Bill Duke: My 40-year Career On Screen and Behind the Camera
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, 193 pages, plus index and photographs (15 pages)
Amazon: Print – $16.47. E-book: $13.99.
Bill Duke, with his 62 directorial credits, 17 as a producer, and 4 as a writer, is a face on the screen that movie-goers have recognized since the seventies. It was 1976, in fact, when his breakthrough role as Duane/Abdullah in “Car Wash,” paired with such luminaries as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Otis Day, Antonio Fargas and the Pointer Sisters gave him his first big break in the 40-year career he writes about in “Bill Duke: My 40-year Career Onscreen and Behind the Camera.”
For me, one of his most memorable roles was as Leon, the gay pimp in “American Gigolo.” His movements were sinuous and catlike; he was an unforgettable character in this story of lust and greed, which focused on Gere and his romance of Lauren Hutton as a neglected politician’s wife and a murder suspect. Paul Schrader (Oscar-nominated this past year for his script for “First Reformed,” which Schrader directed) was the director. The music by Giorgio Moroder imprints the film on my mind.
Duke admits, “I found it to be one of the high points of my acting career with one of the leading roles of the film. It was outside of my comfort zone, but it was a growing experience. I loved the character I played, and I loved working with Richard Gere.”
Duke goes on to say that “Richard Gere was meticulous with every movement of his character, like the movement of his eyes, the face, the lips, the hands, and the legs.” I would add that this attention to detail and movement goes double for Bill Duke in his roles. Leon was, indeed, a high point of Bill Duke’s acting career, and one I remember well.
I would also say that Duke’s praise of his fellow actors and directors and co-stars is universal throughout the book. “Never is heard a discouraging word.” If you are looking for a “tell-all” book from a Hollywood insider that will open the floodgates on unsavory doings, this isn’t it. Bill does allude to a low period in his own life when he gave in to the temptation of drugs, but the story of the seamier side of life in Hollywood is not this book’s mission.
When I was teaching junior high school students in a small town in Illinois, I was happy to find that the local library had a series of 16 millimeter After School Specials. I could rent these and show them to my students. I selected those where Bill Duke and Kevin Hooks were involved because they would be quality productions with good messages and the length was perfect to show to a class on a Friday afternoon late in the year. I was then (and am now) a film critic. I pay attention to who is in a film, and also to who is directing, writing and producing a film.
Duke has appeared in too many television series to list them all, including stints on those After School Specials as well as on “Cold Case” (2008), “Lost” (2006), “Battlestar Galactica” (2006), “Starsky & Hutch” (1978), “Kojack” (1976), “Falcon Crest, “Fame,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Knott’s Landing,” “Dallas,” and “New York Undercover.” He is still active on “Black Lightning.”
Bill Duke’s feature credits include the two films mentioned (“Car Wash,” “American Gigolo”), which really launched him, as well as “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” “Get Rich or Die Trying,” “Deep Cover,” “Hoodlum,” “Predator,” “Menace II Society” and “Not Easily Broken,” to name just a few. He has won NAACP Image Awards and been a nominee for a 1991 Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or with “A Rage in Harlem.” Sundance Film Festival awarded “The Killing Floor” (1984) a Special Jury Prize and a Grand Jury Prize. More recently, the Northeast Film Festival recognized “American Satan” with a Best Ensemble Prize and, in 2018-2019, Bill Duke can be seen as Agent Percy Odell in the television series “Black Lightning.”
Reading about how this 77-year-old African American actor/director/producer/writer rose from humble origins in Poughkeepsie, New York and how he continues to open the door for so many other talented black entertainers was interesting, educational and amusing. He seems to write from the heart with sincerity, although there are a few areas that he treats “once over lightly,” including his own bouts with drug addiction and his personal life.
When Duke talks about Leon, his desire to excel shines through. “Playing that role gave me an opportunity to show other sides of my acting ability. I was seen by many casting directors as the big, tall, angry black man. I wanted to show that I could be more than that. The character of Leon was a soft-spoken brilliant sociopathic businessman, and I wanted the opportunity to let casting directors know that I had more range.”
Duke shares the trials and tribulations of being a television series regular. (“A television series is the hardest work for an actor on the face of this Earth.”) He thanks all those who have helped him along the way and does not speak ill of anyone, but does tell readers that, after appearing on a television series called “Palmerstown,” he could not find work as an actor for 2 years.
He explains, “In those days, they had something called a TV Q score, which was a way to measure how familiar audiences were with an actor, TV show, and so forth. If you were on a television show that garnered a lot of publicity, you could be considered ‘overexposed,’ which could make it difficult to get hired for another television show or feature because your Q score went down.” He adds that the experience made him depressed and angry and convinced him that he had “better learn how to do more than just act.”
Thus began a career move towards producing, writing and directing and this quote: “Once I figured Hollywood might typecast me as the police officer, I turned to directing. That way, I could wait until an interesting project came along.” Duke has also moved into the job of Chairperson of the Department of Radio, Television and Film at Howard University, as of 2000.
[*As an aside, I once interviewed the man responsible for the Q Score system. He had headquarters at that time in Marion, Iowa. At that point in time, he was tasked with making a television star spokesperson out of top model Cheryl Tiegs, something that never really worked. The man had worked for Gallup and took his knowledge of polling into the world of television and movies with the much-vaunted “Q Score” that Bill Duke mentions as having given him two years of idleness, sadness and depression. The Q Score Big Boss didn’t like what I had to say about the Q Score, so the article never ran. I was paid a “kill fee” after I interviewed him in his Marion, Iowa, offices.]
Duke scored a collaborative job with Joel Silver on “Commando,” which introduced him to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mark Lester (the director) and led, later, to his role as Mac in 1987’s “Predator.”’
One of the best stories in the book involves “Predator” and the unknown and inexperienced stuntman/actor hired to play the title creature. The actor was dressed in heavy black felt for the filming in the jungles near Puerto Vallarta. The heat and humidity were intolerable, causing the stuntman to pass out at least two times early on.
The director strode over and said, “If you pass out again, I’m going to have to fire you.” The original Predator creature (which did not appear in the film), was a smaller, more nimble creature that flew through jungle trees with speed and flexibility and fully packed laser guns. That Predator was also invisible and could strike his prey at any time. The bodysuit, including placement over the head and face, was originally used to insert computer-generated special effects over the actor’s body in post production. Unfortunately for the actor within the suit, he did pass out again.
At that moment, Joel Silver marched over to him and, as the actor awoke, suffering from exhaustion and dehydration, Silver said, “You’re fired.” The acrobatic, multitalented martial artist flying through the trees in a felt suit in one of his first jobs in America was Jean-Claude Van Damme.
One of the best things about the book is its “never say die” encouragement of young actors, in general, and African American actors in particular. While giving props to all of the heavyweights who have gone before (Sidney Poitier, Spike Lee, etc.), Bill Duke, himself, has proven to be a shining example of an actor who has paved the way for others. His work in Hollywood earned him an appointment to the Board of the California State Film Commission, as well as an appointment to the National Endowment of Humanities under President Bill Clinton. The Directors’ Guild of America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Tribute. The reader may get the feeling that the author sometimes feels he has not received his fair share of recognition, and his Bill Duke Media corporation may be an attempt to rectify that by producing a great deal more quality film output.
As an unconventional actor—-not known for good looks, but renowned for good performances—Duke has had a career that has had many highs and lows. He shares that, “It’s all about relationships in the industry.” That remark could probably be expanded to any line of work. It may be intensified in Hollywood, but it seems true of many corporations, businesses and industries.
Quote: “Nobody else in this world is like you. There may be similarities, but nobody is just like you. You have value, and if nobody has validated that for you, it is time for you to validate yourself. Let your soul and your spirit out in your writing. Tell the truth of your experience in life through your writing. Writing forces you to love yourself and let out your truth. It takes courage, but the payoff is something that you cannot spend.” (p. 190)
“I wish I could say that writing this book was inspired by me and my courage, but the truth is that it was not. For many years, people told me that I should tell my story because of all that I had gone through in Hollywood, but I never believed that I had anything important to say. I thought a lot of people had gone through what I had gone through. I didn’t think there was anything special about bill Duke in Hollywood. However, when I reached my seventies, I wanted to leave something for those who come after me to benefit from.” (p. 190)
Duke shares his poetry with us throughout the book. After reading of his humble origins in Poughkeepsie, New York, and the events that shaped him over the years, including a history of family violence, his poetry reveals a deep, sensitive soul, who arranges the poems on the page in vertical fashion. Lines like: “Nobody really cares. Nobody seems to really care about the other’s pain. For we must laugh and dance and sing and not remind us of anything that resembles fears that we’ve secretly tried to cover by pretending to be devoted lovers of everything except ourselves. “
What came through, for me, was that Bill Duke, at least early on, suffered from self-loathing. Was it his appearance? Was it because of remarks made to him when he was young? Was it because of his father and mother’s sometimes violent marriage? The source is difficult to pin down, as it often is in life.
Bill Duke during 1987’s “Predator” filming
It sounds as though Bill Duke doesn’t trust women. The reason for this is hinted at: a girl he had a crush on in college led him to believe that she’d spend time with him if he traveled to her school. He did (travel to her school). She didn’t (spend time with him). That seems to be one of the reasons why he stopped trusting ALL women. He had some sexual mistreatment by an early babysitter that also may have affected his views.
He frankly admits (p. 27): “I thought of sex as a game of pleasure from that day on, and maybe the reason I’ve hurt so many women in my life was because I always focused on the act, not the person. I liked having sex with different women, but I never went beyond that and made emotional connections. I simply enjoyed the physical act. Maybe it’s because of the way I learned about sex; I’m not sure.”
On page 171, Duke adds, “One of the many reasons I never got married was that I always thought I was ugly, and I didn’t want to have children that looked like me.” He goes on to say, “After my first love betrayed me, I used that as an excuse to become a scoundrel when it came to women.”
At least this sensitive, introspective man realizes it is an excuse and admits he has, at times, been a “scoundrel” when it comes to women.
While Bill Duke trusts himself (“Trusting what is inside you is key”, p. 189) he doesn’t seem to trust many other people. He talks of loneliness this way (p. 178): “You have a couple of friends who are with you throughout your life. Some stay and some go, but when you’re not successful, not making money, and your career is not going well in our industry, there aren’t many people who flock to you. That shouldn’t be a shock, because they are hustling and trying to do what they have to do. If you can’t do anything for them, you are of no use to them.”
The book is good. The stories and experiences are fascinating and interesting. I always liked any film Bill Duke was associated with and that has proven to be prescient. If you’re interested in the film industry in any capacity as a career, this is a good read.
(Connie Corcoran Wilson, www.TheMovieBlog.com, www.ConnieCWilson.com)