Saturday, June 28, 2014

Studio Time with Spike Lee

I absolutely loved my three years working on VH1 and working with the studio crew.  This was in the late 1980s.  I enjoyed that job and those people so much that I looked forward to Monday mornings so I could get back to work.  How many folks do you know could ever say that about a job?  We experienced many memorable moments.  We had one memorable afternoon experience with film director/writer/actor Spike Lee.
At the time, he was very popular with young moviegoers who connected with his early films She's Gotta Have It...
...and School Daze, a musical satire starring Laurence Fishburne.

Not only did those films click, so did he as an actor.  We dug his comic acting performance as Mars in She's Gotta Have It.  Remember Mars trying to get some love from Nola by begging "Please, baby.  Please, baby.  Baby, baby, please!"?  I loved it.  His look was fresh for movies.  We all knew guys like Mars in our black and Latino neighborhoods, but we weren't seeing them in mainstream Hollywood movies.  Spike took that look and persona to popular TV commercials.
We did our VH1 taping in studio in downtown Manhattan around 27th Street at Third Avenue.  Later, we moved to West 57th Street.  In those early days, Spike was scheduled to be my guest on VH1's Celebrity Hour talk show.  One of our segment producers was also our studio coordinator.  Still a dear friend, Sharon Kelly ran our studio the way Radar took care of Col. Potter's office on the TV sitcom M*A*S*H*.  Nobody did it better than Sharon Kelly.  Here she is in a photo with one of my other guests, novelist Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City).
Sharon arranged car service pick up for our talk show guests and, after the interviews, the car service would take them back to their original locations.  Sharon had ordered a town car to pick up Spike Lee at his home in Brooklyn.  About ten minutes after our scheduled taping time, he'd yet to appear.  Sharon called the car service company and it was confirmed that a car had indeed been sent to his exact address in Brooklyn.  A little more time passed and we wondered where he was.  Now, we're about 20 minutes late when the studio front door whipped opened and in dashes Spike Lee.  He was out of breath.  He was extremely apologetic, very polite and sweating like he'd just raced in the Kentucky Derby.  He was so sorry for being late. 

He said that the driver would not let him into the car.  He didn't have time to argue with him, so he hopped a subway train to our studio and ran to us when he got off the train.  Sharon, of course, said "What do you mean the driver wouldn't let you into the car?"

She called the car service's main office.  The main office got on the car radio and contacted the driver.  The driver admitted that he wouldn't let a man who fit the description of movie director Spike Lee into the car.  Why?  The driver said to his boss, "He didn't look like a movie director."  

Sharon's Irish temper blew like Mount Vesuvius when she heard that.  The car service boss told Sharon that the driver was ordered to report back to the main office.  He did.  He was immediately fired.  Let's just say that the driver was not black or Latino.

Yep.  Spike Lee was locked out of the town car that was sent to pick him up for a national TV interview because the driver felt "he didn't look like a movie director."  This did not happen to my other guests who'd directed movies -- not to James L. Brooks, Alan Parker, Norman Mailer or Penny Marshall.  And Penny Marshall got into and came out of her car looking like an unmade bed.

During the interview, I asked Spike if he had something new in the works.  He did.

He'd just started shooting a new movie called Do The Right Thing.
Talk about ironic.

That provocative and popular movie, a look at race relations and racial bigotry in a Brooklyn neighborhood on one of the hottest days of the summer, became a critically acclaimed film that is now on the prestigious Criterion Collection DVD list.  This summer at the end of June, Do The Right Thing celebrates the 25th anniversary of its release.

That cast included Samuel L. Jackson, John Turturro, John Savage, Rosie Perez, Martin Lawrence, plus the extraordinary Ossie Davis and his wife, Ruby Dee.
Cast member Danny Aiello got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor of 1989.
Spike Lee went to direct Jungle Fever and Malcolm X, a film biography starring Denzel Washington as the slain civil rights activist.  The film bio brought Denzel Washington one of his Best Actor Oscar nominations.  Other films Lee directed include He Got Game, Summer of Sam, Inside Man and 2012's Red Hook Summer in which Lee played latter day Mookie from Do The Right Thing.  (All those years later and Mookie was still delivering pizzas in Brooklyn.)   For Do The Right Thing, Lee was an Oscar nominee in the Best Original Screenplay category.  He has never been nominated for Best Director.  Many, including myself, felt that Do The Right Thing should've been a nominee for Best Picture.  It wasn't.  The winner for 1989 was Driving Miss Daisy, based on the Broadway hit of the same name.

Two other Spike Lee directorial high points in his career are the documentaries 4 Little Girls, a brilliant and powerful look at the Alabama church bombing that killed four black girls during America's Civil Rights Movement in 1963, and When the Levees Broke, a feature for HBO that was just as powerful.  It focused on the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the devastated poor black people in New Orleans.  Both those documentaries were hailed by critics.  The racist bombing a black church on a Sunday in 1963 and the Hurricane Katrina devastation were stories that made international headlines.  Spike went in depth beyond those headlines to get more of the story.  He did outstanding work.

Spike Lee.  An influential film director.

Here he is with fellow filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood.
To think that, years ago, he was locked out of a town car sent for him because the driver felt he didn't look like a movie director.

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