THE HOLLYWOOD CONNECTION,………..50 years later

There is was ! Right there on the first page of the ARTS Section of the New York Times,… yesterday,…. Thursday, May 9, 2013. I had finished the sugar doughnut as I read the NEWS and BUSINESS/SPORTS sections of the TIMES, and was half way through the Peach Snapple I was drinking. This is my daily ritual at the “library” ( parking lot of 7-11 convenience store ) where each morning after dropping my youngest off  to school I go to buy the NEW YORK TIMES and USA TODAY newspapers. I read the sport section of USA TODAY and Monday through Friday do the crossword puzzle in it . The same applies for the NEW YORK TIMES, except by Thursday it is too hard for me to complete, so I skip it. I can remember back to the days at Tufts College ( 1952-1956 ) when the Sunday edition of the NEW YORK TIMES crossword puzzle was the project of the whole Phi Epsilon Pi ( I was the first black member ) fraternity house. The Phi Eps usually won the Jumbo Award as the house with the highest academic average,…. and it took all of us. most of the day, to complete it. That is how difficult it becomes as the days of the week pass.  But yesterday I “felt lucky”, and went to the ARTS section where the crossword puzzle sits as a big fat challenge and ego shrinker for me. Before I could get to the page with the puzzle, there was  a book review by Janet Maslin of an autobiography by Wiliam Friedkin called the FRIEDKIN CONNECTION.

After I got kicked out of the University of Chicago Law after my second year( why I got kicked out is a very interesting and disturbing story, reflective of the times and trials during the 1950s for niggers that did not know how to – or refused to,… “go along, in order to get along” )  Anyway, after my premature departure from the U.C. Law School, I fell into writing book reviews for the NEGRO DIGEST. The NEGRO DIGEST was the black response to the white READERS’ DIGEST, just as JET and EBONY Magazines paralleled white publications of a like ilk. One of the few positive, but clearly unintended results of the segregation and racism of that time, was the fact that black people developed their own culture and economy in many ways parallel to the mainstream. Blacks owned and ran national insurance companies ( Supreme Life Insurance Company ), newspapers, funeral homes, restaurants,  dry cleaning and record shops to name a paltry few. We even originated and ran the very lucrative “numbers game” until the mafia came in and strong armed blacks out.  So there I was being mentored by Hoyt Fuller the editor of NEGRO DIGEST. My compensation was getting to keep the books I reviewed. Turns out in the long run  this was worth more than any fee, as I now get great enjoyment  looking at these friends and volumes on the shelves of my bookcases from more than 50 years ago.

Lois Solomon edited and published an independent and avant garde newspaper, called THE PAPER. Somehow she came across some of my reviews and liked them. She contacted me and I was flattered to death that someone found what I wrote even remotely interesting. To have someone with a publication like hers interested in what I was doing was totally off the graph for me. So when she invited me to a gathering at her Near Northside Chicago home, I could not get there fast enough. The gathering was everything I hoped it would be and more. There were so many “bright young things”, all with very liberal and progressive viewpoints. When I say “bright young things”, that is what I mean. They were all very smart, and almost all white. A young guy with glasses came up to me and struck up a conversation. He told me how he had done a documentary chronicling the plight of Hispanics in the Chicago area. I think it was titled, ” A Walk Through The Valley”.  The work had won him some awards and recognition which he parlayed into more funding for  his next project, “The People Versus Paul Crump “. Paul Crump had been convicted of murder. In the course of exhausting all his appeal rights he had been on Illinois’ death row for what was the either longest or second longest time in history.     Bill asked me if I would like to observe him making the film and serve as something of technical adviser when it came to certain black issues that may crop up. Man,….talking about hitting it big ! Lois wanted me to write for her newspaper and Friedkin wanted me to informally assist with his new project . It just did not get any better than that.

Bill’s approach was to show how Paul had been railroaded because he was black. And having exhausted all of his appellate rights, Bill decided that he would show that Crump, during all those many years on deathrow, had totally rehabilitated himself and was a new person and this “new” person did not deserve to die. No one had ever won a death case on the basis that the killer had been morally reclaimed and rehabilitated, and thus their life deserved to be spared.

The first night of shooting we had all gathered at the location Bill had selected on the Southside of Chicago for the start of the cameras rolling. It turns out, that not ALL of the people who were supposed to be there turned up. The actor that was to play Paul Crump did not show up. Bill very quietly and calmly turned to me and said:

“Brooks we are on a tight budget and time line. We have everyone here except “Paul Crump”. So you will have to be “Paul Crmp”.

Me ?

Yes, you !

Man, I ain’t no actor.

Don’t worry, I’ll help you. Trust me, I can get you to evoke the proper feeling and emotion for the part.

Trust my ass !!!

Look, we are trying to save a black man’s life here. This is no time for petty concerns. I guarantee you I can get the depth of reality and feeling necessary for you to sell the “Paul Crump” part. If black people can boycott and take Freedom Rides, you sure as hell can do this part. Paul Crump’s  life depends on you helping me out here.

Bullshit !! Paul Crump’s life depends on YOU having that nigger that didn’t show up,….show up !

Brooks,.. neither one of us has a choice !

We somehow got over my extreme case of stage fright and starting the shooting. The script called for us tracking Paul Crump’s movements the night he was supposed to have committed the murder. The murder was supposed to have been in the course of a robbery gone bad . It was Bill’s plan to show that Crump could not have been involved because he was no where near the scene of the crime. I remember several scenes very well. There was one with Crump at nightclub dancing the night away and having a great time miles away from the scene of the crime. That was very easy because it involved one of things I mostly enjoyed doing and mistakenly felt I was very good at doing. The other very memorable scene was the night when the police broke into Crump’s bedroom and took him to jail. Friedkin was a stickler for reality, so we shot the scene in a filthy tenement room. I was having trouble getting into the proper “mood” for the scene emotionally because I was pissed at the smelly and funky bed covers and just knew that bedbugs were going to have a feast on my ass. I was supposed to be showing abject fear at the prospect that the police who were loudly and forcefully  busting down the door to the room. What I was able to muster on my own was mostly disgust and impatience. The next thing I knew Bill took a doubled up electrical cord and starting to beating down on my legs with all his might . Through the covers there was not that much pain, but the fact that he went off like that all of a sudden apparently generated the depth of fear and surprise  he wanted and it was captured in one take. He was true to his word. He was able to me to evoke the necessary emotion and feeling for the part.

The film was very widely shown and got great reviews. It won the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco Film Festival for the best documentary of 1963. The governor of Illinois, impressed and pressured by the outcry the film generated, spared Paul Crump’s life. It marked the first time that a convict was saved from the electric chair on the basis of “rehabilitation”.

Bill Friedkin went on to Hollywood and became a very successful and famous director. Among his films are: THE EXORCIST – the Oscar winning, FRENCH CONNECTION – THE BOYS IN THE BAND – SORCERER – GOOD TIMES – THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKYS. At one of the events celebrating the success of the film he  asked me if I wanted to go to California with him. I have often wondered if he could have done for me what he did for Gene Hackman as “Popeye Doyle” in the FRENCH CONNECTION. The answer is almost always no, because there is no way I could ever –  again –  allow  a white man beat me with a whip in order to get the proper emotionand feeling from me.

1963 was a banner year for me. I was a member of the U.S.  record breaking 4 x100 at the Pan American Games in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I moved to Washington, D.C. to take a new job at the Governmental Affairs Institute and continued my track and field career.

Here we are, exactly 50 years later, and Bill Friedkin and I are vicariously ( we have not spoken in 50 years ) connected after half a century. He is still in Hollywood,….and I am still in track and field !

Brooks T. Johnson

( 407 ) 758 – 0755

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