Omaha has a corps of performing artists who command a level of admiration and respect that rises above the norm. These special entertainers have earned this status by the high craft and integrity they exhibit. When it comes to musical theater and singing, Camille Metoyer Moten is pretty much at the head of this class. She’s been captivating audiences for some four decades. She’s won all kinds of accolades and awards for her artistry. Not one to rest on her laurels, she’s as busy today as ever and she may just be in her prime now in her 60s. She’s as smooth and unruffled on stage as one can be, but don’t mistake her carefree manner for being untouched by trouble or pain. She’s seen plenty of both. Her from-the-gut performances draw on a lifetime of experiences, some of them tragic and traumatic, others joyous and blessed, and always informed by her deep faith, unflagging spirit and unflappable demeanor.
My New Horizons cover story on Camille appears in the January 2017 issue hitting stands and arriving in mailboxes the last week of 2016. My blog leoadambiga.com also features earlier stories I’ve done on Camille and other Omaha songstresses. Link to some of these stories at –
And here are links to yet more stories I’ve done on popular Omaha singers:
Mary Carrick –
Anne-Marie Kenny –
Karrin Allyson –
Quiana Smith –
Camille Metoyer Moten: With a song in her heart
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the January 2017 issue of the New Horizons
Lady sings the blues
Classy, sassy Camille Metoyer Moten has entertained with her cabaret singing and musical theater performances since the late 1970s. Besides being much beloved, she’s considered a real pro. Her much sought-after stagecraft has earned critical acclaim as well as Omaha Community Playhouse and Theatre Arts Guild awards.
The free, easy way she handles a song and wins over an audience belies the family tragedies and personal struggles she’s endured. Listen and look close enough and you’ll detect the wistful blue notes of the jazz vocalists she grew up listening to. Like them. she knows about pain. Her late parents were at the forefront of Omaha civil rights work before their lives were cruelly cut short. Her mother Lois died of brain cancer at age 43. Seven years later her father Ray was shot to death at the family barbecue joint at age 52.
Bigotry and bias have confronted her. Illness has attacked her.
A strong faith, a sure sense of self and a rock solid marriage to husband Michael Moten have helped Camille cope with loss and setbacks and thus avoid the pitfalls many of her idols suffered.
Music was all around her as a girl. She and her sister Lanette, also an award-winning musical theater artist, inherited their singing chops from their mom. Lois would harmonize, scat and sway to records she played in the family’s northeast Omaha home.
“She was a wonderful singer,” Camille recalled. “We grew up listening to lots of jazz albums. Dinah Washington. Billie Holiday. Sarah Vaughan. Nancy Wilson. That was her thing. She was so into it.”
Her mom oft-told the story how she auditioned for and was asked to tour either with the great Count Basie or Duke Ellington but turned the opportunity down. Though flattered by the offer, Lois was engaged to her future husband, Ray Metoyer, a serious Creighton University student not about to let his fiancee go on the road.
Camille began showing off her own pipes as a toddler.
“I wanted to sing but I didn’t know a song, so I would sing about the furniture and anything that came into my view.”
Encouraged by her mother, Camille learned lyrics to standards but was timid to have an audience around.
“She loved that I would sing but I was really shy to sing, so I would be like in the basement singing and if I’d hear somebody coming. I’d stop. I would always pretend there was a microphone.”
Her first time on stage came in the first grade at Sacred Heart School when she, Lanette and their brother Raymond sang “Do Re Mi.”
“I just remember being so scared but I wanted to do it so bad.
Everybody was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this little girl with this big voice.’ I think my desire to perform really got reinforced then because people made a big deal of the fact my voice was fuller. The more I sang for school programs the more compliments and confidence I got.”
A wide music repertoire
Even early on she drew on diverse musical influences.
“There were so many things I liked. I loved the jazz. I also loved the musical theater. And I also loved classical music.”
The same holds true today.
“It’s a mishmash of several things. A lot of it’s Barbra Streisand. I always liked the way Nancy Wilson presented herself. Lena Horne, too.
Just very classy. So I always want to at least appear classy on stage because I’m really kind of an awkward person. But when I’m on stage I feel like I have a little more finesse.”
She holds Barbra in special regard.
“I think her voice is amazing. I just got to see her in concert for the first time in August in Chicago. My children bought me a $500 ticket. It was so awesome to listen to her. She’s 74-years old but she can still soar up to those high notes.”
No wonder then Camillle’s stoked about a March 31 tribute concert she’s doing in honor of her idol. The “Bubbly with Barbra” show at the Playhouse is a fundraiser for the theater’s operations.
“I’m so excited about it because I’ve been worshiping her since I was 11-years-old,” Camille said.
Kathy Tyree, Dave Wingert and Jim Boggess will join her on select numbers.
The role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl that Streisand made famous on stage and in film resonated strongly with Camille, who made playing the part a life-time ambition she realized in 1994.
“I related to that character so much. She’s this odd little duck that has talent that nobody could appreciate because of her package,” said Camille, whose light-complexion, blonde-hair and green-eyes made her conscious of her nontraditional African-American appearance.
“I got a lot of comments about my look.”
The many shades of black were inescapable, she said, because “my family’s all different colors and it’s something that really sticks out.” She added, “My father was very fair, my mother was pretty brown, so all of us came out different. I came out with all the recessive traits.”
Descendants on her father’s side are of mixed race Creole heritage. Both her paternal and maternal family trees owned property in the South. There’s quite a story behind her father’s family line in Louisiana. The first Metoyer there built a plantation and his son Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer befriended a family that owned a slave, Marie Coincoin, with whom he became infatuated. He built a plantation for her and she lived in the house with him and they had children together. Threatened with excommunication by the Catholic Church, he built her a separate house in back. When he decided to have white heirs, he gave her her freedom and let her keep their children. She became a leading entrepreneur in the state, even building her own plantation. The black branch of the Metoyers lived as aristocrats.
Lanette and Camille dream of making a musical out of the story.
Their mother grew up in Mississippi and though their father was born in Omaha, thier grandfather Victor came from Louisiana. Victor worked as a railroad dining car waiter for Union Pacific. He and a fellow waiter opened a BBQ eatery. They alternated operating it based on their UP runs. When Victor was on his Omaha to California run, his partner manned the joint, and when his partner was on his Omaha to New York run, Victor handled things. Grandpa Victor also co-founded the adjacent Key Club. Eventually the Metoyer family owned the restaurant outright. Three generations ultimately ran it.
Camille’s father dropped out of Creighton just short of earning a degree in order to support his family. He worked many years as a Boys Town counselor. Camille and her siblings got to know some of the boys. One escorted Lanette to a homecoming dance. Raymond vacationed at Lake Okoboji with students his father brought to camp.
At night Ray Metoyer helped his father Victor run the family barbecue place. Ray’s eldest son Raymond, who became a television news reporter, partnered with his father and grandfather in the business.
Camille knew her dad caught flak the way she did. “We looked alike, so he was very sensitive to making us understand that it doesn’t having anything to do with anything.”
Both parents made sure their kids knew that light or dark needn’t define them.
“They always impressed upon us that that didn’t make a difference,” Camille said. “That was their main thing with us – it doesn’t matter what you look like. Your blackness has nothing to do with your physical appearance.”
Camille’s parents were both active in local civil rights efforts. Her father was part of the social action group the De Porres Club whose boycotts in the late 1940s and early 1950s forced businesses to hire and serve blacks. He also headed the Urban League of Nebraska when it hosted Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson in separate events. Camille met both leaders and recalls Malcolm X as a very tall and tender man who mentioned that she reminded him of his daughter.
Her folks also participated in demonstrations by the 4CL or Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties in the ’60s. The Metoyer kids got dragged along to organizing meetings at Zion Baptist Church.
“It seems like it was always in the summer. It was so hot and packed in, everybody sweatin’ on each other,” recalled Camille.
She and her siblings were young when the civil rights marches and speeches filled the airwaves.
“I don’t think we understood the whole significance nationally. I understood there needed to be change and it was going to make the world the way it should be. Our parents sort of instilled in us this is what it’s going to be, this is what we’re working for, this is where we’re going to get to. They were dedicated to lifting black people to the place that we deserve to be. That was their focus. That, and impressing upon us that you’re just as good as anybody, so there’s no reason feeling like you’re falling short.
“It was very important to them. Sadly, we’re not there all these years later. As I reflect back on it, I appreciate more or understand better the sacrifices they made to do the things they did.”
Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.
“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together and all the conversation was about what was going on.”
Once, Camille was with her folks and others at a protest when they were all arrested.
“We were protesting for open housing down at the City Council chambers. I was in the fourth grade and my parents decided it was important I participate. The police came and we all sat down. I sat on my dad’s lap and when the police picked us up they had to pick us up together. He was going to make this as difficult as he could for them.”
A press photographer snapped a pic that went national of cute little Camille in braids, tortoise shell frame eyeglasses and dress carried by her indignant but dignified father like a precious bundle.
“This picture of my dad carrying me out went out on the Associated Press all around the country.”
“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”
The poignant photo got new life five decades later when Camille and Lanette appeared in Having Our Say, a play about the real-life Delany sisters living through generations of racism. The themes echoed things the Metoyers experienced themselves.
Doing the play brought Camille and Lanette, who’ve always been close, even closer together. The project also gave them a chance to honor figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.
“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” Camille said.
Hardly a day goes by Camille doesn’t think of her parents.
“My dad was the epitome of a professional, educated man, although he could be very crazy as well. But I never heard him swear. But my mother on the other hand would come out with a few things if she got irritated enough. His thing was always about professional appearance and how you present yourself. My mom was concerned about that, too, but she was more of a gregarious, outgoing, earthy person. She was maybe a combination of what Lanette and I are now,”
Her parents’ fight for equal rights got personal when her family integrated all-white Maple Village in 1966.
Camille said, “My father wanted to have a closer commute to Boys Town and he felt the education we were getting in North Omaha schools was not equivalent to what west Omaha schools offered.”
Even aspirational couples with the desire and means to live outside segregated areas had to take special measures to get around red lining practices and restrictive housing covenants. The Metoyers had black realtor George Thomas secretly negotiate with NP Dodge to arrange for the family to purchase their new house.
“We had to go through the backdoor to get that house,” Camille said.
‘We surprised the neighborhood because they didn’t know a black family was coming.”
Lanette recalled, “It eventually was known blacks had purchased the house and therefore our dad, grandfather and several white male employees that worked for my dad would spend nights at the house until we moved in.”
Camille said, “We had a lot of backlash. It was crazy.”
A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in.
The family moved in late at night to avoid a scene but some neighbors gathered outside to glare.
For several nights. Camille’s father and grandfather stood armed guard inside. It reminded her mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Mississippi.
“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the front-line,” said Lanette.
The siblings remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. Once, the house got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.
At their various schools the kids encountered racism.
“If things happened at school we’d come home and talk about it. We always just knew how to handle it. Before we moved there, our parents anticipated there would be issues. They warned us. But they added we have every right to be where we want to be and don’t let anybody tell you anything different.”
Camille said her parents admonished she and her siblings to “always address discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.'”
Whatever the sitaution, like the family being refused service at King Fong’s downtown, it became a teachable moment.
“My mom explained how it was their loss and we would encounter people that would not like us without ever knowing us. I guess they always gave the impression there was something wrong with those people – there was nothing wrong with us. They told us when you come across people who are ignorant you educate them, you don’t argue or get angry, because they need help. To this day, if I have the opportunity to enlighten somebody, I will, as opposed to getting angry. That works with my whole Christian faith.”
Finding a foundation for her music and faith
The Metoyers found acceptance if not fairness. Auditioning for a role in Guys and Dolls at Burke High School, Camille said the music director opposed her being cast on account of her race. Camille had an ally in her drama teacher, who swore “she’d never let that happen again.”
Despite resistance, her passion for performing wouldn’st be denied. She planned going to California to pursue a singing-acting career but then her mother became ill. Losing her mother, she said, “really took me off my path.” She wasn’t sure what to do next when a friend of her father’s who ran the music department at Xavier University in New Orleans convinced her to give it a try.
“It sounded just great to get away. I went and auditioned and got a scholarship. That’s how I ended up there. The great thing about Xavier is that I got classical training but I also sang with the jazz band,
so now I’m able to do all of that – which makes me marketable.”
Still bereft by her mother’s death and far away from home, she searched for answers and came of age as a young woman.
“I was really angry and I became kind of agnostic. I thought how could God take such an amazing person. I lived like that for awhile. I hooked up with Michael and we were into the fast scene.”
Getting high became her lifestyle. Then one day Michael had a born again experience.
“He was completely changed after that day. I was still getting high and just out there and suddenly we were incompatible because he didn’t want to do the things I wanted to do anymore. My own born again experience took a while. I refused to go to church with him and continued to party while in my heart and mind knowing I wanted what he had. I just didn’t want to give up me.
“Finally one evening he was going to church and he begged me to come with him and I said no. He was literally in tears. I found out later he was thinking that if I didn’t come this was to be the end of our relationship. After he left for church I felt bad, so I drove to the church. When they had the altar call he took me down but I didn’t want to go – I was not ready.”
Her willfulness wilted in the following days.
“God made Himself more and more real to me until finally one day I agreed to pray with Michael and some of his new friends from church. That night as I prayed God took over my tongue and I spoke in a heavenly language which the Bible explains is God’s spirit dwelling in us. And by that spirit being in us we can now be saved.
“From that moment my life changed – no more getting high, no profanity. My view of mankind changed and my purpose changed. It was no longer about me but about Him.”
A new beginning from a terrible end
Her faith was soon put to a severe test when her father was murdered at the family restaurant on a late summer evening in 1979.
“A year before there was a woman that got hired at the restaurant. He caught her taking money and also soliciting the male clients and so he fired her and she didn’t like that. She would call the house and tell people she was her man. She harassed him for a year and it was getting more and more severe: a window broken out in the house; showing up at his job and security escorting her off campus.”
On September 17 the woman went to the restaurant and confronted Metoyer with a small caliber gun. She fired it once and the bullet struck him in the neck and he bled out on the scene.
Not long before, Camille and Michael, who were by then married and raising their first child, interviewed to be family teachers at Boys Town and they were hired. They moved to Omaha to start their new life and career in the shadow of Ray Metoyer’s senseless death.
“The thing that was so difficult about it at the start was that it was two weeks after my father was murdered, so I was coming to the place where he worked. i heard over and over again how much they admired and respected him and what a loss it was, so I was constantly reminded of him.”
It was the most challenging period of her life until a bout with cancer 30-plus years later.
“I moved across country, I lost a loved one and I had a 2-year-old. I had all of those stressors. Today, Michael looks back and says, ‘How did you get through that?’ Through a lot of prayer and believing this is where God wanted us to be.”
The decision to be a family teacher continued her parents’ legacy.
“That’s how we were raised. It’s always about giving back, contributing, making a difference, helping however you can. Besides, once Michael and I gave our lives over to Christ it seemed like a natural thing to do..
“We had the very first girls program. Boys Town had just started the family teaching model. We had an off-campus home at 35th and Davenport. Our girls were all local, so we were able to work with and counsel parents. Then we moved to campus, where we had a transitional living home for boys to learn to live independently.”
It took some adjusting for Camille and Michael, too.
“Initially, the greatest challenge if you have children is being able to divide your time in a way that everybody has a significant amount of you without sacrificing one for the other. A lot of family teacher couples are not successful with that. My kids became very close with a lot of those Boys Town kids.”
She said an important lesson she learned is “don’t take things personally and understand what’s happening.” She added, “There were some kids that can really get under your skin but you can’t let them get under your skin. I would always think, If only I could have had you as a baby. I would have loved to have given them what they should have had early in life. That always made me soften my anger.”
Feeling burned out after 16 years, Camille left Boys Town for a job at the YWCA coordinating programs that introduced girls to nontraditional careers. Then she applied her behavioral management skills to the former Western Electric plant then recently renamed Lucent Technologies, where her sister worked.
A performing life
Meanwhile. Michael, an ordained minister, felt the call to form a church, One Way Ministry, in 1994, that he still pastors today. For years, Camille served as music director and only recently stepped down so that she can sing in the choir.
All the time she worked regular day jobs she rehearsed and performed musicals and concerts evenings and weekends. Her music career took off when she joined a cabaret troupe formed by old friend Becky Noble. They’ve long paired as Nebraska Arts Council touring artists. Camille’s performed with the Omaha Symphonic and Opera Omaha chorus and she’s toured with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. She sang with Soli Dep Gloria Cantorum on a concert tour to Barcelona, Spain.
She’s enjoyed a long collaboration with Chuck Penington and his band. She also headlines her own band. Her keyboardist, David Murphy, offered his take on what makes Camille such an enduring favorite.
“The reason the community loves her is she’s authentic. She’s the real deal. She walks the walk and sings her heart out. It all comes from her soul. She intuitively manages to find the heart of any song,” including ones he’s penned. “It’s about the music and not about her. She consistently respects and enhances the material she tackles and still makes it her own. I absolutely believe she could’ve gone to either coast and had a brilliant career as a performer. Omaha is lucky to have her.”
When Camille’s two kids were small she dragged them to rehearsals. Even today, with her kids grown and out of the home, she’s busy booking, preparing and doing shows. Though her schedule can be draining, she said performing “fills you back up.”
Even though art should be color-blind, race can be an issue, as when she broke color barriers as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Eva Peron in Evita, and when her voice and repertoire aren’t what people expect.
“I don’t have a gospel voice. People expect that because I’m black. I was raised Catholic, so I didn’t have that whole gospel thing. Jazz and musical theater are my influences.”
She’s also a rather subdued performer.
“It’s the purity that I’m into and not all that other stuff and I think people eventually appreciate it.”
At the invitation of friend and sometime collaborator Kathy Tyree she sang at Salem Baptist Church last summer for a gospel program.
“I don’t have gospel arrangements, so I sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ because I find that song very spiritual and they loved it. It was the most talked about song of the evening amidst all these amazing gospel songs. It was the purity of that that people related to.”
Her muted voice blended with Tyree’s big sound for a Divas By Design show they did at the Blue Barn Theatre last fall. The two go way back.
“Camille and I did our first show together 26 years ago: Sophisticated Ladies at the Playhouse,” said Tyree, “What I admired most about Camille back then is what I admire most about her now and that is her peaceful spirit and how beautifully and easily she shares her gifts. She’s not only an amazing artist but a beautiful person as well. Her unshakable faith in God keeps me in awe and her love for people is one of the many reasons I love her so much.”
Not long after Camille’s spiritual awakening in New Orleans and her resettling in Omaha, she landed the role of Mary Magdalene in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Orpheum Theater. She went in to audition for a spot in the chorus but got the plum female part. Her performance won raves and established her as a bright new talent. But she was wary before the opening night curtain rose.
“I had never done anything other than high school-college shows. It was a big leap. I remember standing backstage looking out at that full house and my heart going ker-thump, ker-thump, ker-thump. I started saying a prayer and I heard God say, ‘What is wrong with you, this is your dream, I’m giving you one of the desires of your heart – would you please enjoy it.’ He made me think how trivial this really is compared to homelessness and sickness and that I should just go out and do what I do and entertain the audience.
“I don’t think I’ve gotten nervous-nervous like that again. It just calmed me right down.”
Whether doing a play or a concert, her approach is “very consistent.”
“Doing musical theater, whatever that character is, that’s who I am. Doing cabaret, each song is like its own little vignette, so every song is its own character. When I perform my purpose is to take whatever the composer and lyricist wrote and try to interpret it with whatever he or she had in mind and bring the audience into it. I want to be true to that.
“Somebody told me a long time ago it’s not only about a pretty voice. and it really isn’t it. If you think about all the successful entertainers it really in’t about their singing … but it’s what they do with a song, it’s the passion they bring out of a song. Once you know the song and once you understand what’s behind the song then that’s what happens.”
Her sister Lanette’s seen her on stage perhaps more than anyone and she marvels at Camille’s “persistence to step outside her comfort zone and create any character she tackles and make it believable.”
Everything was coming up roses for Camille personally and professionally when she got diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. As a woman of faith, she sought healing through prayer. Heeding her Higher Power, she canceled a surgery and found a new doctor.
“She confirmed I still had the cancer. I told her my story and she revealed she is a woman of faith, too, Most doctors don’t talk about it.
She said, ‘First of all, I understand where you’re coming from spiritually and secondly you’ve had this cancer for a really long time – it is a slow growing cancer and if you’re not ready to have surgery then we don’t do the surgery because then you won’t heal.’ She had total respect for my belief. I knew God provided me her. He got me to the right team.”
Camille underwent radiation chemo treatments, hormone blocker regimens but in the end she required a mastectomy. She continued performing during most of the journey, even proudly displaying her bald head. She had reconstructive surgery in 2014 and 2015.
Not one to dwell on anything, she’s moved forward from the experience.
“The mindset I had at the time is my mindset and it goes along with my philosophy – that’s over, it was a little side step.”
She chose to share her cancer odyssey with the public via Facebook posts. She and her “prayer warriors” exchanged messages of hope about the challenges, indignities and joys of the journey. Her observations ranged from silly to sweet to sublime. Thousands followed her progress, including the inevitable ups and downs, and she later compiled her affirmations into a book.
“I just want to be able to make people understand that Jesus is our healer. We use medicine also but it doesn’t always work. He’s the plan and medicine is the backup plan. I think the more people understand that the better the outcome is.”
Camille’s as busy as ever these days. “I just think of it as this continuum that keeps going.” It’s not like she’s slowed down since realizing her dream of playing Fanny Brice. “That was a high, high point for me but then as things developed there’s been so many other high points.”
It always comes back to keeping it real and finding the root.
“Somebody told me not too long ago, ‘When you sing, you sing from here,’ putting her hand on her midsection. I said, ‘Oh, thank you very much,’ and she said, ‘I mean that, not everybody sings from there.’ And I think she meant from my core, from my heart. That’s what I strive for, that’s my intent.”
From her gut, springs all the glory.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
“A Thousand Clowns” and other ’60s films begat golden age of ’70s cinema
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
The other night on YouTube I watched a largely forgotten but seminal American movie from 1965 titled “A Thousand Clowns” and it reminded of two things: As a kid, that movie was way too mature and cerebral for me to fully appreciate; and it was part of a vanguard that helped usher in the New Hollywood. Those of us who regard the last Golden Age of American cinema to be the 1970s know full well that that New Wave of American film really began in the late 1950s-early 1960s, before finally becoming a full fledged movement in the late 1960s. That movement or wave marked by personal, humanistic-themed filmmaking led by auteurist directors hailing from television and film school persisted throughout the following decade. This was the period when the studios were “taken over” by the artists or so it seemed. The new freedom allowed a brash group of filmmakers to assert themselves on the American and world cinema scene. The new school directors whose work most stood out then included: Arthur Penn, John Frankenheimer, John Cassavetes, Mike Nichols. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson, Richard Rush, Roman Polanski, Milos Forman, John Schlesinger, Karel Reisz, John Boorman, Peter Yates, Michael Cimino, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.
But those hot new directors were not the only ones making waves then. Indeed, a few veteran studio directors long since having gone independent made some of their strongest works in that era, particularly John Huston (“Reflections in a Golden Eye,” “Fat City,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” “Wiseblood”). Then there were directors who made only one or very few notable films in that time only to disappear from the world of features or never to catch the magic again. “A Thousand Clowns” director Fred Coe was one of these. He was a writer and producer who had his biggest success in TV, but he made two films right in the thick of that transition in American features that caught the wave in their own idiosyncratic ways. The first was “A Thousand Clowns,” which writer Herb Gardner adapted from his own Broadway play. The other was “Me, Natalie,” which like “Clowns” has a great reputation, but I have never seen it to judge for myself. Before the film adaptation of “Clowns,” he directed the original Broadway play, which was a commercial and critical hit. For the film Jason Robards and Barry Gordon reprised their starring roles from the stage version.
Now having viewed “Clowns” for the first time through adult eyes – decades removed from when I last saw it – it is clearly part of a continuum in American film that pushed boundaries and assimilated stylistic techniques and humanistic themes prominent in the cinematic new waves of Italy, France and Great Britain and that reflected the growing social tumult. “Clown” stars Robards as a quintessential New York City nonconformist named Murray who has raised his nephew Nick (Barry Gordon) ever since his sister abandoned him to his care. He’s a sardonic writer hedonistically living off of his imagination and irascibility. Out of work by his own choice and none too eager to rejoin the Rat Race, he lives by his own rules and seemingly without adverse consequences. His nephew is, on the surface at least, more of an adult than he is and goes along with his flights of fancy as much to humor him as anything. Even when Murray’s guardianship of the boy is threatened by this carefree lifestyle and cavalier attitude that sees him run through women, defy authority and flee responsibility, he doesn’t change. Then, in the strangely melancholic and wonderfully anarchic spirit of the story – something of a cross between the Marx Brothers, “The Producers,” “Harold and Maude” and Woody Allen – a couple from the child welfare board visits the uncle and nephew’s apartment to make an assessment. William Daniels as Albert and Barbara Harris as Sandra play the romantically involved couple. He’s an uptight case worker and she’s an emotionally fragile psychologist and they have wildly different responses to the situation. He’s appalled and annoyed by Robards’ seeming indifference to this official inquiry and the threat of the nephew being taken from the home. She, however, is charmed by the Murray and Nick’s insouciance. The professional and personal relationship between the neurotic couple devolves right before Murray’s eyes and he takes up with her that very day. That still leaves the matter of Murray needing to find a job before a hearing in a few days to determine the boy’s fate.
NOTE: Nebraska’s own Sandy Dennis played Sandra in the Broadway play and won a Tony for her efforts.
Robards is perfectly cast as Murray. He had a gift for irony and larceny. I’ve always thought of him as the Bogart among his generation of actors. Gordon, who as an adult became the long tenured head of the Screen Actors Guild, plays prococious and worldy wise without cloying cuteness – something akin to what Jodie Foster did a decade later in “The Bad News Bears” and “Taxi Driver.”
Murray’s staid agent brother Arnold (Martin Balsam), frantically lines up interviews for him but Murray can’t or won’t sell-out and ends the day still unemployed. This causes Sandra to lay down an ultimatum: find a job or lose me. There’s a great scene between the brothers when an exasperated but loving Arnold explains to Murray why they are so different. Arnold needs the security that comes with showing up for work everyday. He’s settled for the consumerist American Dream, even if it is a fraud, and he’s willing to play by the rules to remain a sheep and to be comfortable. He has a family to support, after all. By contrast, Murray’s search for whimsy in a system designed to crush individuality and his penchant for calling out the hypocrisy around him leaves him fighting windmills that cannot be harnessed. Arnold admires and pities Murray;s inability or refusal to compromise. Murray feels anger and sorrow that Arnold long ago lost his freedom. In the end, Murray sacrifices his independence for the sake of the kid and the girlfriend and perhaps his own peace of mind by going back to work for Leo, the manic, egomaniacal host-producer of a children’s TV show, brilliantly played by Gene Saks. The ending bothers fans of the stage version, who feel the film makes it seem that Murray too has sold his soul to become just another sheep. But my take is that Murray’s simply adjusted his attitude, much like his hat, to appear to be a conformist on the outside when he’ll really always remain a free spirit and independent agent on the inside. It’s what you do for love, in this case his love for the boy and for the woman.
Director Coe opens up “A Thousand Clowns” by variously following Murray, Nick and Sandra cavorting about the city, their spontaneous play in stark contrast to the regimented patterns of workers moving in lockstep to and from work. These moments represent their escapes, if only fleeting, from harsh reality. These scenes give the film a kinetic, pure cinema look and feel that also emphasizes the whole theme of moving against the tide. My take away from the story is that Gardner views the constructs of 9 to 5 civilization as a game in which the House (corporations, society, government) is always going to “win” and the best antidote to staying sane and happy in this rigid, stacked paradigm is to see it for what it is and have a good time winking at it. Murray is not so much a rebel then as a survivor who gives as good as he gets on his own terms. He will always be an outlier with a barbed comment or silly joke or impulse to do something spontaneous. It’s his way of saying; I am here, I am alive. I own my own thoughts and behaviors. And I don’t give a damn what you may think of me. While it’s message may be muddled for some, I think it’s basically just saying; No matter what, be yourself. We all make compromises, but be true to yourself.
All of this is played out against the subtext of what was happening at the time in society with the civil rights and black power movements, the birth of women’s lib, the Vietnam War, the counterculture revolution led by rock, the growing drug culture and consumerism run amok. Things were on simmer in the early and mid’60s and would come to a full boil by the end of the decade. The film is a mood capsule for the dissatisfaction people were feeling without ever overtly referring to any of these things. But it’s all there between the lines.
“Clowns” came smack dab in the middle of a flood of films starting to redefine American cinema in the 1960s:
The Manchurian Candidate
David and Lisa
A Hard Day’s Night
Nothing But a Man
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?
In Cold Blood
Bonnie and Clyde
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Five Easy Pieces
Harold and Maude
The French Connection
The Last Picture Show
These and many other films brought a new freedom and excitement to bear that opened up American cinema more than at any time since the pre-code silent and early sound era. The best of these new films variously introduced new levels of naturalism, expressionism and impressionism to the screen. It was an anything goes time informed by the cinema of the world. America made its own indelible contributions to this rich cinema stew. “Clowns” rarely gets mentioned in appraisals or retrospectives of ’60s and ’70s film. It’s not nearly as well known as many of the films in the above list. While it’s not a great film – Coe doesn’t quite get the visuals aspects of the story right in my opinion and I think he doesn’t make full use of the dynamics between Murray and Nick – it’s a very good and important film. I can’t wait to discover more of these gems that have got lost in the shuffle.
Here is a link to a superb tribute essay written about Herb Gardner and “A Thousand Clowns”–
This post falls under the heading:
This is why I do what I do.
Received the amazing email message below from Kac Young. She fell under the influence of a dynamic group of radical feminists at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, California of all places during the late 1960s. These were provocateurs who challenged all kinds of conformity and many of them were the nuns who taught there. These women were unafraid to challenge the status quo when it came to the Catholic Church, higher education, culture and society. They were known as the Rebel Nuns of Hollywood. They brought cutting edge figures to the campus, including activists and artists. Among the resident artists was Megan Terry, a major figure in the New York and national experimental theater scene then. Kac Young appeared in the original production of Terry’s “The Tommy Allen Show” at the college. Kac found a Reader cover story I did on Megan and Jo Ann Schmidman, who together forged compelling, socially relevant work at their Omaha Magic Theatre. Kac wanted to make sure Megan knew that one of those cheerful subversives at the college, in fact the very woman who brought Megan there, had passed away.
You can linl to that Reader story at–
I have also included, thanks to Kac, links to some content about the places, the figures and the times she references in her message.
Kac says some very nice things about my writing but you should know she enjoyed quite the career as a television director before changing careers a few years ago. She’s also an author. Check out her website at http://www.kacyoung.com/about-kac-young/ and her LinkedIn page at https://www.linkedin.com/in/kacyoung1.
Here is the message she sent that made my day yesterday and that I think you will enjoy too (that’s Kac on the right).
“Dear Leo: I was in the original play The Tommy Allen Show that Megan Terry wrote and directed at Immaculate Heart College in 1969. I was searching for her and found your incredible interview with her and Jo Ann Schmidman. I’m now following you and what you write about because you are terrific and there are no accidents. Thank you for a great piece on Megan. I am writing to you because I want to get in touch with Megan. The beautiful nun who hired her to come to our drama department passed away two summers ago. She was Sr. Ruth Marie Gibbons that we all called “Ruth.” She was one of the leading drama teachers and persons of theatrical merit in the 60’s and 70’s having worked with Joe Papp, The Bread and Puppet Theater and La Mama. She graduated from the then Carnegie –Mellon and was way ahead of her time and vocation. Ruth brought Megan to our campus for the experience of having a radical playwright in residence at Immaculate Heart College which was frequented by The Berrigan Brothers and other anti-war protestors. These are the nuns who rebuked the Vatican and left the church because the powers that be in Rome wanted them to get back in their habits after a two-year experiment without them. The nuns found that being out of the habit made their work in the community more effective and in line with their purpose which was to serve humanity. The uniform habits proved to be a barrier and they wanted to be effective not quaint. They were a feisty lot and they were smart. They owned the deed to the property at Western and Franklin in Hollywood, where AFI now sits, and were able to subsidize their mission statement with the proceeds from the sale of the College land. They formed a lay community and have been doing good in the world ever since.
“I wanted Megan to know Ruth died. I thought maybe you could connect me with Megan. Or at least forward my info to her. It was 47 years ago that we worked together. I became the 4th woman to join the Director’s Guild in 1973 and have three Doctorates to my name and other rabble-rousing credits. It would be great fun to speak with Megan and let her know what an impact she had on all of us and the theatrical world. She probably already knows that, but it never hurts to tell her again.
“I love your writing Leo and I thank you for anything you might be willing to pass along to Megan on my behalf. Thank you…Your help is much appreciated. Thank you and I’ll be reading what you write from now on. Thanks a zillion.” -kac
Love and Heartlight
The Mary’s Day Parade at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles,1964
Reproduction permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles
The Immaculate Heart College silkscreen room in 1956. Corita Kent is in the middle in the back, standing and pointing.
Courtesy of the Corita Art Center
Here are some links about the times and the place that was so alive in the 60’s.
The most famous of them all: Sister Corita Kent.
The Trial of the Catonsville Nine was performed first in LA at The Mark Taper Theater and was based on the Berrigan work. Those were the people who gathered at the college along with Megan Terry, our playwright in residence.
‘The Bystanders’ by Kim Louise takes searing, moving look at domestic violence as a public health issue
Last night I had the privilege of experiencing as searing and moving a piece of live theater that I have seen in a long time. It was a staged reading of a new play, “The Bystanders,” by Kim Louise of Omaha. It tells the story of four friends who hear an incident of domestic abuse in the apartment next door. They are split on what to do next. The play asks – What would you do? The play is touring this week as part of the Metropolitan Community College Theatre Program’s Spring Tour. The program annually features a play written by an MCC student playwright in a staged reading format produced and performed by theater professionals. Kim’s “The Bystanders” is this year’s featured work. She first got inspired to write the piece some years ago and she has more recently developed it under the guidance of MCC theater program instructor Scott Working, who directs the production. The playwright, whom you may know as Kim Whiteside, is a much published author and veteran writing workshop faciliator under the pen name Kim Louise. She has writen a powerful piece whose heavy truth is impossible to ignore and to forget.
Some leading local theater talents comprise the cast:
Victoria – Beaufield Berry
OthaJean – Pamela Jo Berry
Benet – TammyRa’ Jackson
Ashland – Felicia Webster
Carla – Doriette Jordan
Cullen – Developing Crisp
Some pics of the cast and playwright after the May 9 evening show at MCC’s Fort Omaha campus (photos courtesy Deborah Steele):
Performances are free and open to the public, but you only have two chances left to see this staged reading:
Wednesday, May 11th at 11:00 am in the Conference Room of the MCC Sarpy Center, 9110 Giles Road.
Thursday, May 12th at 12:30 pm in ITC Building Room120 at MCC’s South Omaha Campus, 27th and Q Streets.
What the play utilmately confronts us with is the fact that domestic violence is a public health issue that none of us can stand by and allow to happen without speaking out against or taking action to prevent it from happening again. Otherwise, we are as complicit in the situation as the person who commits the violence and the person who lives with the violence. This is a community problem we all have a share in. As witness, as advocate, as friend, as advisor, as safe house, as 911 caller, as whatever it takes or whatever we are prepared to do. Just don’t stay silent or do nothing. That’s how battered women end up traumatized or dead.
In the pantheon of Nebraska born and bred actors to have made it in Hollywood and/or on Broadway, and there have been more than you think, none have really ever kept much of a close relationship with this place other than Henry Fonda, Robert Taylor, Dorothy McGuire, Julie Wilson, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Marg Helgenberger. Some more recent players who have kept the home fires burning are Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Kevyn Morrow, Randy Goodwin, and Stephanie Kurtzuba. But only John Beasley has never really left Omaha. The others all picked up and went off to pursue their careers and thus their connections to Omaha became relegated to occasional visits. A notable exception is Randy Goodwin, who recently moved back to Omaha while continuing his career as a film/TV actor, producer, and director. Meanwhile, Beasley has maintained his residence here the entire run of his now 25-plus year career as a busy film, television, and regional theater actor. He operated his own theater in town for several years. He appears in indie Nebraska films. He’s now producing two movies with Nebraska connections. He’s doing what Alexander Payne has done by not only keeping Omaha his home but by doing work here. John has definitely contributed to the theater and cinema culture in the state. Though it’s the last season for The Soul Man, the popular TVLand sitcom he’s been a regular in from the start, he recently finished the pilot for a new CBS sitcom Real Good People and he’s part of a large ensemble cast in the coming Fox event series Shots Fired. Then there are the two feature films he’s producing – The Magician and East Texas Hot Links. John’s good friend and former teammate Marlin Briscoe of Omaha is the subject of The Magician. I’ve written a lot about John over 15 years and this is my latest piece to tell his engaging story. It will appear as the cover story in the May 2016 issue of the New Horizons, the free monthly newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Should hit newstands and, if you get it delivered, your mailbox around April 29-May 2.
John as Barton Ballentine in The Soul Man
John Beasley, Living His Dream
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in the May 2016 issue of New Horizons
Following a dream
Omaha’s John Beasley (Rudy) came to film-television acting late in the game. After all, he was pushing 50 when he broke through. But he used that late start to hone his craft on stages in Omaha, the greater Midwest and the South.
Besides being a familiar face in front of the camera, John’s a producer on two feature film projects, including the story of football legend Marlin Briscoe. Before making history as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback, Briscoe starred at Omaha South and at then-Omaha University, where Beasley was a teammate in the mid-1960s.
The performing bug bit as a youth for Beasley. At Technical High School he won prizes for oral interpretation and acting. He didn’t pursue the profession awhile because he had a family to support.
“I’ve always been content and confident I could have made it as an actor years earlier. But I wasn’t ready at that time to do what it would take,” he says. “I mean, I had a young family that I was raising, and I love my family. I love the time I spent with them. And if I had started this (career) earlier I would have lost all of that. I have no regrets.”
Growing up without a father, he made sure he was there for his kids .
“My father was never around. But he taught me a lot by not being around. He taught me to be the father I didn’t have.”
John’s sons, Tyrone and Michael Beasley, both actors, appreciate his being there.
“Our father taught us how to be men by showing love and always being present and always showing interest and making sacrifices for the family,” says Michael, whose wife Deena Beasley is also an actress.
A path of his own
John Beasley’s path to stardom is not so different than fellow Omahan Nick Nolte’s. They both used regional theater as their springboard. The difference is Nolte never acted on an Omaha stage and his screen work began in his early 30s. By contrast, Beasley did an Army hitch and then worked regular jobs through his mid-40s. His wife Judy was a medical secretary. He was a Union Pacific railroad clerk and custodian, a Vickers machine operator, a North Omaha jitney driver and a Philadelphia waterfront laborer. He always did theater on the side.
“I was content, even when I was a janitor, because I was doing what it is I love to do — the theater. There were people who looked down on me and I always said to myself, ‘Well, just wait. I know who I am, and pretty soon you will know who I am.’ I’ve just always felt I could do whatever it is I wanted to do.”
His confidence was well-founded, Royal Shakespeare Company members he trained with in Omaha encouraged his talent. At local theaters he broke casting barriers by winning roles not traditionally given actors of color. He then tested his wings outside Omaha, earning parts at regional theaters, Between his “life experience” and theater chops he preparec himself. “I’ve paid my dues, and I know that,” he says. “The foundation was already set.”
Nothing was guaranteed though. Michael says his father didn’t let on what a risk he was taking.
“He never let us know when there was struggle. As an actor you never know when your next paycheck is coming in. He always sheltered us from that. A lot of friends and family thought he was crazy for going after his dream as an actor.”
Michael admires his persistence.
“My father would drive sometimes through blizzards and sleep in the car to auditions in Minneapolis and Chicago. He asked my mother to give him three weeks to try and live his dream. He booked a job within that time period. Now the rest is history. He is my modern day hero.”
Judy Beasley never really doubted her man. Besides, she didn’t wish to stand in the way of what she considers his “God-given talent.” She says, “I believed in him. We all have gifts and he obviously had that gift and when you have a gift you should use it.” She says when he did achieve fame “there were things to work through and we did.” She enjoys the red carpet events but she also likes their life away from the spotlight doing “home stuff.” She’s not surprised her two boys followed their father as actors since “he’s in them, he’s a part of them.”
She views what’s happened to her and John as “a blessing,” saying, “I thank the Lord all the time.”
John and Judy on the red carpet at the BET Awards
Once he finally went for a full-time acting career, he was ready. “When I went out to act I wanted to be actor, I didn’t want to be a waiter, so waiting tables was not in the cards. I wanted to be a working actor and I’ve been a working actor all my career. I mean, that’s all you can hope for. Stars come and go – I’ve been working for a long time.”
He’s been a regular cast member on the TVLand series The Soul Man starring Cedric the Entertainer and Niecy Nash from its 2012 start. He earlier had a recurring role on Everwood starring Treat Williams. He’s appeared in scores of TV dramas, including HBO’s highly praised Treme. His cinema work ranges from blockbusters (Sum of All Fears) to action pics (Walking Tall) to indie projects (It Snows All the Time).
While many others have come out of Nebraska to find acting success in Hollywood, Beasley stands alone for always keeping Omaha home.
“I live in Omaha, yet I just finished a five-season series in L,A, and I did four years on Everwood. I’ve worked on some really large films. I’ve done every CSI series.”
John as Troy Maxson in Huntington Theatre (Boston, MA)
production of August Wilson’s Fences
Taking from life, making his mark
When he made his initial splash in the early 1990s alongside Oprah Winfrey on Brewster Place and in the movie Rudy, he was past leading man age but right on time to be a wizened, gritty character player. He’s continued making his mark portraying authority figures – fathers, judges, ministers, detectives, military officers – and Everyman types.
He came to Hollywood with something no actor can buy – rich life experience. He’s packed a lot into his 72 years.
“Done a lot of things, man,” he says, adding that he draws on “every last bit of it” for his craft.
Should the fame ever go away or the acting offers stop, he’ll be fine.
“I know it’s going to be okay because I’ve lived that kind of life. I was a longshoreman in Philadelphia. I was a gypsy cabdriver in Omaha.”
Growing up in North Omaha he got to know black sports legends from the community – Bob Boozer, Bob Gibson, Gale Sayers, Johnny Rodgers. In Philadelphia he worked at a TV station that broadcast a show whose guest stars – Sammy Davis Jr., Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Muhammad Ali among them – Beasley met. “It was very exciting for me.” Meeting Ali was a particular thrill.
“I had two encounters with Ali. The first was at that TV station, He was banned from boxing and claimed to have a license to fight in Mississippi. He came to do an interview. I went back stage and Ali came up to me and said, ‘I’ve seen your face someplace before, but I can’t place the cemetery.’ I didn’t say anything and he said, ‘You must not have heard me.’ I said, ‘I heard you and you’re not going to have to go to Mississippi to get a fight if you keep talking like that.’
“The next time I saw him was in a little gym down in North Philly. On this black radio station he had goaded Joe Frazier into coming down to fight. By the time I got down there the place was packed. There was no way I was getting in. But then the news crew from my station arrived and one of the guys said, ‘Grab the sound equipment,’ and we went up to the second floor. Ali and Frazier were talking about taking the fight to a city park. Ali didn’t have anything to lose but Joe was the champ. Then Frazier’s manager, Yancey Durham, came in and told Joe to put on his clothes and go home. That was the end of it.”
Beasley got close enough to the fracas he could see Frazier genuinely disliked Ali and took The Greatest’s barbs personally. Beasley appreciated the high drama and did what he’s done since childhood – file away the colorful characters and incidents for his art. Coming from a family of storytellers, it came naturally. With his facility for spinning yarns and assuming identities, he bluffed his way into TV and radio jobs and ingratiated himself wherever he went, including some tough spots along the way. All of it taught valuable survival skills.
“I’ve seen the rough side of life too, where I thought maybe I might not make it out alive, but I always did. It’s always turned out. But you’ve got to stay the course and you’ve got to believe it will work out.”
Even in a sitcom like Soul Man, Beasley brings a gravitas rooted in real life. His Barton Ballentine is a retired preacher who checks his son, a former hit singer turned preacher, played by Cedric.
“What I do is I ground the show in reality because that’s the way I act. It allows the other actors to be able to go over the top a little bit, to play for the laughs. I don’t play for the laughs. I treat this character just like I would an August Wilson character. In fact. one of the characters he’s patterned after is Old Joe from August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the show I was doing at my theater when I got the call for this (part).”
In the moment
In the hands of less life-tested actors, many roles could be easily forgettable. Only Beasley makes them indelible. Think of his work as a preacher opposite Robert Duvall in The Apostle. Even in scenes with the masterful Duvall Beasley holds his own delivering a depth of character and truth seldom seen.
“I knew when I read the screenplay what he was looking for and I just knew I was the only one that could do it,” Beasley says. “My ability to create a believable character honestly is really the hallmark of what I do. I try to be as honest in my performance as possible as opposed to trying to be someone else. I look at how would I react to this same situation. I’ve always gone inside for my characters.”
Beasley felt a deep kinship with Duvall.
“Nobody is as believable as Bobby Duvall,” he says. “Always in the moment. In fact, when we did it, he said, ‘Big John, don’t be afraid to say anything, don’t hesitate, you’re not going to throw me.’ In other words, if I improvised something he’d go with it in the moment. I think if you’re in the moment it’s always going to work for you.”
Robert Duvall as The Apostle
Two decades later Duvall still enjoys recounting the answer he gave people who inquired about the then-unknown Beasley.
“They’d say, ‘Where’d you find that nonactor?’ I’d say. ‘Well, that nonactor played Othello at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.’ He’s a good actor that guy.”
Actually, Beasley played other roles at the Goodman, just not Othello, but he did essay the Moor at Omaha’s Norton Theater.
Duvall is a big football fan who knows enough Husker gridiron lore to describe Johnny Rodgers as “one of the greatest college football players ever.” Duvall was excited to learn Beasley’s not only from the same hometown as the Heisman Trophy winner but knows him personally. Recalls Duvall, “When I said, ‘I want to talk Johnny Rodgers,’ Big John said ‘I don’t want to talk football, I want to talk theater.’ He’s a fine actor and a good guy. Give him my regards.”
Beasley’s work in The Apostle got singled out by The New York Times and other major publications. The performance helped make his reputation in Hollywood,
Then there’s the short but telling screen time he has as a Notre Dame football coach in Rudy. His character starts out wanting no part of Rudy but by the end he’s won over by the kid’s heart.
Rudy is one of two hit sports movies, along with The Mighty Ducks, he made. Now he’s producing a new sports film The Magician, going before the cameras this fall. The project is a personal one because he goes back a long way with its subject, Marlin “The Magician” Briscoe. The nickname arose from Briscoe’s knack at quarterback to improvise when things broke down. At the most dire times, he’d make a memorable pass or run and lead an improbable comeback.
“He’s ‘The Magician’ for a reason,” Beasley recalls. “When I played with him I saw him in difficult positions, where you thought it was over, and he’d be in a crowd on one side of the field and the next thing you knew he’d be on the other side as if by magic. And it carried over to his life. Just when it looks like he’s down and out he comes back.”
Between Briscoe’s junior and senior seasons he suffered a broken neck in a pickup basketball game that could have easily ended his playing days. Only he came back to earn All-America status. Over his career he set 22 school records. Earlier this year he was selected for induction in the College Football Hall of Fame. Many believe his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is only a matter of time because of the color barrier he broke in the NFL.
A South Omaha street’s named for him and a life-sized bronze statue of his likeness will be unveiled next fall at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His life is worthy of a movie, too, because it is equally historic, heart-breaking and inspirational.
Briscoe signed with the Denver Broncos in 1968 as an all-around athlete. Once he reported to camp the club wanted him to play defensive back though he intended to play quarterback and had a contractual agreement he be given a tryout. Reportedly, Briscoe out-shone his competition behind center, yet when the season began he was confined to the secondary and not even on the depth chart at quarterback. In a time rife with racial prejudice, bigotry and myths, many coaches and executives believed blacks did not possess the attributes to be signal-callers at the professional level.
Then, fate forced itself upon Denver as one by one its QBs got sidelined by injuries or poor play. Pressure from media and fans grew to give Briscoe a shot. Finally, six games into the season and Denver off to a 2-4 start in which he saw limited action but still helped the team pull out a win, he was given the reins. He ran with them to set club rookie records with 14 touchdown passes, 1,589 passing yards and 309 rushing yards in leading the Broncos to a 3-5 mark as the starter.
He expected to be in the mix for the job come 1969 but instead found himself shut out of the QB race. Then he found himself traded to the Buffalo Bills, where in order to make the team he had to learn a new position, wide receiver. He not only learned it well enough to make the squad but mastered it to become a starter and All-Pro. His next trade proved fortuitous when he landed with the Miami Dolphins and helped them win two straight Super Bowls.
He played for a couple more teams before retiring. Life after football began well but by the 1980s he fell deep into the spiral of a hard drug addiction that eventually cost him his family, his home, his money and nearly his life. Once he hit rock bottom he called on the same character traits that allowed him to get out of tight spots and to surmount hurdles on the playing field, only this time the stakes were much higher – regaining his sobriety and sanity.
Lyriq Bent (Book of Negroes) will play Briscoe on-screen. The script is by Gregory Allen Howard (Remember the Titans). Beasley and two Omaha partners in his West Omaha Films, Terry Hanna and Dave Clark, are partnering with producer Doug Falconer (Forsaken) on the $20 million budgeted project. Some exteriors may shoot here but most of the film is expected to shoot in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
This labor of love has been in the works a decade. Beasley says he stuck with it because “Marlin Briscoe is a friend, first and foremost, and it’s a great story.” When Briscoe was still mired in addiction, Beasley never lost faith in him. “When he was on drugs for years people would say, ‘Did you see, Marlin?’ ‘Yes,’ I’d say, ‘but Marlin will be back.’ He lost everything but still he came back..”
Indeed, Briscoe’s greatest feat of magic became saving himself and finding new purpose in life serving youth. The movie is based on the book, The First Black Quarterback, he wrote with Bob Schaller.
East Texas Hot Links
The other film Beasley’s helping produce, East Texas Hot Links, tells the story of black men going missing in the South. A bloody day of reckoning comes at the local hangout run by Charlesetta. Themes of community, loyalty, betrayal, revenge and racism run through this drama that builds tension until the violent purge. Eugene Lee adapted his own play and will direct. A-list actor Samuel L. Jackson is executive producing. Omaha-based Night Fox Entertainment, whose president, Timothy Christian, is an Omaha native, is financing the project.
Beasley produced the play at his own theater.
“It’s quite a story. It’s a great ensemble piece,” he says. “It goes along as kind of the quiet before the storm and then everything breaks loose and eventually there’s a shootout. Eugene Lee had The Twilight Zone in mind when he wrote this.”
Thus far, Beasley adds, the cast includes Wendell Pierce (The Wire) and Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction). Several other familiar names are being sought. He says his Soul Man co-star Niecy Nash “would be perfect as Charlesetta – she could really carry it.”
Once the cast is complete, the film is slated to shoot in Omaha and Los Angeles, either late this year or early next year.
Building a Nebraska film culture
The addition of Night Fox Entertainment and other production companies in Nebraska signals a growing local film scene. Beasley does what he can to encourage this momentum.
“I like to help out the young filmmakers in the area,” he says, though he adds, “Sometimes I do some things I regret doing. I’m kind of a soft touch. I should tell these people to go talk to my manager but they call me on my cellphone,”
He takes far less than scale for these projects because he knows what’s it’s like to be hungry.
“I know when I was coming along there weren’t many opportunities for film here and now that the film community has grown some and there are a lot of young people trying to do some things I’ll lend my talent as much as I can.”
There’s some self-interest at work, too.
“I do want to do films that i can include my actors in. That was probably the main reason to get into producing – to provide a vehicle for not only myself and my boys but also the actors I’ve developed here.”
John, middle seated, from The Soul Man
Bread and butter
Beasley’s bread and butter projects come out of Hollywood. Soul Man provided steady work and further enhanced his screen image. It was a positive experience.
“Behind the scenes we always had a great set, a welcoming set. No tension. And that says a lot about Cedric and who he is because the player in the number one position kind of sets the tone, He was also the co-creator and an executive producer, so he had a lot of say.”
Beasley is a big admirer of Niecy Nash, who played Cedric’s wife and his daughter-in-law. He says the actress best known for her light comedic roles (Reno 911) turned heads with her serious work in the HBO series Getting On. He calls her performance “real, raw, believable – I’ve been saying people have got to see her, they don’t know the Niecy Nash I know, and now everybody’s discovering her.”
Seeing the show end is not easy. He says at the wrap following the final episode’s taping “tears started to fall because after five years on a series you become family. You know the people behind the camera, in front of the camera, That was kind of a difficult day for us.” He leaves with upbeat feelings. “They were always good to me and they always let me know I was an important part of what was happening.”
There were some bumps in the road.
“The first season the writers really understood who this character was and I got quite a bit of screen time. They always told me they loved writing for me because I always make it work. After the first season we lost a lot of writers because of budget cuts. The second season they brought in new show runners and I got less storyline. In the third, fourth and fifth sessions we had different show runners altogether and these guys really didn’t know who Barton was.
“Some things they wrote for me I didn’t particularly care for. But when we’d go through rehearsals Cedric would say, ‘Circle that,’ meaning let’s take that back to the writers. There was one episode where they had Barton being disrespectful to his daughter-in-law. I said, ‘I’m not going to say that line because he wouldn’t say that.’ The writers understood. They knew that I knew the character better than they did.”
Beasley stays true to his principles in whatever he does. “The thing I’ve told myself is that I will never do any character that doesn’t have dignity. Regardless of who you are, you have to love yourself, you have to have some kind of dignity. If a character doesn’t have dignity then I don’t usually get called for it because that’s not in my body of work.” If someone were to ever demand he portray something not right in his eyes, he says. “I can walk away. It’s not an ego thing with me.”
Having a series end a long run is nothing new for him. It happened with Everwood. Beasley prefers to look at things optimistically “The end of any project is the beginning of another thing.” In this case, it led to taping the CBS sit-com pilot Real Good People from the power team of Stephanie Weir (The Millers), James Burrows (Will & Grace) and Greg Garcia (Raising Hope). The series stars David Keith and Julie White as a Texas couple. Beasley plays a denizen at a cafe they frequent. “We shot in front of a live audience and it went really good. The producers really liked me a lot. It’s a funny show. They’ve put some money into this one. It will probably go in production in July and air in the fall.”
Beasley went up for a new Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy) project he didn’t get but was offered the role of Mr. D in the upcoming Fox event series Shots Fired starring Richard Dreyfuss, Helen Hunt, Stephen Moyer, Stephen James, Sanaa Lathan, Aisha Hinds and Trtstan Wilds. Taking its lead from racially charged police shootings that inspired Black Lives Matter, the series looks at the aftermath of such incidents in a Southern city. “I’m in demand right now,” says Beasley, whose son Michael was up for a part in the same series.
John in the Huntington Theatre production of Fences
Aside from TV-film work, theater’s always on his mind. “My first love is theater,” he declares. His John Beasley Theater & Workshop found a niche doing the work of August Wilson (Fences). Beasley acted-directed there and brought in guest actors. He and his son Tyrone Beasley, who was artistic director, trained many first-time players.
“I’m thinking about doing another play in Omaha because I’ve got some players here I’ve developed that are pretty good actors and I’d just like to see them do something. I want to do August Wilson. I still think Omaha doesn’t know about August Wilson. I love his work because it’s a true reflection. I know these people.”
The late Wilson wrote a much-heralded 10-play cycle about African-American life that Denzel Washington is adapting for HBO. Beasley is a leading interpreter of Wilson, having appeared in several productions of the artist’s work at major theaters in Chicago and Atlanta as well as at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. He landed his Equity card playing Troy Maxson in Fences at the New American Theatre in Rockford, Illinois. Years later he was to reprise the role in a Broadway-bound production before Denzel got cast.
Beasley thinks enough of the Wilson canon he mounted all 10 plays at his theater. He feels forever indebted to the artist. “I owe so much to August Wilson. He’s been a big part of my career. He wrote some roles for middle-aged black men I can do the rest of my life.”
One thing Beasley’s not prepared to do is to have his own theater again, at least not right now.
“Running a theater myself was quite a burden. I didn’t have a strong board. They didn’t raise money and so I underwrote most of the things we did. I don’t want to go back to that. One production I can handle. I think I can find the sponsors for it and I think i can do it without it coming out of my pocket.”
He’s among a long line of locals who’ve gone on to screen and stage success. He feels the city’s strong theater scene helps propel some people. Besides, he says, “There’s a lot of talent here.”
He’s worked with some fellow Omaha talent on screen, including Gabrielle Union in Daddy’s Little Girls and Yolonda Ross in Treme. Closer to home, he worked with Camille Metoyer Moten on the short Tatoo and with TammyRa’ Jackson on the short Second Words.
He feels Nebraskans stand out in film-TV circles on the coasts because of their Midwest ethos.
“There’s a different value here. When you’re out in L.A., it’s a whole different climate, it’s a whole different deal. I’m well-liked on the sets I work out there. I’m pretty laid-back too. I’m known for being a nice guy and very considerate and very compassionate.”
He’s comfortable in his skin and talent. “My work speaks for itself and I don’t have to impress anybody.” He feels he’s improved with age. “My concentration’s gotten even better. I’m even more aware of my presence and I look more and more for the subtle things. I want you to maybe see what I’m thinking without beating you over the head.”
All in the family
He’s pleased his boys followed his lead. Tyrone is respected for his stage and screen work here. He’s on the artistic staff of the Rose Theater. Michael Beasley is a busy TV-film actor based in Atlanta. He was a fine athlete who played hoops in high school (Omaha Central), college (Texas Arlington) and professionally (overseas). His son Malik was a Blue Chip prep baller who this past season became a one-and-done phenom at Florida State and declared for the NBA draft. John has enjoyed his grandson’s coming-out party. During Malik’s banner FSU season he often posted about his on-court exploits.
“It’s been great. I went down to see him in Tallahassee for their last home game. I flew in the night before. He’d not been scoring much the previous few games and I said, ‘Tomorrow, I want you to show out,’ and he did show out – he scored 20 points for grandpa and his team beat Syracuse. It was a great comeback for him.”
Hoops runs in the bloodlines.
“I’m told my father was a really good basketball player,” John says.” I never knew that side of him.”
Acting is in the genes, too. Malik and his sister Micah grew up on sets their father and mother worked on. They visited some of grandpa’s sets as well. John Beasley says whether an NBA career works out for Malik or not, he has the skills to succeed in acting. “He’s very talented.” He says being around lights and cameras is why Malik is “so grounded – he’s been there before,” adding, “He knows what celebrity is and handles it very beautifully I must admit.”
Meanwhile, John Beasley’s actively seeking a project he and his sons can do together. “I’ll find something, even if we have to write it ourselves.”
All in all, he says, “I’ve just been blessed. It’s been quite a ride.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.