Monday, October 12, 2009

NEVER TROUBLE TROUBLE TILL TROUBLE TROUBLES YOU - February 1964 (Breaking Point)

My last booking for the 1963-64 season proved to be my last BREAKING POINT. The script, NEVER TROUBLE TROUBLE TILL TROUBLE TROUBLES YOU was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. Three and a half years earlier I had directed a production of GOLDEN FLEECING, also by Lorenzo Semple Jr., on the main stage at the Pasadena Playhouse. I've never met Lorenzo, but then I’ve never met most of the authors whose screenplalys I’ve directed.


NEVER TROUBLE TROUBLE TILL TROUBLE TROUBLES YOU was the most conventional of the three scripts that I directed for BREAKING POINT. It was the story of an up-and-coming boxer, Rosie Palmer, who in the initial scene loses an important bout under suspicious circumstances. He is accused of throwing the fight, of taking a dive. He pleads his innocence, insisting he was hit, knocked out. Film of the fight shows otherwise. He is suspended by the Boxing Commission. His fiancee returns her engagement ring. He seeks psychiatric help. He swears he was hit; he felt the punch. And if he felt a punch that wasn’t thrown, does that mean he’s going crazy. What made this an unusual show was that it was cast with negro actors, although it was not a negro-themed story. (This was before ‘black’ and ‘African-American’ became the accepted terms of reference.) It could just as easily have been a story about a white boxer.


I don’t have a copy of NEVER TROUBLE TROUBLE..., so I don't remember very much about the shooting of the show, but there were two incidents in preproduction that are worth relating. Because Rosie in his sessions with the psychiatrist speaks of his past, there were flashbacks in the story. We needed an adult Rosie and a seven year old Rosie. Now under ordinary circumstances the adult Rosie would be cast, then a child Rosie would be matched to him. But this was episodic television. Everything is worked on at the same time. So while the search for the adult Rosie went on, Lynn Stalmaster, the casting director, brought in three seven year old negro boys. Our plan was that we would see the children, but hold off making any decision until we had our boxing Rosie, when we would cast the young boy who most closely resembled him. One of the boys who came in was the son of LA Councilman Melvin Dymally. The fact that he was a Councilman’s son didn’t mean anything to us. The fact that the child was beautiful and absolutely enchanting did. He was light-skinned with light brown wavy hair. His whole demeanor was angelic and sensitive. He had the qualities we were looking for in the youngster’s scenes. We decided not to wait; we cast him on the spot. We hoped our adult Rosie would match him, but if he didn’t, make-up would solve the problem. We then cast a New York actor, Terry Carter, as Rosie. Terry was a dark-skinned Sydney Poitier look-alike. There was going to be a problem, but we knew it was solveable.


The day young Dymally was to shoot arrived. He reported to make-up where I had given instructions on what I wanted. I could not stay in the make-up room to oversee, as I had to continue filming. When his make-up was completed, the make-up man brought him to the set for my approval. I took one look and said, “No. He needs to be darker.” They returned to the make-up room, and a short while later returned. “No,” I said again. “He needs to be darker.” Again back to the make-up room, and again a return to the set. He was still too light. I took the boy and the make-up man over to where Terry Carter was seated. “He is still too light,” I said. “He needs to be darker. He is playing Terry as a child. His skin needs to be the same color.” The make-up man looked at me quizzically, as if I had lost all my marbles. “Well don’t they get darker as they grow older?” he asked. Now that was a funny line, but it was also shocking to me. A hundred and nine years after the end of the Civil War it was inconceivable to me that anybody with any intelligence could ask that question. I later related the incident to Diana Sands, who was cast as Sarah, Rosie’s fiancee. And this is why people who one day might want to write a blog should keep journals. Diana, laughing, responded, “He probably thinks ...” and I don’t remember the rest of her statement. I just remember that we had a good laugh.


There were two older characters in the script: Rosie’s father and Sarah’s father. We immediately cast Joel Fluellen as Rosie’s father. I had worked with Joel when he was in the cast of one of my stage productions. For the role of Sarah’s father we wanted Rex Ingram, a black actor with a very distinguished resume. He had played the role of De Lawd in the Broadway production of Marc Connolly’s THE GREEN PASTURES and repeated it in the Warner Brothers’ filming of the play. He had portrayed Lucifer, the Devil, in CABIN IN THE SKY with Ethel Waters and Lena Horne. He was Jim, the runaway slave, in THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN with Mickey Rooney. So our casting director had Rex come into our office. We had a nice chat, after which I handed him a script. “You mean, I got the job?” he said. I responded, “You had the job when you came in. We just wanted to meet you.” I never get over bemoaning the cruelty of this profession, that older performers who should be revered for their talent and experience are so casually shunted aside. And all of this compounded in Rex’s case by the color of his skin.


Five and a half years later in the summer of 1969 I worked with Rex once again. IMDB (the Internet Movie Data Base) includes the following in its bio of Ingram: Although in ill health, the 74-year-old Ingram took on his last role, on a Christmas episode of "The Bill Cosby Show,"* because star/co-producer Cosby, a long-time fan, personally asked him to. Shortly after filming ended, Ingram passed away on September 19, 1969. The episode was aired a little over two months later, on December 21, and earned the show some of its highest ratings to date.


*This was not THE COSBY SHOW with the Huxtable family. It was an earlier series Cosby did in 1969, when he played a gym instructor.

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