ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Its really peculiar that people see you on television and then
think they have a personal relationship with you. So, they want
to touch you, and grab you, and sit down and have lunch with you.
Its strange, and you never get used to that.
Kam Williams Interviews Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs
Who Starred as Freddie Boom-Boom Washington
in TV-series Welcome Back, Kotter
Lawrence Hilton Jacobsborn in New York City on September 4, 1953was the fifth of nine children hailing from a family with West Indian heritage. He began auditioning for acting gigs while still attending the High School of Art and Design, and after graduation, he supported himself by taking a series of menial jobs, honing his skills at Al Fanns Theatrical School and with the Negro Ensemble Company.
Later heading to Hollywood, Lawrence appeared in a handful of feature films, Death Wish, Claudine, The Gambler, and Cooley High, before landing the role of a lifetime in 1975 as Freddie Boom-Boom Washington on a new TV series called Welcome Back, Kotter. Though fated to be associated with that lovable character forever, he has, nonetheless, gone on to enjoy an enduring career, evidenced by a resume which boasts over 50 big screen and television credits, plus work as a director, as a scriptwriter, as a composer, and as a producer.
Here, he talks about his latest movie, Sublime, recently released on DVD, a thought-provoking, sci-fi thriller, where he plays a man with suspicious motivations who goes by the name of Mandingo.Kam Williams
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KW: Hi Lawrence. The first thing I want to ask you is whether you remember my cousin, Maurice Sneed, an actor who came up around the same time as you.
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: Oh, man, to death! Are you kidding me? What a small world man! I havent seen Maurice in a million years.
KW: I cant wait to tell him that we spoke, although we all call him Brother. That was his nickname as a kid.
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: Heres just a little interesting piece of trivia. See if you can find a movie called Youngblood. It was made in 1978. Maurice and I did that movie together. Its a street gang movie.
KW: Ill check it out. Werent you also in the Chicago production of What the Wine Sellers Buy back in the Seventies with him? If so, I might have met you when he brought me backstage to meet the rest of the cast.
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: No, I only did that play with the New York company. I think every black actor did Wine Sellers.at some point in their career back then. But say hi to Maurice for me
KW: Will do. Is it true that you did an assortment of odd jobs after high school?
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: Yeah, I had a lot of jobs, because I wanted to be an actor, and I had this bad habit of wanting to eat regularly. So, I had to make some money somewhere. I was everything from a stock worker in an Alexanders department store to flower delivery person to a messenger to a grocery clerk to a gas station attendant. I even worked in Macys dusting off fur coats for two weeks.
KW: How old were you when you got bit by the acting bug?
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: Early, just like your cousin. Sneed was around 13 or 14 when he started. We were both out of New York. I bounced around then, trying to get work while still going to school, which is a little tough. And then, when I became 18, I just started studying with the Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble and with the Negro Ensemble Company. Work started to flourish from that, eventually.
KW: What was one of the early productions you remember appearing in?
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: Al Fann had a famous play back then called King Heroin which everyone who came to the ensemble did. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, as you know, the heroin epidemic was exploding. I also did Coras Second Cousin, The Dean, and The Exterminator, where I played a guy who lands in purgatory where he gets put on trial by the bugs for trying to kill them.
KW: You made your screen debut in Death Wish, the original vigilante movie. Did you die in that flick?
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: Yep, I was killed, shot by Bronson [star Charles Bronson] with a gun. Its kind of funny, because when we were doing that scene over by the Hudson River, which took two days to shoot, it was so cold I couldnt believe it. And then some of the spray from his blank gun hit me in the face, man. I just sprung back from it, and the director thought I was overacting, but it had burned my face.
KW: People forget that even shooting blanks is potentially lethal. I remember how the actor Jon-Erik Hexum accidentally killed himself on a movie set with a blank.
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: Yeah, he put the gun to his head and he took himself out, which is a drag, man.
KW: Would you say that Cooley High was your breakout role?
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: Oh, big time! Yet, its funny how these things can overlap. Back in those days, when a movie came out, it might stay in theaters for a year or even longer. So, I had done Claudine and Cooley High, and then Welcome Back, Kotter. And they were all out at the same time. So, I was all over the place.
KW: What was it like to have that degree of fame all of a sudden?
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: It was like an explosion. You just dont get ready for it. I dont even know how you can, because you just dont expect it. For me, up until that point, you would do a gig, and then youd go out and try to find the next job. So, I had no idea what effect something blockbustering would have. To me, it was just a job that I was trying to do the best I could. We had shot the first five shows before it went on the air. Then, it was this firecracker hit, and people were recognizing me, so it was just nuts. It was overwhelming, insane, wonderful and scary all at the same time. Its really peculiar that people see you on television and then think they have a personal relationship with you. So, they want to touch you, and grab you, and sit down and have lunch with you. Its strange, and you never get used to that.
KW: I guess they know who you are, but they dont really know you. Did you have a hard time handling that aspect of fame?
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: You learn to roll with it. Ill talk to anybody and everybody. I learned that from Jack Albertson years ago. When he was doing Chico and the Man with Freddie Prinze, we were doing Kotter right next-door to them. We all used to hang out on the lot together. And Jack, Red Foxx and Scatman Crothers were like the elder statesmen, telling us the vaudeville stories from their early days. But Jack is the one that told me, Larry, you should talk to everybody, thats how you learn life. It was a simple thing to say, but I got it. Its also a way of keeping yourself down-to-earth, so you dont think of yourself as all that.
KW: Tell me a little about this new sci-fi thriller Sublime. I watched it, I liked it, but I still need someone to explain it all to me.
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: What was happening is that you were taken on a journey with a man who was going through his own early midlife crisis. He was re-examining his self-worth when, by accident or misfortune, he had the wrong operation performed on him in the hospital. This made him think further about who he really was, but being under sedation he had hallucinations which blurred the line between what was real and what was not real, as we sometimes experience in our nightmares or in our subconscious.
KW: Into which genre of film does Sublime fit? I found it sort of hard to pigeonhole.
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: They classify this movie under the horror/sci-fi banner, but I saw it as a psychological drama about a heightened reality, which can be horrific in itself. But this isnt a slasher flick or anything like that.
KW: Was playing a character like Mandingo new to you?
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: Yeah, Id never done this kind of role before. Id never done a person absolutely committed to trying to scare the hell out of you. Thats all this guy wanted to do. And he has no remorse. Hes pretty out there, man.
KW: Do you have any plans to direct again?
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: Yes, I just set up a pickup scene for a movie starring Sarah Jessica Parker thats untitled for the moment. That was a long, long day, like an 18-hour shoot. There were a lot of action sequences we had to cover in a day, but we did it. Thats being edited as we speak. That was my sixth time directing. But yeah, I want to direct a lot more, especially feature films as opposed to television. With a film, you get a chance to tell a story the way you envision it and how you feel it. Its pretty exciting to bring the collaborators and components together, and then to pull off the images to achieve the effect that youre going for. When you make a film, youre creating the illusion of a natural experience. But everything is created on purpose. If I want you to be scared, Im trying to scare you. If I want you to cry, Im trying to make you sad. If I want you to laugh, Im trying to make you laugh. So, how I get you there is what makes it interesting, because I also want it to feel seamless, and not forced. That kind of constant experimentation is just fun to explore, and I love it.
KW: What do you attribute your having an enduring career to?
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: Its been interesting that a diversity of roles have come my way, and that Ive had the opportunity to do them. To me, its about going for a good role that has something to say, and thats a challenge. Ive been lucky enough to play everything from a homeless guy to this crazy male nurse.
KW: Hes not a stalker, but Jimmy Bayan, this friend of mine in L.A. always wants me to ask celebs where they live.
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: I live in the Hollywood area. The same, old tired Hollywood.
KW: What advice do you have for aspiring young actors?
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: Anybody who wants to go into any business, I always say that you have to make a commitment to yourself to make it a part of your nature like the air you breathe. I dont mean that lightly. Its hard. You have to do the work, and a lot of it is going to be during your own personal downtime. And you have to be interested in it. You can never study enough, and you can never learn enough.
KW: Well, thanks for a great interview, Lawrence.
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: Youre welcome, I appreciate it.
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By James Carville and Stan Greenberg
Its the Middle Class, Stupid! confirms what we have all suspected: Washington and Wall Street have really screwed things up for the average American. Work has been devalued. Education costs are out of sight. Effort and ambition have never been so scantily rewarded. Political guru James Carville and pollster extraordinaire Stan Greenberg argue that our political parties must admit their failures and the electorate must reclaim its voice, because taking on the wealthy and the privileged is not class warfareit is a matter of survival. Told in the alternating voices of these two top political strategists, Its the Middle Class, Stupid! provides eye-opening and provocative arguments on where our governmentincluding the White Househas gone wrong, and what voters can do about it.
Controversial and outspoken, authoritative and shrewd, Its the Middle Class, Stupid! is destined to make waves during the 2012 presidential campaign, and will set the agenda for legislative battles and political dust-ups during the next administration.
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Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America.
This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”
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By Melissa V. Harris-Perry
According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless Mammys behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own familys needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.
As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.
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By Mary L. Dudziak
Thurgood Marshall became a living icon of civil rights when he argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court in 1954. Six years later, he was at a crossroads. A rising generation of activists were making sit-ins and demonstrations rather than lawsuits the hallmark of the civil rights movement. What role, he wondered, could he now play? When in 1960 Kenyan independence leaders asked him to help write their constitution, Marshall threw himself into their cause. Here was a new arena in which law might serve as the tool with which to forge a just society. In Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall’s African Journey (2008) Mary Dudziak recounts with poignancy and power the untold story of Marshall’s journey to Africa
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By Michael Grunwald
Time senior correspondent Michael Grunwald tells the secret history of the stimulus bill, the purest distillation of Change We Can Believe In, a microcosm of Obamas policy successes and political failures. Though it is reviled by the right and rejected by the left, it really is a new New Deal, larger than FDRs and just as transformative. It prevented an imminent depression, while jump-starting Obamas long-term agenda. The stimulus is pouring $90 billion into clean energy, reinventing the way America is powered and fueled; it includes unprecedented investments in renewables, efficiency, electric cars, a smarter grid, cleaner coal, and more. Its carrying health care into the digital era. Its Race to the Top initiative may be the boldest education reform in U.S. history. It produced the biggest middle-class tax cuts in a generation, a broadband initiative reminiscent of rural electrification, and an overhaul of the New Deals unemployment insurance system. Its revamping the way government addresses homelessness, fixes infrastructure, and spends money.
Grunwald reveals how Republicans have obscured these achievements through obstruction and distortion. The stimulus launched a genuine national comeback. It also saved millions of jobs, while creating legacies that could rival the Hoover Dam: the worlds largest wind farm, a new U.S. battery industry, a new high-speed rail network, the worlds highest-speed Internet network. Its main legacy, like the New Deals, will be change.
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Edited by Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith
Pictures and Progress explores how, during the nineteenth century and the early twentieth, prominent African American intellectuals and activists understood photography’s power to shape perceptions about race and employed the new medium in their quest for social and political justice. They sought both to counter widely circulating racist imagery and to use self-representation as a means of empowerment. In this collection of essays, scholars from various disciplines consider figures including Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and W. E. B. Du Bois as important and innovative theorists and practitioners of photography. In addition, brief interpretive essays, or “snapshots,” highlight and analyze the work of four early African American photographers. Featuring more than seventy images, Pictures and Progress brings to light the wide-ranging practices of early African American photography, as well as the effects of photography on racialized thinking.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 14 July 2012