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It would not be entirely inappropriate to call Cooley High (1975) the "black American Graffiti" (1973), for surely American International Pictures was hoping for a fraction of the earlier film's success when they put their money behind Eric Monte's autobiographical screenplay. The dream of becoming a professional writer had lured Monte (born Kenneth Williams) out of Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing development in the early 1960s. Arriving in Hollywood in 1968, the high school dropout could do little better for himself than sell marijuana for rent money until a friend, actor Mike Evans, landed a semi-regular role on Norman Lear's hit sitcom All in the Family. With Evans' support, Monte got a spec script to Lear that introduced white bigot Archie Bunker's black neighbors, George and Louise Jefferson. While Lear brought on the characters, he never invited Monte to join his staff and The Jeffersons was spun off as a series in its own right without Monte's participation. Monte and Evans later created the long-running sitcom Good Times, although the experience proved unhappy for Monte, who quit after the first season.
While contributing dialogue to the animated feature The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat (1974), Monte was encouraged by producer Steve Krantz (husband of novelist Judith Krantz) to spin his childhood memories into a screenplay. Krantz placed the script for what was to be Cooley High with producer Samuel Arkoff at AIP. Arkoff gave the project the green light, allocating a $750,000 budget and a 25-day shooting schedule and tapping up-and-comer Michael Schultz to direct.
Despite its all black cast and brick wall verisimilitude, Cooley High, directed by Michael Schultz, hews fairly close to the George Lucas paradigm, leapfrogging from vignette to vignette in lieu of a linear script while a jukebox soundtrack of Motown hits sweetens the pot. The film was another winner for Sam Arkoff, who reaped a $13 million return on his investment. Cooley High gets good use out of a mostly amateur cast (particularly Cynthia Davis, as the good girl who falls for Turman's promising bad boy) and some industry newcomers. Negro Ensemble member Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs went on to costar on the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter while Garrett Morris became a "Not Ready for Prime Time Player" on Lorne Michaels' Saturday Night (later Saturday Night Live). Seen briefly as a basketball player is Cabrini-Green resident Robert Townsend, later the director of Hollywood Shuffle (1987) and The Five Heartbeats (1991).
Although he has since helmed such popular African American-themed films as Cooley High and Car Wash (1976), as well as the Richard Pryor vehicles Which Way Is Up? (1977) and Greased Lightning (1977) and the Fat Boys comedy Disorderlies (1987), Michael Schultz is rarely discussed as a pioneer black filmmaker - possibly because of the common misassumption that he is white. (Penitentiary (1979) director Jamaa Fanaka has long claimed in interviews that he changed his own name from Walter Gordon so that audiences wouldn't make the same mistake with him.) In truth, the Milwaukee-born, Princeton-educated Schultz (whose first dream was to become an astronaut) was an established stage director whose success with the Negro Ensemble Company allowed him to make the transition to Broadway. His 1969 Broadway debut, Does Tiger Wear a Necktie, earned star Al Pacino a Tony award and Schultz a nomination.
Inspired by the positive reception to Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), Schultz made the trip to Hollywood, where he got work directing on such cop shows as Toma, The Rockford Files and Baretta. The success of Cooley High and Schultz' follow-up Car Wash catapulted him as close to the A-list as young black directors were able to get in those days too bad his crossover film, the Robert Stigwood-backed mega-disaster celebrity musical Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) knocked him right back into the shadows. A textbook journeyman, Shultz has continued directing to this day, mostly in theatre and television.
Like Schultz, Cooley High star Glynn Turman came from a background on Broadway. At the age of 12, Turman played opposite Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett, Jr. in the original 1959 production of A Raisin in the Sun directed by Lloyd Richards. (Playwright Lorraine Hansberry was a friend of Turman's mother.) The New York-born actor and High School of Performing Arts graduate was by the mid-1970s on a creative roll, with featured parts in Cooley High, The River Niger (1976), J.D.'s Revenge (1976) and the CBS telefilm Minstrel Man (1977). He appeared in Ingmar Bergman's English language film The Serpent's Egg (1977) and was short listed to play Han Solo in Star Wars (1977) until director George Lucas backed away from the controversial casting choice. While Turman never quite attained the predicted strata of "rising star," he matured into a dependable character actor, as seen in such films as Penitentiary II (1982), Gremlins (1984), Deep Cover (1992) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998), and as a regular on such popular TV series as A Different World and The Wire. Turman was married between 1978 and 1984 to singer Aretha Franklin. An accomplished rodeo rider, Turman and his wife founded Camp Gid D Up, a western-style summer camp for disadvantaged and at risk children.
An initial bid by ABC to turn Cooley High into a weekly series stalled with a poorly-received pilot but the characters were retooled for What's Happening! (1976-1979) and its sitcom sequel, What's Happening Now! (1985-1988). As with Good Times, this project was another combative experience for Eric Monte, whose struggle to bring accurate depictions of African-American life to Hollywood derailed into litigation, industry blackballing and drug use. Crippled by a series of strokes, Monte went public in 2006 with the fact that he was living in a Salvation Army homeless shelter in Bell, California. Shortly after the story broke, Monte was offered a plane ticket from a Chicago politician and invited to return to his former hometown. Set up in subsidized housing, the 60-something writer has put himself back to work writing new scripts and working with South Side community arts program Little Black Pearl.
Producer: Steve Krantz
Director: Michael Schultz
Screenplay: Eric Monte
Cinematography: Paul Vombrack
Music: Freddie Perren
Film Editing: Christopher Holmes
Cast: Glynn Turman (Leroy 'Preach' Jackson), Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (Richard 'Cochise' Morris), Garrett Morris (Mr. Mason), Cynthia Davis (Brenda), Corin Rogers (Pooter), Maurice Leon Havis (Willie), Joseph Carter Wilson (Tyrone)
by Richard Harland Smith
Flying Through Hollywood by the Seat of my Pants by Sam Arkoff with Richard Trubo
Glynn Turman interview by Curt Holman, Creative Loafing, 2007
Eric Monte interview by Jimi Izrael
Eric Monte interview by Eric Skillz
Eric Monte interview by Katia Dunn
"Black Director is Livin' Large: Satirical comedy is latest in Schultz success story," by Linda Deutsch, Associated Press
"Townsend brings it back home: Filmmaker goes on location near his old West Side haunts" by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates, Chicago Sun-Times, April 5, 2007 Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films by Donald Bogle