Saturday, December 15, 2018

Comedy Queen Ellen Cleghorne

NBC and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE just were not ready for the comedy and acting brilliance of Ellen Cleghorne.  There's a current interview of her that you must read.  I've give you the website at the end of this blog post.  During my TV career in New York City, there were two black women who were groundbreakers in the SNL cast and both of them were extremely kind and helpful to me.  The first woman was the late, great comedian/actress Danita Vance.  She was a friend and neighbor when I lived in Brooklyn.  The second woman came after Danitra Vance.  She is … Ellen Cleghorne.
Ellen had seen me on VH1.  She knew that I had my own talk show, a talk show that got me greatly-appreciated good reviews in The New York Times, People Magazine and TV Guide. My contract ended. Next, I was the host of a game show for Warner Bros. syndication that was a month-long summer replacement on national TV. Then I was approached to be a regular on a new WNBC/Ch 4 live weekend morning news program. Initially, I was offered the opportunity to do entertainment features and interviews. Also, I'd be in the studio doing film reviews.  That really made me lick my chops because African-American talent was never seen doing weekly film reviews on national TV or in many local big city markets.  I was hungry to crack that color barrier.  I took the job.

The afternoon before our 6am Saturday morning premiere, my duties were changed by the all-Caucasian producers. Instead of film reviews and entertainment features, I'd do the community calendar. I would tell folks about family events such as street fairs, bake sales and community theater shows. I would go out on location to do remote live segments from shopping malls and some street fair.  I was the third member of the original local show morning trio.  The "black guy." The anchors were Matt Lauer and Magee Hickey. Matt would be re-assigned within our first months because NBC had network stardom plans for him.  This was the fall of 1992.

Another thing.  I was not under contract although I thought I would be.  But there were excuses like "Well, it's still being typed up" and "It's being looked over by legal." So I worked without a contract 6 months or more.  When I did finally get the contract, the year was almost up. When the first year ended, I was not given another contract.  I worked without one.
I met Ellen Cleghorne.  Warm, wise, sophisticated, supportive, huggable and hilarious Ellen. We both worked in 30 Rock.  She asked me why I wasn't in the studio doing celebrity interviews like I did on VH1. Adam Sandler and actor Danny Glover asked me the same question. But, when Ellen asked, she quickly followed the question with, "Wait. I think I know."

The answer was … because I wasn't the same color as Matt Lauer.  Ellen and I went out casually a couple of times and talked about our experiences working in different departments at 30 Rock.
In my second month on the weekend show, I was assigned to cover a Madonna press event. I was not expected to get soundbite from her -- but I did. More than one. Katie Couric left a message on my voicemail saying "Good hustle on the Madonna piece, Bobby Rivers. Good work."

Even after getting soundbites from Madonna, I was still sent to shopping malls to talk about bake sales. But, one morning, I got to stay in the studio and I was able to have Ellen as a guest I could interview.  She opened our interview by saying, "It's so nice to see you in the studio. They usually have you way out at a shopping mall."

The crew broke up laughing.  But that little comment helped. A few viewers who'd followed my career called in and agreed with her.  Reluctantly, the producers gave me a tad more studio time and an occasional celebrity interview.

I quit in January 1995.  The WNBC news director wanted me to stay, without a contract, to do the same thing and with the understanding I would never move up to network opportunities. So, I did not stay.  I chose to leave a hit show.  For me, personally, that was progress. I refused to visually integrate the morning show team while being treated like a second class citizen. I chose not to endure that treatment simply because I needed the part-time employee money. I walked away from white producer comments such as "I don't think you have the skills to cover entertainment" and "You should consider yourself lucky to have this job."

I read the interview with Ellen Cleghorne and just discovered that the black talent on SNL before Ellen also worked without contracts just as I did for WNBC News.  We lost the supremely talented Danitra Vance to breast cancer in 1994.  I agree with what Ellen says about her in the article.  Had she lived, Danitra would have a career arc similar to the one Viola Davis has.

Read the article. It reminds you that diversity and inclusion are still vital in the country today -- not just in palaces of show biz entertainment. This diversity happens inch by inch, it seems.  Ellen Cleghorne deserves out attention.
The detailed article and interview by Andy Hoglund is called Ellen Cleghorne on Breaking Down Saturday Night Live's Racial Barriers, and the Ones That Remain.  You can find the article here:  slate.com.

Here's my VH1 talk show demo reel and the Madonna piece I did in the second month of the WNBC News program.  Most of you have probably already seen them.  Do me a favor.  If you think I should put these experiences in book form, please let me know.




Friday, December 14, 2018

I Loved Nancy Wilson

Mesmerizing style and a voice that was like a champagne cocktail for the ears. How I loved singer Nancy Wilson.  I'm old enough to remember when DJs on FM radio in Southern California called her "the new Ella Fitzgerald."  A great compliment, but Fancy Miss Nancy proved to be an original, a unique jazz vocalist.  My parents dashed out and bought the new singer's early albums.  Two of them were played frequently on the HiFi in our home.  Not just by Mom and Dad.  I loved them too.  My heart and mind had already been lit up by the art of classic films when I was in elementary school.  I loved Nancy Wilson's album on which she covered songs written for Hollywood movies. On the albums, I read the credits to see the name of the song, the name of the movie and then I'd look for the movie on TV.  Just like the actors with their dialogue, Nancy Wilson realized that a good song told a story.  It was a monologue set to music. She told the story while singing. She gave the songs her interpretations, finding previously unrealized depth of emotions with her remarkable phrasing.
The same goes for her Broadway album.  That one introduced me to Broadway showtunes and the plays from which they came.  TV today reminds me of what waspish Broadway theatre critic Addison DeWitt says to a meagerly talented blonde in ALL ABOUT EVE. She wonders if TV holds auditions. He replies:  "That's all television is, my dear.  Nothing but auditions."

TV is well-populated with shows seeking the next pop music sensation.  We see young singers latch on to a song and do all sorts of vocal loop-de-loops impressing you with their lung power and vocal gymnastics, but often suffocating the emotions and depth of the lyrics.  These talent search competition shows are entertaining. But I miss the music variety shows that were standard network TV fare.  One of my favorites was ABC's THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE. The prime time Saturday night show had terrific guest hosts -- stars such as Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.  They performed and they also introduced established and new talent.  Nancy Wilson was booked on THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE one night.  She took an old song, "The Very Thought of You," and made it new again. Her voice was a gift from Heaven.  To see and hear what I mean, just click onto this link:

https://youtu.be/q9DFB0TM1h0.

I started my TV career in Milwaukee on the ABC affiliate. I began as a part-timer and, in my last year, I'd graduated to fulltime co-host and associate producer of a live weekday afternoon show with a studio audience. That was 1984.  One of our guests was singer Nancy Wilson, in town for an engagement. Regal, warm and appreciative she was.  When I moved to Milwaukee for college, I took the two early Nancy Wilson albums with me.  For me, it was such a huge thrill having her in person on our show that I just had to call my mother afterwards and gush "Mom! Guess who was on the show today in person?  Nancy Wilson!"
In my introduction before our interview, I showed graphics of those two album covers and told viewers how much I loved them and others.  That got a big smile from Ms. Wilson.  As we started the interview, she told me that, on the Hollywood album with her in that elegant yellow dress, she was pregnant with her first child.
The news is out today that Nancy Wilson passed away at age 81.  The Gift and the Giver are reunited in Heaven. I am so grateful to Mom and Dad for bringing her artistry into my life.  Her voice was one of the sweetest sounds of my youth in South Central Los Angeles.

With that, here's Nancy Wilson from her Broadway album giving a bossa nova beat to the song Diahann Carroll introduced on Broadway in Richard Rodgers' NO STRINGS.  To hear "The Sweetest Sounds," just listen to this.


See what I mean? That's why I loved her for most of my life.  Nancy Wilson was wonderful.


Thursday, December 13, 2018

Congratulations to EVE'S BAYOU

Our nation's Library of Congress has added a new list of films to its National Film Registry.  This is a good thing.  These films -- short subjects, theatrical releases and documentaries -- are deemed to have "cultural, historic and aesthetic importance."  They reflect American diversity, history and heritage.  I want to single out one.  I love this film. It comes to us from a woman I'm sure many of you have seen. Her name is Kasi Lemmons (her first name is pronounced "Casey.") Did you see 1991's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS? Kasi Lemmons played the fellow FBI cadet who's the best buddy to Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster.
Kasi went on to direct films.  The first film she directed, 1997's EVE'S BAYOU, made the National Film Registry. EVE'S BAYOU is one visually lyrical and sensual film. It was a modern story that took us into the not-too-distant past to give us vibrant, colorful, complex, scary and sophisticated images of black people we did not often get.  These characters looked like neighbors and friends of our family when I was a little boy in South Central L.A. Their clothing was familiar to me. Their living room and bedroom furniture looked familiar. The way they spoke made me think of family, friends and neighbors. I saw some of my young self in the kids. The production design and details were so accurate, I could practically smell the lotion on the children's knees and elbows to keep them from looking all ashy.  EVE'S BAYOU is a riveting drama that has this voiceover line:  "The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old."
Click on this link to see a trailer for EVE'S BAYOU directed and written by Kasi Lemmons:

https://youtu.be/MVKP1G95fyM.

In the cast are Samuel L. Jackson, Diahann Carroll, Lynn Whitfield, Debbie Morgan and young Jurnee Smollett as Eve.

I wanted to highlight and promote the stunning creativity of director/screenwriter Kasi Lemmons.  EVE'S BAYOU is not the only fine film she directed.  Don Cheadle is one of my favorite actors.  His performance in the entertaining and moving biopic, TALK TO ME, is prime Don Cheadle.  What a character.  He's fierce, funny, irritating, out-of-bounds, extremely talented and, ultimately, a helpful social activist during a grave period of racial unrest in the country.  He was a former jailbird who became a broadcaster. His freestyle freshness opened the door for radio talents like Howard Stern. Radio host Petey Greene was so funny, so popular, that he was tapped to go to New York City and appear on the TONIGHT Show with Johnny Carson which, as you know, was a "Hallelujah!" booking for any new comic talent on the show biz radar.  TALK TO ME co-stars Martin Sheen, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Taraji P. Henson.  If you're a Don Cheadle fan, 2007's TALK TO ME is a must-see.

Ok.  While I'm at it, let me drop a trailer for that movie too.  Click onto this link to see a trailer for TALK TO ME directed by Kasi Lemmons.

https://youtu.be/-CWoel1OPAw.

I am elated that Kasi Lemmons made the National Film Registry.  I wanted to highlight her screen achievement because I feel that if she was a young white dude who had directed EVE'S BAYOU as his first film -- a guy like a Quentin Tarantino, a Todd Haines or a Damien (LA LA LAND) Chazelle -- major Hollywood studio execs would've wanted to buy her lunch and talk about future projects.  Top Hollywood agents would've wanted to sign her and pitch her to direct big budget productions. If she was a young white dude.
Some other works that made the new National Film Registry list are:

Hitchcock's REBECCA
Orson Welles' THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI
HUD
LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
ON THE TOWN
MY FAIR LADY
HEARTS AND MINDS, a documentary
SMOKE SIGNALS from Native American director Chris Eyre
JURASSIC PARK
Disney's CINDERELLA.

Check out the Library of Congress website. Log onto this link:   loc.gov.




Tuesday, December 11, 2018

It's About TIME For Journalists

It's choice of such piercing relevance and inspiration that it gave my heart a surge of warmth.  TIME magazine reminded us of the aching need for good journalism, freedom of the press and the hard -- often fatal -- work done by good journalists committed to the truth. TIME named Jamal Khashoggi and other journalists as 2018 Person of the Year.
TIME calls the group of journalists "The Guardians" and refers to individuals "who have taken great risks in pursuing the truth."  Included in the group are the Capital Gazette staffers who were shot and killed this year in the offices of that Annapolis, Maryland newspaper.
A free press is no small thing. It's something we most continually embrace, support and appreciate as much as we would a beloved relative or friend. As is mentioned in the cover story article, a free press marks the distinction between tyranny and democracy.


Good journalists bravely enter and report on those places too dark for us to consider ever entering, whether those places are geographic or in the minds of people in your own city.

If you have TIME, read the article.  If you're online, go here --  time.com.


For a double DVD feature the underscores the power of the press and reminds us that we in America have it to serve the governed, not the governors, rent Steven Spielberg's 2017 drama, THE POST, starring Meryl Streep (at her extra best) and Tom Hanks.  Follow that by watching Alan J. Pakula's 1976 classic, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.  The same newspaper, at different times and with different reporters, deals with the same U.S. President lying to the public, disrespecting the press and violating the Constitution.

THE POST airs on HBO channels this month.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

A Lesson in Filmmaking

In New York City, I was seated in a subway car headed downtown back to West 23rd Street. I was on my way home one chilly late afternoon. Two young males were seated directly across from me. They looked in their late teens. Dressed in casual urban attire, talking enthusiastically to each other like so:

"Yo, man, that movie was deep, bro."

"I had no idea all that shit went down. That was real."

I smiled. A broad smile to myself. Hearing their conversation made me happy and it gave me hope. I knew the movie that they were talking about.  I was seated directly across from them on the subway train. I'd been seated a row behind them at the movie. We all had just seen SCHINDLER'S LIST directed by Steven Spielberg.
Shortly before the film opened nationwide, I attended a film function in New York City. I was working for WNBC TV at the time. Steven Spielberg was present and making his way through the room. I got to shake his hand and chat with him, a brief exchange that lasted no longer than a minute. I mentioned his film and the current events of the day. He responded that what happened during World War 2 was happening again. We could see that in front page newspaper photos of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. This was 1993. We still purchased and read newspapers then.

I wish I could've had that brief encounter with Steven Spielberg after I'd seen the film so I could've told him of the deep impact it made on the hearts and minds of two other black men -- young black men who were not aware of all the horrors of the Holocaust.
To me, that is the power of film and why I love it so.  It can illuminate and entertain, it also can enlighten and educate. Spielberg's 3-hour film was an education and it told a story, a story based on fact. A story about a real-life hero named Oskar Schindler. Liam Neeson played the Polish businessman and bon vivant who redeems himself by saving Jewish lives.
I first learned of the Holocaust through a classic film thanks to my parents in South Central L.A.  I was a youngster. It was a weekend and I heard the TV announcer say that a movie was coming up with Judy Garland in the all-star cast. In those days, THE WIZARD OF OZ got a special prime time network broadcast annually and it was a must-see for all kids. We didn't have VCRs, DVDs or cable then. We couldn't rent movies to take home. We saw THE WIZARD OF OZ once a year.  I knew Judy Garland from that fantasy film and her other MGM musicals that aired on TV.
Mom and Dad told me that Judy Garland was grown and older in the movie JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG and it was not a musical. It wasn't funny. It was a very serious movie about real-life crimes. I could watch it with them. Not by myself. I was in the 5th or 6th grade. They knew the material was way too mature for me. They also knew that some of the newsreel footage in it could scare me like scenes in a horror movie. But they felt I needed to be aware of that history, be aware of that horror that really happened in the world. And I should be aware that people must make sure it never happens again. Never again.  In the movie, it's 1947. Nazis are on trial for war crimes committed. Garland plays a German woman contacted by American officials to testify. She's now a wife in Germany after the war. She had been sent to prison for committing a crime against Germany when Hitler was in power. The crime -- she had befriended a 70 year old Jewish man who was like a very kind father to her. She was 16 when she was sent to prison for being kind to a Jew. JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG shook me. But I'm glad Mom and Dad persuaded me to watch it with them.
I learned more about the Holocaust from documentaries teachers showed at my high school in Watts.

Steven Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST shook me too. Spielberg's Oscar-winning film is back in theaters to mark its 25th anniversary.  Said Spielberg: "...there is more at stake today than even back then...hate is less parenthetical today and more of a headline...Individual hate is a terrible thing, but when collective hate organizes, then genocide follows..."

Think of the KKK hate that marched through Charlottesville, VA last year.  Think of the shooting deaths at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh this year.

Some critics were not pleased with Spielberg's film. I learned that recently listening to AIR TALK on KPCC, an NPR radio station of Pasadena, CA.  During its Friday film review hour, it was mentioned that national critic J Hoberman called SCHINDLER'S LIST "a feelgood movie about a feel bad" event. Hoberman, like a few others, didn't feel the film was gritty enough. This was discussed as critics addressed the 25th anniversary of the film and its current re-release.

It was not an easy movie to sit through. But we movie-goers did. It was not an easy movie to make. The Hollywood studio, Universal Pictures, did not immediately jump for joy at the notion of greenlighting a 3-hour movie about the Holocaust. In black and white. From Steven Spielberg.

Universal was more keen on Steven Spielberg, the most famous and successful American director of our generation, giving what he'd given us before -- big colorful  action and fantasy films that did colossal business at the box office. Films like JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and JURASSIC PARK.  Hollywood studio executives wanted dinosaurs chasing Jeff Goldblum, not Nazis killing Jews.  But Steven Spielberg made his film. And we paid to see it. And we learned from it.

I know. I sat directly across from two young men who did.

I'm glad SCHINDLER'S LIST is back. People need to see it. Especially some important people in the White House.

After he made SCHINDLER'S LIST, and because of its success with moviegoers, Steven Spielberg started The USC Shoah Foundation:  https://sfi.usc.edu/.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

New Talent in THE ONION FIELD (1979)

The 1970s was a bountiful decade for good movies. In that whole decade, Hollywood was really free of the stifling, sexist, archaic production codes and censorship. We could see stories that were more realistic, more raw, more challenging. Also, there was new young talent behind the cameras.  Spielberg, Scorcese, Coppola, De Palma, Lucas. There were 1970s movies that didn't gain the fame and box office popularity that a STAR WARS, THE GODFATHER, CABARET, BLAZING SADDLES, ANNIE HALL, JAWS or CHINATOWN did, but they were good movies with fine talent just the same,  For me, one such film is 1979's THE ONION FIELD with a screenplay by Joseph Wambaugh based on his nonfiction book of the same name. The movie was directed by Harold Becker. It's based on a true life Southern California murder and court case that I recall reading about in The Los Angeles Times when I was a kid. The cop-killer case would come back in the news. It made the papers again in 2012 when the kidnapper/killer from this notorious case died in prison at age 79. Two L.A. cops were kidnapped by two men. One was black, the other white. The cops were driven to an onion field in Bakersfield. One was shot and killed. The other escaped.  The movie THE ONION FIELD introduced us to some strong new talent.
I graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee. After graduation, I stayed in Milwaukee to start my broadcast career. I had a hunch I could hook myself up a radio/TV job there faster than I could back home in L.A.  In L.A., you had to be blond even to get a job as a radio announcer. Milwaukee's ABC TV affiliate hired me to be a weekly film critic. One of the first films I was assigned to review was THE ONION FIELD. A co-worker and I went to see it. Afterwards, she and I talked a lot about how good that new actor James Woods was as the white killer. Slim, with a buzzcut and large eyes, he looked like an evil librarian. James Woods went on to become a 2-time Oscar nominee. That was a breakout killer role for a new actor in the same way that Richard Widmark's career was launched when he played a crazed killer with a crazy laugh in 1947's KISS OF DEATH.
 His was not the only performance in this drama that grabbed me. The black killer was played memorably by handsome and extremely talented Franklyn Seales. He put his whole heart and soul into his performance as the sad-eyed Jimmy, a constant life loser who was coerced into taking that ride where he'd see his persuasive partner kill a cop. Just like actor Howard E. Rollins Jr (of RAGTIME and A SOLDIER'S STORY) Franklyn Seales was an actor who died too soon.
I saw Seales in Milwaukee.  Before this film was made, he had a lead role in a play done by our Milwaukee Rep Theater. (I used to be an usher for the Milwaukee Rep during my college years and I absolutely loved that job. I got to see plays for free.)  Franklyn Seales played the lead character in the Milwaukee Rep's TRIAL OF THE MOKE. The play centered on racial prejudice aimed at shooting down the reputation of West Point's first black cadet graduate. The play was recorded for TV presentation.  Fellow new actors in that 1978 TV presentation were Alfre Woodard, Samuel L. Jackson and Howard E. Rollins Jr.

Hollywood should have been sending Franklyn Seales other good scripts just like it did to James Woods after 1979's THE ONION FIELD. But, you guessed it, there was the color problem. Seales commented that there wasn't much work for a light-skinned black actor.  That's why you need to go to Amazon Prime and rent the video. When you see how handsome and how talented he was, you will vocally curse Old Hollywood's racial ignorance.  Franklyn Seales went to television, like many actors of color do, and had steady work on the 1983-1987 NBC sitcom, SILVER SPOONS. He died in 1990 at age 37. We lost him and Howard E. Rollins Jr. to AIDS.

"There's no gratitude in a policeman's trunk, Mom." That's a touching line from another actor in THE ONION FIELD whose dramatic depth and emotional honesty made a scene one that has lingered in my mind ever since I first saw it.  The character is the L.A. cop who is killed in the onion field. He's a good young man, but you sense a spiritual dissonance about him. Nothing bad. He just doesn't know if he's appreciated -- if he's adding something to life the way his late father did. His mother reassures him as they have tea. He was a kid who played classical piano and wanted to be a doctor. But he grew up to be a cop.

The scene? Bravely facing something dark and inevitable, he looks up at the full moon and, in his mind, hears bagpipes. His parents were both of Scottish descent. Then he tenderly touches the back of his partner's hand.  That scene gets me every time. That doomed police officer was played by Ted Danson in his film debut.  That scene and a film's closing scene with the dead policeman's mother years later in 1979 always move me. Beautiful acting.
THE ONION FIELD is a film in which even actors with brief supporting roles or bit parts stand out. Ted Danson, as we know, went on to TV sitcom fame.  He's in a hit sitcom now on NBC. You'll also see Christopher Lloyd before his TAXI sitcom years and one of the Darryls from Bob Newhart's NEWHART sitcom. Both play prison inmates in the crime drama that goes from 1963 to 1979. Click onto this link to see a trailer:

https://youtu.be/z3CbKbNAHA4.

The film was made when Hollywood was still timid about giving lead roles to black actors and greenlighting black stories. The play THE TRIAL OF THE MOKE should've been adapted into a courtroom drama big screen movie starring Franklyn Seales. Also, the images of gay black men left a lot to be desired back then. The film's opening scenes show a black drag queen being taken into custody at a Hollywood precinct. Her almost-customer gets busted too. He's a short milquetoast of a guy who starts to freak out because he'll be charged with being gay. He gets tackled by about four big brawny cops and one proceeds to punch him in the face until he bleeds. Obvious unnecessary police brutality. The police term for the man's freak-out was "homosexual panic."  Author/screenwriter Joseph Wambaugh was on the LAPD for 14 years before he started writing best-sellers.

In the movie, we follow the other cop (played by John Savage) as he wrestles with survivor's guilt and his LAPD reputation. We follow the court case in which the white killer acts as his own lawyer and we see his black partner endure some unfair treatment in the prison system. He's at a racial disadvantage. Franklyn Seales. Man, was he good. And he left us way too soon. If you're up for a good drama featuring actors very early in their film/TV careers, check out THE ONION FIELD.


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Black Art in the Golden Globes

Recently, I heard a network TV news anchor say that she couldn't believe no novel by James Baldwin had ever been adapted for film before director/writer Barry Jenkins made IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. Well, as a longtime TV veteran who's done a lot of entertainment news reporting and interviewing, I could believe it. Because the blistering and brilliant James Baldwin was black and so were the characters in his books. Hollywood had a long history of claiming that black stories with mostly black actors in the lead and supporting roles were not marketable. Black stories wouldn't sell in the movie-going marketplace. Hollywood would not greenlight such projects. So, instead, Hollywood studios made movies based on books by Jacqueline Susann, Tom Clancy and E.L. James, the lady who wrote FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, written and directed by the same man who gave us the Oscar-winning MOONLIGHT, has made Golden Globes history.
So did the Africa-centric sci-fi action/fantasy box office blockbuster, BLACK PANTHER featuring a predominantly black cast.
Most of the drama films in the Golden Globes list of nominees for Best Picture this year are movies from black filmmakers.

As a talk show host on VH1 in the late 1980s, I had a list of great guests who sat with with me in the studio. Some of them were: Kirk Douglas, Norman Mailer, Dominick Dunne, poet Alan Ginsberg, Anne Rice, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Alan Rickman, John Cleese, Fran Lebowitz, Sigourney Weaver, James L. Brooks, The Smothers Brothers, Mel Gibson, Marlo Thomas, Jodie Foster, Michael Caine, Ben Kingsley, Gregory Hines, Joan Baez, Carlos Santana, Raul Julia, Patrick Swayze, Whoopi Goldberg, Spike Lee, Smokey Robinson, Liza Minnelli, Phil Collins … and I was flown to London to interview Paul McCartney.

Yes. I know I just dropped a lot of names. But I did it for a reason.

I would not have gotten that job had I left my career in the hands of a broadcast agent. If broadcast agents had received a casting notice in 1988 that read "Seeking TV host for a national celebrity talk show with acclaimed figures from stage, screen, music and literature. Talent must have knowledge of such guests and also have good writing skills," I never would have been submitted to audition. Why? Because the casting call did not read "Seeking African-American host" or "Race unimportant."

My VH1 boss and I had worked in Milwaukee at the same time before we got ourselves jobs in New York City. We worked at rival stations there. He was in an executive position and tried to steal me away because he loved my work. He got to New York City and landed an executive position at VH1. If that white executive had not known my work, loved my work, and offered me the job, I never would've gotten it. Other white executives and white agents would not have considered a black man for that job -- because they'd never seen a black man with that kind of "Dick Cavett" job.

I'm not kidding. Latino actor John Leguizamo touched on this kind of racial exclusion in his Tony-winning Broadway show, LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS, now airing on Netflix. He is an extremely gifted actor and writer. He mentioned that when he was a young actor and fresh out of school, his white acting classmate buddies were getting like five auditions a day while he was lucky if he got five auditions a month. I've been there. For us people of color, the playing field was not level. Agents were not exactly creative in their thinking when submitting actors of color for roles. I've mentioned before than, when I had my first agent, a very blond gentleman who worked at William Morris in New York City, I was fresh off my VH1 talk show and told him I was very interested in auditioning for supporting roles in good comedies -- like the role Bill Murray had in TOOTSIE. The agent, bless his heart, replied "But that wasn't a role for a black actor."

Look at TOOTSIE again. That role could've been played by Bill Murray, by John Leguizamo or by David Alan Grier. It was not a race specific role. But an agent automatically saw it as a "white male" actor opportunity.

The voices and, let's face it, anger raised in the last couple of years over the entertainment industry's lack of race/gender inclusion has slapped the chains off the brains of some agents and producers. They're now acknowledging color. Being that we've nearly completed the first two decades of the 21st Century, it's about time.

The Golden Globes nominations were announced. Nowadays, Hollywood looks to the Golden Globes for an idea of what could nab Oscar nominations come January.  In the Drama category, 3 of the 5 nominees for Best Picture are stories driven by black characters:

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (directed by Barry Jenkins)
BLACK PANTHER  (directed by Ryan Coogler)
BlacKkKlansman  (directed by Spike Lee)…

...along with A STAR IS BORN and BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mahershala Ali, Sandra Oh and Constance Wu were all nominated for acting honors. Spike Lee received a Best Director nomination for BlacKkKlansman.

In January, I'll definitely be watching the Golden Globes telecast. This diversity and inclusion in the list of nominees -- and there is more -- gives my heart wings.







Comedy Queen Ellen Cleghorne

NBC and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE just were not ready for the comedy and acting brilliance of Ellen Cleghorne .  There's a current interview ...