There is great power to Harry Belafonte's life. For most of his 84 years he's been sometimes an actor, sometimes a singer, always a passionate idealist. Now he has a new book and tonight (10 p.m. Monday, Oct. 17) an HBO documentary. Here's the story I sent to papers:
By MIKE HUGHES
Harry Belafonte and his classmates
expected to spend their lives on stage.
There was Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis,
Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Walter Matthau and more. All studied
with an intense, German-born acting teacher in New York.
They learned passion, performance and
message. “The art of theater was all driven by social mission,”
recalled Belafonte, 84, who has a new HBO documentary and a new book.
His career soon detoured into music.
His acting was often set aside; his social mission wasn't.
“His message is clarion clear –
that we can make the world a better place with passion and commitment
and an honest heart,” said Sheila Nevins, HBO's documentary chief.
What most Americans saw first was a
handsome man with a calypso sound they hadn't heard before.
Back in 1956, when Elvis Presley ruled
the Billboard singles charts, Belafonte dominated in albums. His
first two reached No. 1; the second stayed there for an astounding 31
weeks. Over the next five years, he had six more albums that reached
No. 2 or 3.
Americans were fascinated. They might
have assumed he'd grown up on the islands of the Caribbean.
His parents did, but Belafonte was
mainly from Harlem. He spent five childhood years on Jamaica, but
returned to the U.S. He was in the Navy in World War II, then studied
acting under Erwin Piscator.
This was when actors did much more than
read lines. “We began to meet many of the more advanced writers and
directors and creators of theater in our day,” Belafonte recalled.
“Robert Penn Warren, whose book ('All the King's Men') we turned
into a theater piece that became a film …. We began to meet people
like Jean-Paul Sartre.”
That could have been his entire career,
on stage and on film. The music, however, soon took over.
Belafonte started by singing jazz and
pop, then studied calypso. When he reached Broadway, it was in a
music revue; he won the Tony for best featured actor.
Two years later, his music career
soared. Belafonte did some acting, but the world had changed.
“Art had always been a part of
activism,” he said, “where the function of artists as the
gatekeepers of truth was to reflect the world in which we live – to
critique it, to inspire people.”
As commerce grew, he said, less was
expected of actors. “They were just to entertain.”
He did less acting and more direct
activism. There were civil rights marches; there were African
efforts, including the historic “We Are the World” recording.
There were so many new projects that he didn't pause to celebrate the
old ones. “My DNA drives me to go where I have not been,” he
Belafonte stayed in Haiti, turning down
a chance to celebrate the rise of Nelson Mandela.
American foreign policy, Belafonte
said, “demonized Nelson Mandela, vilified him, helped get him into
prison …. He was now free, a new, powerful moral voice. And all of
a sudden, many who had turned their back on him were now beginning to
cash in on the celebration of his triumph.”
Not Belafonte. He had new battles to
fight; he always seems to.
– “Sing Your Song,” debuts at 10
p.m. Monday (Oct. 17) on HBO
– Reruns include 4 p.m. Thursday,
3:45 p.m. Sunday and 11:30 a.m. Oct. 26
– Also: “Harry Belafonte: My Song”
(Knopf) reached book stores this week