What becomes a legend most? In television, at least, the answer is clear: a bigger and better sequel. By the time all 14 hours of ABC’s lavish production of Roots II unreel this week, the follow-up to the highest-rated show ever will have made more than just TV history. Author Alex Haley’s genealogy will be more imprinted in the national consciousness than the family trees of the Adamses, the Roosevelts or the Kennedys.
As producer Stan Margulies grandly stated it, “We’re king of the mountain.” Roots: The Next Generations was budgeted at $16.6 million, nearly three times the cost of the original. Some $2 million went to re-create Haley’s hometown of Henning, Tenn. in Placerita Canyon outside of L.A.—the most expensive TV set ever. Perhaps of greater import, there was a largely black crew, unprecedented both in numbers and in key assignments like director of photography. And in the new episodes, instead of casting TV names like Ed Asner, Ralph Waite and Chuck Connors as Roots’ malevolent whites, Roots II draws on big-screen eminences like Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. Everyone from Olympic star Rafer Johnson to pianist Bobby Short and football’s Anthony Davis got bits to play. But the biggest plum of all was landing Hollywood’s leading character actor, Marlon Brando, in his TV debut as American Nazi Party satrap George Lincoln Rockwell (whom journalist Haley interviewed for Playboy in 1966).
One Roots tradition, though, remains intact. With the exception of James Earl Jones, who plays Alex himself, the roles of Haley’s forebears have gone to a troupe of talented but little-known black actors, many from Chicago and New York. The only holdovers from the original cast are Georg Stanford Brown (who this time also directed a segment) and Lynne Moody as Haley’s great-grandparents. The other featured actors, all blacks 30 or under, are the newcomers who make the follow-up Roots II a breakthrough comparable to the original.
Haley’s parents, for example, are played by Dorian Harewood, 28, and Irene Cara, 19, who had met earlier when they were in an unnoticed movie musical, Sparkle. At first they were awed by working with the illustrious likes of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. “These people are at the top of their field,” marvels Harewood. “They don’t tear down other actors; they help them. And here I am cast as James Earl Jones’ father!” According to Bever-Leigh Banfield, 22, who once understudied six parts on Broadway (in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf), “Georg Stanford Brown and Lynne Moody brought the vibes from Roots to us. Everybody in that production felt absolute commitment to do their absolute best.”
Banfield and Stan Shaw, 26, played Haley’s grandparents, Will and Cynthia Palmer. Shaw auditioned so convincingly as an older man that casting director Reuben Cannon instinctively leaped up to help him back to his seat. Stan later was the sole Roots actor to make the pilgrimage to Henning to steep himself in the local ambience. What he found, not surprisingly, was a commercialized town with plans for “Chicken George” takeout fried-chicken emporiums. But visiting old-timers and the town cemetery was, he notes, “an enlightening experience.”
The charter Chicken George, Ben Vereen, declined a chance to return, and the part was inherited by veteran actor Avon (Porgy and Bess) Long. LeVar Burton, the original young Kunta Kinte, reportedly wanted a salary equal to Henry Fonda’s $10,000 per day for the cameo of an African whom Haley encounters in Kinte’s native Juffure. LeVar didn’t get it. Roots fans Fonda and de Havilland, though, were eager for the sequel. Fonda read the scripts “and flipped out. They were the best I’d read in years in any medium.” Olivia de Havilland was intrigued to play a 19th-century woman forbidden to touch or even see her mixed-blood grandson in a role that ironically echoes her 1939 performance as Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.
But the biggest casting coup was Brando. Marlon actually cajoled comedian Dick Gregory into calling Haley for him and asking for the part, any part as long as it was villainous. “You’re known for your jokes,” a disbelieving Haley replied to Gregory. The only thing laughable, however, was the fee Brando was willing to accept. “He can make more than $1 million a week doing a movie,” Stan Margulies points out, “so what he made on Roots II was like working for scale by Marlon’s standards.”
His nine-minute scene with James Earl Jones was scheduled for the last day of the eight-month shooting schedule. The set was closed, guards placed on the doors and Brando’s name coyly dropped from the call sheet after nearly every actor in Hollywood tried to get permission to watch. Another actor stood by in case Brando didn’t show. Marlon arrived early, though, his requested cue cards festooning the set, and elatedly completed the eight-page script in nine hours, possibly a career record.
Brando headed back to Tahiti, but the cast’s youngsters fretted that their post-Roots II world might be narrower. Television has found few roles for blacks outside the tired series formats. “There aren’t enough opportunities for black actors—or actors, period,” says Harewood. “I have mixed feelings about the success of Roots,” agrees Fay Hauser, 30, who plays the school-teacher who marries aristocrat Richard Thomas. “I know I’ll get visibility, but there are quite a few of us out here, and I don’t know if there are enough scripts to go around.” Even director John Erman worries, “The biggest wrong is that these people who’ve done incredible work will be unemployed. After such a hit, it would be a tremendous letdown.”
But, thus far anyway, Roots is bearing fruit. Debbi Morgan, cast as the spinster aunt who imbues Haley with Kinte lore, has signed a development contract with Warner Bros. TV. Stan Shaw has already completed a new movie, The Great Santini, with Robert Duvall and Blythe Danner. Banfield has an ongoing role in NBC’s new series, Cliffhangers. Irene Cara is in Maya Angelou’s first made-for-TV movie, Sisters, with Diahann Carroll, Paul Winfield and Robert Hooks. Later she’ll resume her singing career backing up Lou Reed and Evelyn “Champagne” King. Fay Hauser is featured on a new single for Tomato Records, The Streets Are Filled with Dancing, with Robert (Soap) Guillaume, her live-in man for four years. Harewood too has cut a record, but is waiting for the show to air before looking for a label. “I’ve been happily sidetracked,” he says, “but now is the time to go back to music.”
No one, to be sure, has been catapulted as far as the man who started it all, Alex Haley. His original Roots book has been translated into 24 languages, while the TV series itself has been dubbed into 16. To prepare Roots II, Haley, 57, spun out 1,100 pages of notes in four months. Yet when the production was finally made, he remained in the background. “Alex had every opportunity, but he never tried to protect himself or have himself portrayed in a better light,” says the show’s head writer, Ernest Kinoy. “I think that takes a certain courage.”
In the aftermath, though, the twice-divorced Haley feels, “My personal life has been virtually wiped out.” Though he’s cut back his lectures from 300 a year to just 30 (at $5,000 a shot), he has had to hire his cousin Jennie as a full-time secretary with two helpers just to handle the endless canvas sacks of mail and invitations. He poured some $100,000 of his royalty millions into the Kinte Foundation, which he established to provide guidance (but no money) for genealogical research and family reunions. He lives in L.A.’s upper-middle-class Cheviot Hills, drives a beige Mercedes coupe with plates reading KINTE and works in a secret Hollywood hideaway. His schedule remains hectic. “If I could pay somebody $10 an hour to sleep for me, and I reaped the benefits, I’d happily do it,” he says.
Following his recent much-publicized settlement of a plagiarism suit for a reported $500,000, Haley blurted to an interviewer that he might as well give up writing and go into TV. Admitting he was depressed and an “emotional wreck” at the time, Haley has defended successfully against three other suits and now recants the statement. Fittingly, the experience may have brought Haley to a firmer grasp of his other roots. “I don’t intend to quit writing. I am a writer to the marrow of my bones,” he says. “And I’ll continue to write until I’m put under.”