You also brought singer/songwriter experience to the sets, as evidenced by the original composition you sang in Abby. When did you first become interested in music?
At the age of twelve, I got to play one of the King's wives in the San Jose Light Opera's The King and I. I loved every minute of it … my running across the stage saying, "Run Elijah run … Elijah run into the rain storm … poor Elijah … run Elijah run." I was the only black person in the entire production. And, of course, my family, including my cousins, the Stevens, our neighbors the McElroys, and school friends came to the theatre to watch me say my few lines.
My first Hollywood job (1970) was with Bobby Gentry as a backup singer at Harrahs in Reno, Nevada.
The morning we were to leave, the Los Angeles International Airport was fogged in. So we waited. Finally, the fog lifted, but there was another flight scheduled to leave. So they bumped some people off of that flight, because we had to be in Reno. When we arrived we were chauffeured in a Rolls Royce to Harrahs. It was my first ride in a Rolls Royce and I enjoyed every minute of it. There was a maid to unpack our clothes … they were waiting for us for rehearsal. I thought, "If this is show business, I love it!!!!"
During our run, we had a private dinner with Bobby Gentry and toured Harrahs' rare car collection. I was privileged to be in the studio and hang out with Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, Willie Hutch (he wrote the theme for The Mack). So I was surrounded by music.
In between parties and hanging with friends, I started working in television and doing commercials. I was signed for a recurring role on Days of Our Lives. We were the first black family to appear on a network soap opera. After that I worked at MGM on the Courtship of Eddie's Father … a replacement for Diahann Carroll on Julia; The Paul Lynde Show; Universal Studios' God Bless The Children; Redd Foxx's Sanford and Son ('Here Comes The Bride, There Goes The Bride'); ABC's Girls of Huntington House (I wrote the song 'I Can Make It' which my character sings while pretending to play the guitar. During this period, I did commercials for Dolly Madison Pies, Ginos' Pizza, and Dodge Duster.
So when William Girdler asked me to sing a church song in Abby, I decided it would be a song that I wrote. During rehearsal, Terry Carter's sermon was about being a witness for God - hence, 'Is Your Soul A Witness?'
You worked with Juanita Moore on The Mack a year prior to Abby. What was it like performing with her?
Juanita Moore is a beautiful human being. I'm so lucky to have had her in two films with me.
I remember when I was about ten years old, at the drive-in with my family, watching Imitation of Life. So Juanita Moore was a prize to have on the set. Recently I watched her briefly dance in Girl Can't Help It with Jayne Mansfield. Albeit in a maid's uniform. However, while I worked on The Mack, I never knew when the party stopped and actual filming started. So I never really had a conversation with her.
On the set of Abby she played a very warm, loving mother, just like she did in Imitation of Life --- I was elated. She finally let me know that she appreciated my acting abilities -- even though I didn't come to Hollywood by way of the New York stage.
(CLICK HERE to see Juanita Moore dote on her daughter Abby. Mpeg movie: 1.3 MB.)
A series of tornadoes ripped through Louisville on April 4, 1974. The city was devastated, but as they say, the show must go on. What was it like being in Louisville during a natural disaster of that scale?
I believe I was in Louisville from three to four weeks. Before filming started on Abby, Juanita and I talked about her blood pressure. It was too high to get filming insurance. Her room was across the hall from mine at the Ramada Inn. So I kept calmly talking to her ... soothing her mind until her blood pressure dropped.
We attended a really nice party (mansion, white carpet, waiters, etc.) given by one of William Girdler's rich formal friends. Juanita Moore was the star of the party because of Imitation of Life. I was introduced as 'darling sweet child' by the hostess the entire evening, even though I told her my name.
The day the 99 tornadoes struck Louisville, Juanita and I immediately left the set when the daytime sky turned pitch black. We ended up rolled in some blankets on the lobby floor. Ramada had built this nice hotel, but no basement or tornado shelter. Just glass windows … everywhere. So we spent hours just staring at each other -- again, I'm soothing her to keep her blood pressure down.
I have no idea who gave the marvelous party for us in Louisville. Our hostess was a white lady with tons of southern charm. Her beautiful mansion was destroyed by a tornado. They seemed to think I was a real devil after that!