Wednesday, August 28, 2013

2 Stars with Dr. King

Color. TV.  The March on Washington.
Ruby Dee and the late Ossie Davis were like a Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy for the black American community.  The acted on Broadway.  He was a Broadway playwright.  They acted together in films.  They did television.  Ruby is still working.  Millions remember them in Spike Lee's 1989 classic, Do the Right Thing.

Ruby originated the role of Ruth Younger opposite Sidney Poitier in Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun.  She and Poitier recreated their roles in the 1961 film version of the Broadway hit.
Mr. and Mrs. Ossie Davis acted together onstage in the satirical down South comedy, Gone Are the Days!, also known as Purlie Victorious.  

The original cast included two new actors who'd become stars.  Kneeling is comedian Godfrey Cambridge.  Standing in the back with a fake black eye is Alan Alda.
Standing in between Ossie and Ruby is future Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  

Ossie Davis wrote the play.  Original cast members repeated their roles in the 1963 film version, Gone Are the Days!, with a screenplay by Ossie Davis.

This civil rights era comedy movie is ripe for re-appreciation today. Davis wrote a winner.

Davis went on to co-write the book for the hit Broadway musical version of his play.  It was entitled Purlie and it made a star of its leading lady, Melba Moore.

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee -- man, what an extensive and golden list of credits on their resumés!  They worked with greats in the fine arts.  He directed films after working with famous directors such as Sidney Lumet.  For Lumet, he made The Hill  starring Sean Connery.  This men-in-wartime drama set in a British army prison is one of Lumet's best.
As a Catholic kid growing up in South Central L.A. in the 1960s and attending parochial schools where black priests were also my schoolteachers in classrooms with lots of other black Catholic kids, it made my parents and me proud to see Ossie Davis play a Catholic priest in 1963's The Cardinal directed by Otto Preminger.  We felt represented.  We felt recognized.  Tom Tryon starred in the film.  Even looking at today's film and TV images, one wouldn't know that we black Catholics exist in this country.

Ossie's priest character helps the future cardinal who takes a stand against racial bigotry.

Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were also passionate and peaceful activists.  They were friends of Dr. Martin Luther King.  They were with him when he made the now-historic "I have a dream" speech at the March on Washington.  Ossie was an emcee before Dr. King spoke.  Ruby also addressed the crowd.  Then Martin made history.

They were amongst the celebrities passionate about and present to witness civil rights history that day.  Others were novelist James Baldwin and actor Marlon Brando...
...actors Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston...
...folksingers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan...
...and legendary singer/actress and activist Lena Horne.

Keep that history in mind.

When I was a little boy this day in 1963, millions of us American television viewers -- especially those of us in the black community -- talked with pride and gratitude about the celebrities in that network TV special live telecast.  Millions watched these celebrities speak and perform in the March on Washington.  Of course, we also talked about the magnificent Dr. King.  This week, millions watched and talked about Miley Cyrus on MTV.  Times have changed.  But, occasionally, it feels like they haven't.  That was the case for me in 1993 and '94.

I was a regular on a weekend morning news program on a network affiliate in New York City.  I was approached to be on the show and it came to me after my years on VH1.  I had my own prime time celebrity talk show on VH1.  Unfortunately, once I accepted the offer to be on the news program, I had less freedom in that particular world of broadcast journalism than I did in the world of entertainment on a musical channel.  I was stunned at the number of producers I worked for who'd never read my resumé and assumed I'd never covered entertainment on TV.  One newsroom employee said aloud in a staff meeting for our show, "I thought you were an intern."  It pains me to report that all these people were white staffers.  Friction occurred.

A memorable moment for me happened in the late 1980s when I was on assignment for VH1.  I was leaving a hotel in West Hollywood to go shoot interviews for our show when I saw a show biz icon coming into the hotel.  Seeing Ruby Dee in person was, for me, like seeing show business royalty.  I was humbled and honored when she took my hands, smiled broadly, and said, "I've seen you!"  When I finished my TV shoot that day, I went back to the hotel and called my mother.  I had to tell her about meeting Ms. Dee.

Many of the fine publicists who helped my career by giving me excellent guests for my VH1 talk show followed me over to the weekend local news program that premiered in September 1992.

The lack of awareness or disregard for my previous credits showed in assignments I was given. Or not given.  "I don't think you have the skills" was the immediate comment from the show's producer when I  wanted to do film reviews.  "They're not our audience" was what I heard several times when I was offered guests to interview in the studio on the show.  That meant the celebrities wouldn't be of interest to our show's viewers.  I was assigned live remotes at local community events, like street fairs, and was expected to be funny doing them.

One day, a publicist offered me the opportunity to have two people in the studio live for a weekend interview -- Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.  Wow.  Yes!  I wanted that interview!  I had to turn it down.  "They're not our audience" is what the producer once again said.  I reminded our news program producer that this noted stage and screen couple was with Dr. King at the March on Washington.  It didn't matter.  I grew to hate those words "...not our audience."  They denied me the chance to interview not only Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, but also to have in-studio time with actress Pam Grier, singer Dianne Reeves and singer Patti LaBelle.  The co-anchor of the show asked if he could book a celebrity guest.  That same producer gave him the "OK" for a live interview segment...with Pia Zadora.

The March on Washington was overcome by the Golden Globe winner for New Star of the Year in 1982's Butterfly.  Ever heard of it?

What really irritated me and made me want to grind my molars into dust was our producer nixing my opportunities to interview black, Latino and gay artists live in the studio for most of the year.  However, come mid-January, she'd smile and ask me if I could come up with entertainment segments on African-American artists for February.  Why?  Because February is Black History Month.

It made me wonder if some Americans had really gotten the message of the March on Washington.  It's why diversity in television and in other areas of the arts is so important to me.  I quit that hit show in January 1995.  I did not have equal opportunities working there at that time. I'm positive the situation would be different now.  Back then, diversity needed a wider embrace.  It still needs to be embraced today but progress has definitely been made.

In 1995, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were each awarded the National Medal of the Arts in a White House ceremony.  Obviously, they were somebody's audience.

Today, let's remember and re-commit to the message of the March on Washington.  And check out some of fine work I mentioned here starring Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.

"...make civil right from civil wrongs..."  ~Ossie Davis as preacher Purlie Victorious in the movie Gone Are the Days!

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