‘Roots,’ Plus 12 Years; The Ups And Downs of A Successful Author

(‘Roots,’ Plus 12 Years; The Ups And Downs of A Successful Author was originally published on February 12, 1989 in The Washington Post.)

In his book, Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives, Lawrence Grobel published an earlier interview he did on Alex Haley in full.

Therefore, as this article reflects upon Haley’s milestone book, Roots, the miniseries that followed it, and 12 years after the fact, I wanted to open this article with what Alex Haley mentioned regarding watching the Roots miniseries and what he felt was the most powerful scene while viewing it.

Lawrence Grobel: We’ve talked about the book, but what did you think of the miniseries made from Roots?

Alex Haley: I thought it was fabulous. Television is the most exciting medium among us. I would love to see it be more socially positive. To me, the most powerful scene in the miniseries was when Lou Gossett as the old slave Fiddler burst into tears after Kunta Kinte was beaten and forced to say his name was Toby. There were no tears written in the script, but when Kunta was cut down and slumped into the Fiddler’s lap, Gossett said, “What difference it make what they call you? You knows who you is. You is Kunta.”

Then there was a beat and this veteran actor clutched Kunta and burst into tears and said, “There’s gone be a better day.” It moves me very much to think that on both the slave ships and the immigrant ships that came to this country, what was uppermost in the hearts and minds of the people on either ship was that phrase, “There’s gone be a better day.” Not for them, their die was cast and they knew it, but they had to hope it for their children and their children’s children. We are the better day. Every one of us manifest the dream of our ancestors who came on either the immigrant or slave ship. ~ Alex Haley.

‘Roots,’ Plus 12 Years; The Ups And Downs of A Successful Author

Twelve years ago, it was pretty heady for one raised up in Henning, Tenn., (pop. 540) to keep a long-standing dinner appointment with the megastar Warren Beatty in his suite at Manhattan’s plush Hotel Pierre. After dinner, we watched the opening two-hour episode of the television miniseries based upon my already hugely successful book, Roots.

The ABC-TV network’s original schedule had been to air one episode weekly for six weeks, but after the film was in the can, a dubiousness had steadily mounted that black material couldn’t possibly hold its own across an unprecedented 12 hours of any network’s prime time. So finally a decision had been reached to air all six two-hour segments within one week, the better to compress the highly risky gamble.

Now, of course, it is history that Roots, as the industry’s second long-form series (Rich Man, Poor Man was the first), set ratings and viewer audience records that stand intact even yet, a dozen years later. After that first episode had ended, some TV reporters proclaimed Roots an unqualified hit. They cited how numerous restaurants, movie houses, buses, taxicabs and other nightly businesses reported graphically diminished customers, and that police and other experienced observers said unusually few people had been strolling along residential sidewalks, and fewer automobiles were seen in the streets.

Warren Beatty, whom I’d met through my agent, looked at me over his glasses in that quizzical way he has. “Did you have any idea, any dream of all this?” he asked. I remember I found for him a sort of waggish response: “No,” I said. “If I had, I’d have typed a whole lot faster.”

The solemn truth was that almost from the day that my manager in Los Angeles, Louis Blau, had negotiated the Roots film rights with the master producer David Wolper, the successively developing events had seemed to me something akin to a dream emerging from when I was a little boy away back in my hometown of Henning.

There, in the summer early evenings, my maternal grandma Cynthia (Cis) Palmer and her sisters, my great aunts, used to sit in their rocking chairs on the front porch, dipping their Sweet Garrett snuff and “skeetin'” out its amber fluid in little shots at the lightning bugs all about the white-blooming honeysuckle vines. Night after night they’d reminisce about our family members who had been slaves in somewhere called “Alamance County, North Carolina,” and then were freed by the Civil War and came in a wagon train led by grandma’s grandpa, a most colorful gamecocker named Chicken George, and so on.

If right at this minute my life depended upon it, I couldn’t quote the viewer audience numbers or the ratings share percentages or the records set by the television miniseries. My most indelible memories tend to be people-oriented—for instance, the morning when the first advertised public autographing was held at Fox Hills Mall in Los Angeles. A news helicopter flew overhead to film the literally several thousands of people who had queued up four abreast.

For five hours I signed nonstop, and I hadn’t scratched the surface when I heard the store manager moving about apologizing that I had to leave for a scheduled television taping. I started up, muscles cramping, when right behind me the voice boomed out of a lady I didn’t need to see to know that she was big, black and angry. “He ain’t goin’ nowhere!” she challenged, and I sat right back down, having known doubles of that lady all of my life. I knew that for hours she’d been inching along in that line, her feet hurting—and the people cheered as I signed her five copies of Roots right there on the spot.

I remember a blur of similar autographings all about the United States. One of the very nicest things is how quite often strangers met and got to talking and developed friendships as they stood in the long lines.

Frequently, the people who booked my daily schedules put me onto usually the red-eye flights into Los Angeles, to serve as a “consultant,” supplying all the answers I could to a host of queries from two of television’s finest scriptwriters, Ernie Kinoy and Bill Blinn. It felt to me sometimes a bit eerie how what they needed was my memory of things told to me by my Grandma Cynthia when I was a little boy. I sometimes felt frustrated that the television writers couldn’t have asked her directly, for she could have told them so much better.

There came, finally, the experience of attending some auditions, watching and hearing actors compete for parts, and that was followed by the really uncanny experience of seeing the role winners emerge one day in costume.

Especially, I will never forget witnessing the utter metamorphosis of an exuberant young, big-eyed USC drama student named LeVar Burton into his first professional role as my great-great-great-great grandfather, Kunta Kinte. Scarcely less astounding was seeing the veteran actor Louis C. Gossett Jr., bewigged, made up cosmetically and costumed as my book had described Kunta Kinte’s slavery mentor, Fiddler. And I truly wished hard that my grandma might have seen Ben Vereen bounding from the costume office wearing his colorful neck scarf and his derby hat trailing a long rooster’s tailfeather stuck down in its brim, exactly as Grandma had always described Chicken George.

The film’s African locale was shot mostly around Savannah, Ga., where the vegetation is very much like Kunta Kinte’s West African homeland of The Gambia. I used every possible chance to witness in awe how a film got made, painstaking scene by scene, each day ending with scrutinizing the dailies, with the sometimes controversies between the producer and a director trying to decide which take was the best.

Finally, back in Los Angeles, one mid-morning as soundtracks were being laid onto the edited film, the line producer, Stanley Margulies, told me that I was expected right away at a Sunset Boulevard address. I’d never previously been in a big sound studio, and a receptionist admitted me to where I saw some 30-odd studio musicians sitting, holding instruments at the ready behind a huge glass wall.

I watched Gerald Freid gesture sharply with his baton—and there swelled up all around me the first time I ever heard the Roots theme composed by Freid and Quincy Jones. I tell you the truth, somewhere down deep it hit me so hard that while I’d experienced all of the preceding aspects of filming, somehow I’d never dreamed that the book I’d written also had music inherent in it. I just stood there looking at those musicians playing, and I just cried, turning away from the glass to be sure that none of them saw it.

My mail from the book, and literally from about the globe, had grown overwhelming by the time Warren Beatty and I saw the first miniseries episode. Each day brought two or three of the full gray canvas sacks, some of the envelopes addressed such as “Alex Haley, Hollywood, Calif.” or others: “Alex Haley, Roots, U.S.A.” from abroad. I will never cure my sense of guilt that there was no human way I could personally answer, or even read, all of those letters from countless people of every nationality, race and culture, by far most of them asking advice about how to pursue their families’ genealogical search.

Only four or five times during all of my previous years had I been within some lawyer’s presence. But now I had entered a phase in which I talked with lawyers maybe several times within practically every day. (Recently, I read that the United States now contains one lawyer for each 360 citizens, the greatest concentration being one lawyer for each 22 citizens in Washington, D.C.) Well, my lawyers carefully counseled both me and my lifelong buddy Arthur Sims, who now accompanied all of my travelings, mainly to speak before a great diversity of audiences. The peak of this speaking was reached during calendar 1978, when my office tallied 1,855 speech requests and, trying my utmost to comply, I spent 228 nights in hotels.

My lawyers ordered us to refuse as tactfully as we could the seemingly endless envelopes and packets that people tried to press upon me, and to immediately accomplish the return, unopened, of any packets left at my hotel desk. Experience had proven how many of these packets contained sundry materials for books that the senders implored me to write, or to edit, and thence to get published. But in the legal sense, mere exposure to the material might form a basis for a future plagiarism suit, should I write anything even remotely resembling something proffered in the mail. Probably half of the packets we refused or returned brought quick and angry responses that I was just like all the rest who had gotten lucky and had no care about others.

Still, inevitably I got sued, seminally because Roots as book and film was such a success, and the entirely documented nine years of research I had invested made no difference. One day amidst a New York Writers Society luncheon of 24 major authors, someone wryly toasted, “Everyone in here raise your hand who’s not involved in some lawsuit.” Only six authors’ hands went up, which I guess was supposed to make the others of us feel somehow better.

The legal vulnerabilities, I discovered, cold lurk amidst even the most tender and touching moments. Once during an evening’s autographing being sponsored by the “Young Marrieds” in a large, prosperous black church’s really elegant basement, I was so moved after I think six expectant couples asked for a copy of Roots to be signed to their unborn babies, and all of them assured me that their newborn would be raised heavenward by the father who would tell the infant, “Behold, the only thing greater than yourself!” as they had witnessed the father Omoro Kinte blessing his infant son Kunta in the first hour of the Roots miniseries.

But then, a little later that evening, with my head down, I was continuing to autograph books held open for me as swiftly as I possibly could. I remember overhearing a woman exclaim to some friend with a camera, “Get this!” as suddenly her cupped hands jerked my chin sharply upward for my mouth squarely to meet her big, fat, wet kiss. Instinctively as I shoved the autographing table backwards, she lost her balance and fell heavily. I glimpsed her face growing enraged, and a pindrop silence filled that church basement, and I all but saw some media caption like, “Author Shoves Fan to Floor!” as more than a little shaken, I soon got out of there.

Negatives like that, though, always became dwarfed by so many more lovely experiences. I never could have afforded airfares to visit the West African griot oral historians or England’s vital colonial records unless my writing alma mater, the Reader’s Digest, had financed a year of my traveling and researching.

Now, one day amidst all of Roots’ spectacular success, the Reader’s Digest asked if I could somehow alter my schedule to speak for them before an advertisers meeting to be held in Detroit. Soon I was flying to Detroit, all by myself in the cabin of their corporate jet. My memories drifted back across the years to when their editors would reject my manuscripts, always with their trademark note, “This does not quite jell for us—” and now zizzing along up there, suddenly I began laughing my head off, having just thought, “Well, I guess it finally jelled.”

A Reader’s Digest “Unforgettable Experience” could have been written about how in Los Angeles one night, I was writing in my favorite wee hours, when I happily discovered I was out of half-and-half for my coffee. Taking the elevator downstairs, I drove my car aimlessly for maybe half an hour before I saw the familiar image of an all-night 7-11 store in a section called Inglewood, and I turned into its parking lot.

I’d locked the car and walked a little way toward the 7-11 when I saw three young men approaching, converging on me, and my knees turned to jelly as I sensed their clear intent. The obvious leader, in the middle, wearing a knitted blue cap over his big Afro, stopped suddenly, and so did the others. The leader exclaimed, “Alex Haley!” and my head echoed with “Thank you, Jesus!” His hand raised awkwardly, and he jerked off the cap: “I mean, Mr. Roots.”

It went flooding over me that this young son of the streets would have doffed his cap for neither Pope nor President—but that somehow, something inherent within the Roots miniseries had penetrated all of the reasons that saw them out there in the pre-dawn, almost certainly seeking quarry. Many times since, along with remembering my fright, I’ve pondered and mused about that incident’s significance.

It is a dozen years later, now, and the thrills continue to come. As an example, last week’s mail included a manuscript about two inches thick, and in original longhand, from one of the far too few native Australian aboriginals who have managed to acquire some education. From an encyclopedia this lady got a workable address for her accompanying letter entreating my editing and marketing help, and poignantly reminding, “Your Roots speak for our dark-skinned people, too.”

Well, this one I’m simply not going to mention to the lawyers. Somehow I’ve just got to help my dark sister away over yonder so naive and trusting. I think I’ll maybe do a quick reading of her stuff and then a fast synopsis and show that to my friend and producer David Wolper—whom Art Buchwald, Peter Uberroth and I introduced recently at the Television Hall of Fame, into which he had been voted for his legendary production accomplishments, including Roots.

“How can you ever top it?” is a query that sundry people seem to enjoy asking with a chuckle just about wherever I go. A few days ago, I was talking about this over dinner with Glen Larsen of Magnum, P.I. fame at the Las Hadas Hotel in Manzanilla, Mexico. Larsen was “hidin’ out” there with his script writer Steve Miller, creating a new pilot film. I was also hiding out, writing on my next book at my manager’s beach home nearby.

Larsen and I agreed that books and films as creative products are not too unlike parents’ children—you conceive them, raise them, aid their development as best you can, and finally comes the day when they must be let go, the children off to school, the books or films released to the public, whereupon authors and parents alike become as spectators.

And with the books, films or children, the one you maybe secretly expected to excel just might get topped by another in some different way. I’ll never hesitate to express, for instance, that my first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is, I think, better-written than Roots, even as I have pledged to my late Grandma that my coming books, and possibly miniseries—Henning and Madame C.J. (Walker)—plus others I have in my craw, will also do their own things, each of them in their own way. ~ Alex Haley.

(‘Roots,’ Plus 12 Years; The Ups And Downs of A Successful Author is presented under the Creative Commons License. It was originally published on February 12, 1989 in The Washington Post. © 1989 The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.)

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