By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
“Roots” was serendipitous: the right TV project at the right moment with the right people. The Civil Rights movement was close enough in time to retain its power, but far enough away to be put in perspective. Still, there were few African American faces on TV, and a miniseries about an African American family’s journey through slavery to freedom was an audacious choice of subject matter.
“In a country where 90 percent of the people are white and 10 percent are black, a show where the white people are the villains doesn’t seem like a good idea,” said David L. Wolper, executive director of “Roots.”
Mr. Wolper saw beyond those odds to what, for him, was essentially a universal story about family. “It was about following a family throughout generations,” he said. “You see Kunta Kinte in a village, with his grandmother and mother, and then he’s captured. You build a relationship with him. It’s a family feeling.”
In fact, Mr. Wolper believed in “Roots” so much that he tried to get the project before the book was even published. He was a judge at a film festival in the Soviet Union, along with actor Ruby Dee, when he first heard of it. “She asked me if I heard about this friend of hers who wrote this book,” he said. “As soon as I got home I called about it, but I found Columbia Pictures had it.” Seven months later, he was out for lunch and saw someone he knew from the William Morris Agency, accompanied by a woman who turned out to be Alex Haley’s secretary. “I found out the book was free, and within an hour I signed it,” he said.
As the team that made “Roots” came together, each person-director, producer, actor-became a believer. “When I first read the script, it was very powerful,” said Marvin Chomsky, who directed the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth episodes. It didn’t hurt that William Blinn and Ernest Kinoy, whom Mr. Chomsky dubbed “the stellar writers of the time,” were brought on to write the script, along with M. Charles Cohen and James Lee.
For nearly everyone who joined the “Roots” production, serendipity played a hand. Director John Erman was at a crossroads in his career, unhappy with the TV work he was doing, when a friend of his gave him an astrological reading for his birthday. “It said, you will be offered a job in a far-flung place and it’ll be unlike anything you’ve done before, and it will change your life,” he said. Sure enough, he was soon offered a job directing a movie of the week in the Philippines, for bad pay. “All I could think about was the astrological chart, so I said yes,” he said. The movie was “Green Eyes,” which was a huge success. The writer, David Seltzer, was so pleased he called Mr. Wolper to rave about Mr. Erman. Mr. Wolper hired him immediately to direct the second episode of “Roots.” He later directed parts of the 1979 miniseries “Roots: The Next Generations” and the entire 1993 mini Alex Haley’s “Queen.”
Many African American actors who heard about “Roots” were eager to be cast. Ben Vereen recalled asking his agent to get an audition. “My agent said, `Forget it, you’re a song-and-dance man,”‘ he said. “He said he’d submit my name, but that they wouldn’t be interested in me.” But “Roots” producer Stan Margulies came to a performance of Mr. Vereen’s one-man show about minstrel actor Burt Williams. “He came backstage afterwards and said, `We’re doing “Roots” and I’d love for you to be my Chicken George,”‘ Mr. Vereen said. “I didn’t know who Chicken George was, but I said, yes, yes, yes.”
Still, Mr. Wolper and Mr. Margulies knew that casting for the show had to be done carefully. “This was a tough show for the American audience to watch,” Mr. Wolper said. “Nothing of this magnitude had ever been on before. We didn’t want actors who were physically threatening. For example, if Spike Lee were an actor [at the time], I wouldn’t have used him in this show. Too threatening. It was tough enough just to do the show.”
What Mr. Wolper and Mr. Margulies did was go after performers, both black and white, whom American audiences knew from TV shows: Lloyd Bridges, Chuck Connors, Lorne Green, Leslie Uggams, Ralph Waite, George Hamilton, Edward Asner, O.J. Simpson, Scatman Crothers and others.
Mr. Wolper pushed the idea to ABC that this was the kind of story that Hollywood liked: a multi-generation family tale where someone rises up from adversity. “I convinced them that this was a story that had never been told,” he said. “That’s one thing. And that if people watched one episode, they’d watch the rest.”
“It was Wolper’s vision,” said Mr. Erman. “He was the one who sold it and promoted it and did everything that he does brilliantly.” Mr. Erman also stressed the role that Mr. Margulies played as the “nuts and bolts” producer. “He was able to infuse it with quality and get it done for a price,” he said. “He knew what corners to cut and which not to cut, and he was very supportive of a director if he believed in him.”
That’s exactly what Mr. Margulies did when Mr. Wolper wanted Vince Edwards, who had been the star of “Ben Casey,” to play a role in the episode that Mr. Erman would direct. “I’d directed `Ben Casey’ and I knew he couldn’t act and wasn’t a dedicated performer,” Mr. Erman said. “I went in and fought not to have him-and really threatened to quit if they insisted on using him. Stan backed me up and we eventually got Vic Morrow to play that part, of one of the white overseers.”
LeVar Burton was the unknown factor. Casting director Lynn Stalmaster found him at USC Film School, where he was a student. “I don’t think he’d ever been on a movie set, let alone do a movie,” Mr. Wolper said. “We tested him, and he was terrific. Then we brought him to ABC and somebody said, `Isn’t he too black?’ That became our joke. Of course he was black, [his character] was from Africa.”
Of course, that executive was speaking in a broadcast environment nearly devoid of people of color. Mr. Chomsky pointed to productions of “Raisin in the Sun,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “One Potato, Two Potato” as exceptions to the rule. “There had been a flittering of black-oriented or black films [on television] during those years, none of which took off,” he said. “There weren’t too many people greenlighting black projects at the time. To my knowledge, `Roots’ was the first to splash onto the mainstream and make a number of careers.”
During the production of “Roots,” what everyone remembers is the luminous presence of author Alex Haley. “He would come by the set, and we’d go to his apartment, and he’d show us pictures of his family,” Mr. Vereen said. “I’d ask him, `Am I close to what you would expect of your great-great-grandfather?’ and he said, yes, Chicken George was this way, that way. He gave me the keys to play Chicken George-that he was flamboyant, different from the family, a free spirit. Those were the things I took in and applied to my character.”
Mr. Chomsky recalled: “It was a very harmonious workplace. Alex Haley would come on set, go to screenings of dailies, rough cuts, fine cuts. He was there to cheer everyone on. He was a very pleasant man, very mild mannered and very open, a delight to know. He offered suggestions when asked and generally was quite taken with the film production and really enjoyed it.”
Mr. Haley was not overtly political regarding the production of “Roots,” according to Mr. Wolper. “He didn’t care if the writers and directors were white or black,” he said. “He was interested in having people see the show.”
Everyone on the set knew that “Roots” had a significance that went beyond the show itself. “We had just come through the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War was over,” Mr. Chomsky said. “The country was bleeding after Watergate. This [story, with its focus on slavery] was something about a wretched tear in the American fabric that no one was willing to face openly. It came at a time when the populace was ready to accept the wrongs of the past and say we really did this-our history is guilty of having committed this wretched act.”
The production itself was fairly low budget. “They blew their budget on the firs
t hour, by going to South Carolina and getting a lot of production value,” Mr. Erman said. “From then on we were shooting on the Fox backlot with a fa%E7;ade of the plantation, not a whole plantation.” The show was also shot fairly quickly, recalled Mr. Erman, who said his episode was shot in about seven days.
The subject matter at times made filming tough on everyone, particularly the actors. Mr. Wolper recalls the filming of a scene in which a slave, played by Richard Roundtree, wants to get married, and his slave owner, George Hamilton, won’t let him. The script called for Mr. Roundtree to get on his knees and beg. “He couldn’t do it, the scene was so strong,” Mr. Wolper said. (He eventually did.) Mr. Wolper also recalled that when the scenes of the slaves chained together in the slave ship were shot, emotions were high. “The extras were lying on their backs, chained together, two inches from each other,” he said. “It was so emotional that some of them couldn’t come back. That was tough.”
“Even the crew was sensitive to the material we were doing,” said Mr. Vereen. “They were attentive. They didn’t treat it as any ordinary job but as a sensitive piece of work on a delicate matter.”
Three months before “Roots” was to air, the book came out, to great acclaim. “We were starting to promote the show in the middle of the summer and sat down with ABC to talk about it,” Mr. Wolper said. “Doubleday had published the book, and the first printing was 50,000. We had a meeting with Doubleday and [ABC executive] Brandon Stoddard said, `That’s how many copies my company will buy. How many are you printing for the public?’ They didn’t imagine the power of TV.”
Despite that, the network-and everyone involved with the production-had no idea what a phenomenon “Roots” would be. “The people working on the project all felt very enthusiastic,” Mr. Chomsky said. “We all felt it had great meaning. But some people felt it wouldn’t be a blockbuster.” So much so that ABC scheduled “Roots” to air every night within one week, just before sweeps week, with the idea that if it bombed, the network would quickly get the broadcast on and off the air.
“Roots” didn’t bomb, of course, and the intense reaction took everyone by surprise. “When it aired the first night, we didn’t know how America would take it,” Mr. Vereen said. “We were treading on new water. I didn’t go out of the house, and I was glued to the TV set and had no idea what was going on in the country. I didn’t know that people were stopping what they were doing, crowding into bars to see it.”
“Roots” was on fire, and an entire nation, black and white, sat rapt before the TV set. “It heralded a new way to express TV ideas in long form,” Mr. Chomsky said. “To everyone’s surprise, the audience was willing to come back night after night until, ultimately, by the time we got to the last show it had unbelievably high ratings. It also showed that you did not need a completely stellar cast of luminaries to do your story.”
Careers were made. With his astrological prediction having come true, Mr. Erman won a DGA Award for the “Roots” episode he directed and went on to direct parts of “Roots: The Next Generations,” “Queen” and “An Early Frost,” among other shows. “I went from being a journeyman director to an award-winning director, and from big project to big project,” he said. “It really turned my whole career around. From that point on, I could pick and choose what I wanted to do in TV. I got lucky and did lots of interesting projects.”
Mr. Chomsky went on to direct “Holocaust,” another TV event, and “Attica,” among other projects. “There were three other directors [on `Roots’],” he said. “But we were all somewhat anointed, having done this.”
Mr. Vereen said his celebrity quotient skyrocketed. “All of a sudden, I was being called to do Las Vegas,” he said. “Chicken George is coming! My father was sort of turned off by my career. When he came to see me in `Jesus Christ Superstar,’ all he said was, `You better put some clothes on.’ But when `Roots’ came on and I came home, he was so proud.”
After “Roots,” everyone wanted to join the party for the 1979 miniseries “Roots: The Next Generations,” also executive produced by Mr. Wolper, which took the story from the Civil War to current times. “It was a totally different experience,” Mr. Erman said. “They had a huge budget compared to the original, and every actor, certainly every black actor, in the business wanted to be on it. We were getting calls from Marlon Brando, and Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda were in the first episode.”
Mr. Erman recalled the day he was in Mr. Margulies’ office when the producer said to his secretary, “Get me Marlon Brando.” “Then he looked at me, giggling, and said, `I never thought I’d be saying that,”‘ he said. “That was the way it was. The first `Roots’ was a little harried, rushed. This had an enormous amount of production value that hadn’t been available in the first one, and it was a thrilling experience.”
Alex Haley was on the set of “Roots: The Next Generations” also. “Every time we had a new group of actors to play part of the family, he’d come on the set and indoctrinate them,” Mr. Erman said. “It was sitting and listening to a wonderful, wonderful storyteller.”
In 1993 came “Queen,” which focused on the story of the half-white, half-black daughter of Mr. Haley’s ancestor, who had a child with the plantation owner’s son. “Alex had made the stipulation that whoever played Queen had to look white but be black, and also be a brilliant actress,” said Mr. Erman, who directed the series. “It was a very, very demanding role, to go from being a teenaged slave girl to a demented older woman. To be honest, I thought we would never find this girl and would eventually have to use a white actress. Then Halle came into our lives.”
Halle Berry contacted the show’s producers and asked if she could fly in for a screen test. “She desperately wanted to do it,” Mr. Erman said. “We tested her and two other girls, and there was no question in any of our minds. Dave [Wolper], Stan [Margulies] and I knew that Halle was the one.” A network executive disagreed, but Mr. Wolper held his ground. “He said, `Halle Berry will play Queen-if not for you, then for someone else,”‘ Mr. Erman said. “`I’m not doing the show with anyone else.”‘ Halle Berry played the role.
The people who worked on “Roots” still feel a bond, said several participants. “When I get together with cast members, it still feels like family,” Mr. Vereen said. “We were together through something special. That time chose us to be in something with a magnitude of importance, and we had the opportunity to change the consciousness of the time.”
Mr. Chomsky noted that “Roots” continues to resonate for the people who participated in its making. “We weren’t really aware of the depth that might be exposed, the soul searching,” he said. “It wasn’t until you saw it a year or two or three later that you started to question. Sometimes you could only question, and never find an answer, and when you did, it might be a flash of light.”
“The original “Roots” had a life of its own,” said Mr. Wolper. “We had good directors, a good co-producer and a great cast. It all came together in that moment in time.”
Though “Roots” electrified the nation, made careers, and touched everyone who made it, one person to remain apart from the maelstrom was Alex Haley. “Remember, he was in his 60s when he first became famous,” Mr. Wolper said. “And he was able to take to fame much better [than others]. He never changed a bit, from when nobody knew him to when presidents and great people fell all over him.”
A few weeks ago, Mr. Vereen was cleaning up his apartment and came across the “Roots” videotapes. “I sat down and watched it, and it still holds up,” he said. “I thought, we did some brilliant work. Yet I am honored that people are still talking about it and [discussing it] in schools, because it’s important. It’s part of the American fiber, to recognize what was the African American holocaust, and to know it can never happen again.”