Sunday, July 1, 2012

On VH1 with Spike Lee

This goes back to those, for me, great days in the late 1980s when I worked happily on and for VH1 as a veejay and talk show host in New York City.  If I got a book deal to write a celebrity memoir or collection of observations like every single one of those Real Housewives seems to get, this would definitely be in my book.  It's about my first interview of celebrated filmmaker Spike Lee.  More specifically, it's a little story behind his understandable tardiness to our studio for that interview.
Veteran television producer Sharon Kelly is still a dear friend to this day.  Back in 1988, I was lucky to have her as a co-worker.  Blonde, funny, focused, fair, candid, compassionate and as disciplined as a drill sergeant on the set, she was one of my segment producers and she was our studio co-ordinator.  She scheduled times for interviews and arranged for cars to pick up our guests.  The network had a corporate account with a car service.  Spike Lee was scheduled to come so I could tape an interview of him for our show, Celebrity Hour.  The filmmaker was about 15 minutes late.  Sharon called the car service headquarters to make sure a car had arrived at Lee's residence in Brooklyn.  It had.  Now nearly thirty minutes late, Spike Lee hurries into our studio.  He's rushed, perspiring and apologetic.  Sharon, of course, asked if there was a problem with the car service.  Without anger, Spike matter-of-factly and honestly answered, "The driver wouldn't let me in."

"What?!?," Sharon responded.

Then the filmmaker told us that the driver would not let him into the car.  He locked the doors.  He didn't have time to argue with the driver because it was getting late for our interview.  So he took the subway.  From Brooklyn to our studio near 30th and Third in Manhattan.  Where Spike lived in Brooklyn, Yellow cabs weren't plentiful.  Trust me, I know.  Spike took a train, got off and dashed to our VH1 studio.  Sharon got on the phone, called the car service company, demanded to speak to the manager and took care of business.  The manager called the driver in his car and confirmed that Spike Lee's story was accurate.  The driver sent to pick up the film director at his home address did not let him into the town car because..."he didn't look like a film director."  That's what the driver told his boss.  Sharon fumed, "What's a film director supposed to look like?!?!  Does Penny Marshall 'look like a film director'?"  Penny is a Caucasian actress/filmmaker who had no problem with a car service driver.
Multiple Oscar winner James L. Brooks had no problem with a car service driver when he came in to talk to me about Broadcast News and War of the Roses.
Norman Mailer had no problem whatsoever with the car service driver we dispatched to pick him up so he could talk to me on VH1 about a film that he'd directed.
But Lee "didn't look like a film director."  Here he is with fellow director/actor Clint Eastwood.
The company ordered the driver back to the base, the main office, and he was fired that very afternoon.  Spike took the whole incident in stride.  He was used to cabs not stopping for him because he's black.  I know that feeling too.  Most black folks I knew back in New York had a problem stopping a cab at one time.  Sharon and I were embarrassed and glad that mess up hadn't happened during a New York winter.  Spike gave us a good interview.  On camera, he told us he was in the early stages of production on a new film -- Do The Right Thing.  The driver wouldn't unlock the doors for him because he felt Spike didn't look like a movie director.  And Spike was working on Do The Right Thing.  The film, about the uselessness of racial divides, would earn him an Academy Award nomination.
Spike Lee received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.  I still say Spike should've also had an Oscar nomination for Best Director.  Danny Aiello got an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  Do The Right Thing made Spike Lee a top nominee at the Cannes Film Festival in France.  Here in the States, it was released nationwide June 30th 1989.  I wonder if that driver ever saw it.  Do The Right Thing is one of the best, most provocative American films of the 1980s.

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