‘Without King,’ says Winfield, ‘I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities as an actor’
Before he began to research his title role for King, NBC’s docudrama next week, actor Paul Winfield had tended to write off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as “a quiet, reasonable Southern Baptist minister” not really relevant to his own life. “Malcolm X seemed to be more from the streets I was from,” felt Winfield, who was born 36 years ago in Watts. But as he did the homework so apparent in his stunning evocation of King, the actor came to believe that it was the civil-rights-preaching minister who “made Malcolm X possible. Without King,” Winfield adds, “I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I’ve had as an actor.”
Those opportunities included, among 17 properties in 15 driven years, the barrier-breaking 1968 sitcom Julia and two remarkable movies with his King co-star (and onetime lover) Cicely Tyson: Sounder and the urbanized but equally affecting A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich premiering this week. But while Winfield had emerged as the most ubiquitous black TV/movie actor of the decade, he found “I was so busy being other people that my own life was in shambles. What I thought were wonderful relationships were simply not,” he admits. “A girl I was involved with committed suicide because I wasn’t there—not just physically, but emotionally.” Along the way, he also botched temporarily his friendship with Cicely. “I was extremely competitive,” he remembers. “I was hostile to the attention she was getting, even though it was due. I hated it that she had new clothes I couldn’t afford to give her myself—all those childish things…” he sighs.
What finally mellowed and began to mature Winfield was relocating to San Francisco “to find out who I was without being an actor. When I go to the store, people will talk, but not about the business. Here I have the freedom to be me.” In the meantime he and Tyson have reestablished, if not their romance, at least what she calls “their special relationship” and professional rapport. “There’s no doubt the word ‘brilliant’ belongs to Paul,” says Cicely. In turn, Winfield finds Tyson “an amazing woman and a wonderful, creative, subtle actress. We are very comfortable together,” he notes, while ruing, “I still think a lot about what might have been.”
His capacity for might-have-been was possibly hurt by the fact that he scarcely knew his natural father. Paul and his two half brothers and half sister were raised by his mother, Lois, a union organizer in the garment industry, and his construction worker stepfather. “They worked hard to keep me unaware we were deprived,” Paul remembers, “but there was always a financial struggle. I was an intellectual snob who thought it was my right to read late into the night and run up an electric bill. That’s a kind of contempt and cruelty,” he says, “that only youth can impose.” Misunderstanding his precociousness, his parents originally sent him to a psychiatrist at 3. Yet when he was bused to L.A.’s then mostly white Manual Arts High School, his grades and extracurricular activities (including violin and cello) were so notable he won a scholarship to Yale. But figuring “college was scary enough without going to a rich one,” he bounced around four West Coast schools. He finally left UCLA two units short of a degree to try acting in two LeRoi Jones plays. By the late ’60s Winfield was guesting on TV shows like Room 222 and Name of the Game and then as one of Diahann Carroll’s boyfriends in Julia.
That show seems hardly revolutionary in retrospect, but Winfield was no wave-maker himself. For all his devotion to Malcolm X, Paul felt, “I could do what I had to do better as an actor than behind bars.” He even pragmatically broke his own boycott of “blaxploitation” movies to appear in 1972’s Trouble Man because it helped open film craft unions to blacks. (He and Tyson did decline the 1976 sequel, Part 2 Sounder. Paul’s reasoning: “You couldn’t top the original, and this would be a step backward.”)
Winfield’s current refuge from Hollywood is a plant-filled, three-story home in San Francisco’s Twin Peaks district. Winfield shares the two-bedroom place with tenant Chuck Gillan, 25, a contractor who taught Winfield carpentry in a “labor exchange,” a Bay Area custom. Paul considers his own refinished antiques “a trust. When they pass from my hands, they go along to someone else.” He also plays amateur entomologist (collecting beetles and butterflies), putters about his orchid room and is covering his walls with South Pacific masks.
Next are plans to “recharge myself” in the theater. Beyond that is uncertainty. He used to think life was “worthless unless you had a long ongoing relationship,” but now he’s convinced, “Everything is temporary, even being a parent, husband or wife. A lot of pain comes out of that fact. Things change, kids grow up. Nothing lasts. I found that out with Cicely when she was 3,000 miles away,” he recalls sadly, admitting: “I have very old-fashioned ideas like that—somewhat like Dr. King’s. I want my woman home, and that’s not very practical.”