier and Robert Townsend.  Adolph Caesar would capture an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor...
...and the movie would be an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1984.  Jewison wasn't nominated for Best Director.  (Did you read that Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow?)

Friends Chiz Schultz and Harry Belafonte did a project together.  Schultz produced the 1970 urban satire, The Angel Levine.  Zero Mostel plays an old Jewish tailor who's out of work and has an ailing wife.  One day, a tough-talking black man appears in his kitchen claiming to be angel sent from Heaven to help.  The angel's name is Alex Levine.

Only in New York.  Mr. Belafonte, thank you for getting Dr. King on The Tonight Show.  Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everybody.  Keep the dream alive.

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