On Friday, Feb. 25th, Oprah Winfrey devoted her whole show to the incomparable Diana Ross. Since I was personally responsible for and produced the most successful film which Ms. Ross ever did, Lady Sings the Blues, I watched with great interest and some amusement. Herein, for the first time, is the inside story of how it happened... and why the true story has never been told for almost forty years.
In 1954, I was the publicity rep for the Newport Jazz Festival, which took place on a farm in Newport, Rhode Island owned by Elaine and Louis Lorillard (the cigarette people). Elaine loved jazz, and when she met a piano-playing nightclub owner named George Wein in Boston, her husband gave her $20,00 to start a jazz festival on their Rhode Island farmland. The first year, 11,000 people attended... and it took off, becoming a huge phenomenon until 1961, when rioting fans ended the festival. In July of 1959, one of the many all-star guests was an ailing Billie Holiday, still lovely and feisty. Sitting with her backstage, she told me that a man named William Dufty (living with Gloria Swanson and author of a book called Sugar, about that substance) had written a so-called autobiography of her life. She laughingly said it was "mostly fanciful, some true and some not." Lady Day suggested that I get in touch with her agent, Joe Glaser, to get a copy. Back in New York, I went to see the tough, powerful, "connected" agent... and he handed me a copy with the admonition that I not show it around. I read it that weekend and went back to him on Monday, saying that while I was not yet a movie producer (my ambition big time), I thought there was an incredible movie in her life and would like to option the film rights to the book. Glaser thought I was crazy but said if I could come up with $5,000. I could have an option for a year. I asked for 18 months and he smiled while agreeing.
Eleven years later, I finally made the movie, after struggling to keep the option alive, often doing some unholy things to come up with each $5,000 payment that Glaser demanded. I think he came to respect me, and protected me when powerful people like David Susskind tried to pry the option loose. (I was divorced by my second wife partly because she thought I was pouring our money down a rat hole without any hope of ever making the film.) Bandleader Artie Shaw insisted he owned the rights to her life because she had toured with him, until I told him that she had told me she detested him, for good reason (he made her stay in the servant's quarters of the Hotel Edison in New York). I had a young Canadian writer, Terence McCloy, working for years on screenplays (he ended up getting an Academy Award nomination for his efforts), and over the years -- as I became a recognized film producer and in 1968 made my first picture, For Love of Ivy, starring Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln (the first major studio film to star two black leads), things slowly began to pull together. I had asked Abbey Lincoln to play Billie, but she was in the midst of an ugly situation with her first husband, drummer Max Roach, who didn't want her to do another film, and she pulled out. Poitier was dating Diahanne Carroll and, for a moment, she was involved.
By the late '60s, I was doing the film with CBS Films and its astute president, Gordon Stulberg. I read an interview with Diana Ross of The Supremes in Look Magazine in which she said she dreamed of playing Billie Holiday in a movie. Gordon was skeptical, and after he and I went to the Waldorf to see Diana in concert, he told me he didn't want do it with her but I was free to try elsewhere. ("If it doesn't work, come back to us.") I twice approached Diana's manager, the mega-mogul, powerful Berry Gordy of Motown fame. And twice he rejected my entries... "Why should she play a black junkie singer?" was his comment. But the third approach proved to be magical, for I returned with a director named Sidney Furie, who had just won acclaim for a Michael Caine movie. (When Furie first read the script, he threw it across the room, but his wife, Lynda, picked it up and read it... and told him he would be crazy not to do it.)
Joe Schoenfeld, the "connected" William Morris agent and conduit to Gordy, repped Furie and he convinced Berry to take a meeting with us. I recall Gordy was playing pool in his huge office on Sunset Blvd. and never stopped while talking to us. This time, he agreed to let Diana play the role if we could set it up at a major studio.
An actor named Brad Dexter was a close friend of director Furie. Dexter was famous for one thing: when he rescued Frank Sinatra from drowning in 1964 while Frank was swimming in Hawaii. Brad alerted us to the fact that his friend, Frank Yablans, was about to take over the helm of Paramount Pictures, with Bob Evans remaining as head of production. At nine am on a morning in February 1970, Brad went into the studio to alert his buddy about the Lady Sings the Blues package. By six pm that night, we had a deal to make the movie there. Berry Gordy, sensing that this movie was going to be a trendsetting event for himself as well as for Diana, took an active role in moving it forward. He brought in his Motown team of Suzanne DePasse and Chris Clark to work with my writer, Terry McCoy, to beef up the script. But we still faced the question: who would play the key role of Louis McKay, Billie's husband?
Billy Dee Williams and Jay Weston on the set of Lady Sings the Blues.
Two years before, I had gone to see an off-Broadway production of Slow Dance on the Killing Ground, accompanied by the play's author, William Hanley. Starring in it was a charismatic young black actor, Billy Dee Williams, playing a smooth hustler. Going backstage, I told the actor that if I ever made the movie about Billie Holiday's life, I would love for him to audition for the lead male role. After settling into the Paramount lot, we began casting... to no avail. I was having a party on a Saturday night at my home in the Hollywood hills, and Diana and Berry would be there. I tried to find that actor, Billy Dee Williams, to no avail. He didn't have an agent... even an address. Nothing. The morning of the party, I went to a supermarket at Highland and Hollywood Blvd. to buy ice... and there, in an aisle, wearing a colorful dashiki, was Billy Dee Williams. Without explaining, I gave him my address and told him he had to be at my house that evening. I introduced him to all the players, who liked him but felt that he seemed a little young for the role. The casting proceeded... until, three weeks later, Billy Dee called me to say that he "had grown a mustache" and would like to come in. The next day he arrived at the studio, and we filmed a screen test with Diana. The next day, when she and I sat in a screening room and ran the test, I vividly remember her sliding down in her seat and whispering to me, "He's the one." Yes, here was a black Clark Gable in the flesh.
Filming proceeded apace. Until we came to the nightclub scene, where a flashy young Billie walks down the steps of Jerry's nightclub to ask for a job. After she proves to be an inept dancer, she asks Jerry if she can sing for him. The piano player in the band was played by a relatively unknown comic named Richard Pryor. He had one line, "Hey Jerry, give the girl a chance." His delivery was so wryly amusing that we decided to bring him back the next day for another scene. That night, we all huddled... and Suzanne DePasse had a brilliant idea. Why not create a character called "Piano Man" and add him to scenes in the rest of the script. Done... and another star was born. One night at Paramount, we were filming a big music scene on one stage while Francis Ford Coppola was filming the famous hospital scene for The Godfather on the front lot.
The day that our filming was finished -- on time and on budget -- was momentous for several reasons. Berry Gordy made a deal with Paramount which gave him the foreign distribution rights to the film in return for the entire $2.5 million budget. In retrospect, a terrible mistake. He hired the wrong man to oversee the foreign distribution, and we never achieved the overseas impact which a major studio would have elicited. And that same day, Berry's Detroit-based associate, a guy named Michael Roshkind, came to me with an intriguing offer. Berry wanted to be included on the production team, as an executive producer... and would pay me $50,000 for my approval. I thought it over, realizing that he had made a significant contribution to the success of the film, and approved. Thus it became a Motown-Weston-Furie Production. Again, a major mistake. From that day on, Berry immediately assumed the role of "producer" of the film in the eyes of the world... and the powerful Motown machine froze me out of much of the film's acclaim. In fact, when it was selected to close the Cannes Film Festival in 1972, with a live performance by Diana Ross, he refused to allow me, the producer, and Furie, the director, to even come to the festival.
The picture went on to receive five nominations for Academy Awards, including Diana for best actress. But Gordy miscalculated the nature of the Academy members and so overspent on ads that he antagonized many Oscar voters, so Liza Minnelli took the Oscar for Cabaret. Now, 38 years later, I had mixed feelings of amusement and amazement as I watched Oprah last week lavishing deserved praise on Diana and Billy Dee for this movie. I smiled at the comforting thought that the picture was so solidly in profit that, even with Hollywood accounting, every October a nice profit check is in the mail. And I have these wonderful memories.