It’s hard to think of Maya Angelou as anything other than the symbol of strength she portrayed in her award-winning autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But before its publication in 1969, the late poet was a single mother struggling to find work to support her son.
In an exclusive clip from American Masters – Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, the first documentary feature about her life, Angelou’s son Guy Johnson gets emotional remembering one particular hardship she experienced at the arms of Emmy-winning actress Pearl Bailey.
The year was 1967, and Hello Dolly! — one of Broadway’s biggest hits — was in the middle of its third year. With ticket sales beginning to sag in the wake of original star Carol Channing’s departure, producer David Merrick decided to recast the production with an all-black cast led by Bailey.
Angelou, then a struggling actress and singer touring across the states with her calypso and blues nightclub act, was brought in to audition for Bailey’s understudy.
“For my mother, it would have meant living continuously in New York without leaving me for at least a year,” said Johnson, 72. “And it was regular money.”
But Angelou was not given the role — a decision Johnson claims was made by Bailey.
“The director and the producer both loved her,” Johnson said. “But Pearl Bailey came back and said ‘Oh no — I ain’t gonna have this big old ugly girl be my understudy.’ ”
According to Johnson, the moment destroyed her.
“There are very few times in my life I remember my mother crying,” he said. “Because this meant she had to go back on the road and find other work. It was devastating because I knew all the sacrifices my mother made to keep me.”
Bailey would go on to win a Tony Award for her role in the all-black version of Hello Dolly!, which ran for 2,844 performances from Nov. 12, 1967 to Dec. 27, 1970. Thelma Carpenter was cast as Bailey’s understudy and alternate for all matinees, famously subbing for Bailey more than a hundred times and at one point playing the role for seven straight weeks.
Years later, after Angelou would find fame as an author, the two women came face-to-face when Bailey was honored with a lifetime achievement award. According to Johnson, his mother took the high road.
“They ask her — who do you want to give it to you?” Johnson recounted, crying. “She said Maya Angelou. And guess who gave it to her and never said a damn thing?”
American Masters – Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise premieres Feb. 21 (at 8 p.m. ET) on PBS. The film will be released on DVD the same day with additional bonus features, and on Digital HD Feb. 22.