There will be better and more substantive testimonials and remembrances of this great, great man published this week. I met him briefly, on limited terms, but on news of his death, I found myself reliving the entire encounter. The worst of it left me dazed, shaking my head at myself, incredulous that it happened as it did. And while most of the joke is on me, there is enough in this tale to deliver some insight into how sharp, savage and charming a man Harry Belafonte was.
In short, it’s always a shame to not share a good anecdote, so here we go:
A few years back, HBO execs brought me in to look at a project that had been languishing at the network for too long: A proposed long-form miniseries on Taylor Branch’s magisterial trilogy of America in the King Years, perhaps the most definitive account of the critical years in the civil rights movement. Those who have read those three tomes will immediately understand that there is enough power and content in any one of them for three television seasons, and so, some hard decisions had to be made. Moreover, we were attempting to produce the series for broadcast in April 2018 and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King.
With so much already chronicled about the movement’s great victories — Montgomery, Selma, the Voting Rights Act, and looking at how much remains to us today to deliver real racial equity, I argued that we should concentrate on the final volume of Branch’s work, “At Canaan’s Edge.” It is the post-Selma experience — with Dr. King and his allies losing traction with American leaders as he moves beyond the fight for civil rights in the South to challenge both the Vietnam War and economic disparity and hypersegregation in the North — that demands our current address. By focusing on the work undertaken in Dr. King’s last two years — and undone, in many respects, in our present America — we might say something new.
I assembled the best writing staff I could possibly gather. There were five of us — Taylor, myself, my frequent collaborator Eric Overmyer and Ta-Nehisi Coates and James McBride. Taylor, of course, knew his own material backwards and forwards, and Coates and McBride brought two of the most distinct voices in American letters. James was coming off a National Book Award, in fact, while Ta-Nehisi was being heralded at all points of the literary compass. Eric and I were there because we could make television and not screw up a perfect writing room.
We met in New York, running through the volumes, and eventually we elected to do something ambitious: Running three separate timelines that would give echo to the earlier, fulfilled promises of the fight for civil rights, but also, simultaneously show the pivotal moments that cracked alliances in the movement and, indeed, Dr. King’s vulnerability and growing isolation as he fought his later battles. It was complex and ornate and maybe more than we might chew, but damn, the first drafts of the first episode seemed to work.
Taylor, in particular, was encouraged enough that one day he invited a special guest to visit and inspire us. I can remember the precise moment, in fact: We were sitting in an HBO conference room in midtown, and James was arguing forcefully that while the drama of the narrative would of course take care of itself scene by scene, the one element he felt was still lacking — the missing ingredient for the miniseries — was of a more human scale. James wanted to know how these civil rights leaders — these great, marble men of history — how did they talk among themselves when they were off-camera and alone? What was their back-room demeanor? What did they say when they were at their most private and human? At what could they laugh in times of great brutality and triumph? Where, James asked, is the great commonality of humor? Can we recover and display some of that as well? That, he argued, would make the piece truly authentic. It would sing.
It was a convincing argument. And he finished making it at the very moment that Harry Belafonte walked into the room, invited surreptiously by Taylor. Personally, i was astonished. Mr. Belafonte as a cultural icon was magnificent enough, but as I had just finished re-reading all of Taylor’s three volumes on the movement, I was soaking in the entire narrative of this man’s unrelenting heroism and self-sacrifice on behalf of civil rights, if not humanity as a whole. There before us, in tweedy perfection, with winter cap and redwood cane, was the actual Harry Belafonte, himself a critical character in our narrative and one of the few still alive to tell our tale. Greetings were made and his blessing bestowed on us as a group. I swear, I don’t think I have ever been more proud at that instance to be working on a television project. The next instance, on the other hand, was perhaps the worst of my life.
As he sat and we began to discuss the work in detail — and as Mr. Belafonte put himself and all of his memories at our service — I looked over at James McBride, who seemed to give me a tight, affirming nod. I made the pitch as he just had, explaining that the drama and import of these great men and moments was certain and fixed, and we were sure to capture all of that in the work. But what of the off-stage moments, the quiet camaraderie, the banter, the humor?
Mr. Belafonte’s piercing brown eyes didn’t narrow exactly. They merely lasered their way into my forehead. He cocked his head slightly and fingered the handle of his cane.
“Mister Simon,” he said, after a painfully long moment, “I do not recall when I was absorbed in the pages of Anne Frank’s diary that I felt any particular loss because I could not enjoy the jokes being told in that attic. Nor, for that matter, do I recollect when reading “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” feeling bereft of humanity because the humorous banter of the tribal councils was lacking…”
It went on from there in a string of clean rhetoric and allegory that thankfully did not culminate in some witticism about the fart jokes of the apostles that we were denied at the Last Supper because some Biblical writer chose weighter material. Even so, it was bad enough.
At some point, James McBride, feeling bad for me, tried to leap in and claim some responsibility for one crass white boy’s soulless appeal. “What David is trying to say…”
Harry Belafonte wheeled on him. “Oh I know what he’s trying to say. But now I’m wondering why he would say it. And why you would be fine with that.”
And suddenly, McBride was on the defense, sputtering sentence fragments. I looked over at Ta-Nehisi, Eric and Taylor. They were content to observe. I think that Taylor, who was close with Mr. Belafonte and had seen this sort of thing on occasion, had a slight smile on his face.
Twenty minutes later, when the great man had left us and James McBride and I were exchanging bloody bits and pieces of ourselves and trying like hell to laugh at our farcical disaster, the magnitude of what had just happened fully landed on me: “One of the finest men of our life and times just transformed me into a complete and utter shitbag hack.”
“Pretty much,” Eric assured me.
Months later, when the first script was in draft form and showing real progress, Taylor was kind enough to curve the arc back a bit, inviting me to dine with Mr. Belafonte. We met at the great man’s apartment, had a drink, admired his artwork, then adjourned his favorite Italian restaurant around the block. Mr. Belafonte was polite and cheerful, so much so that I began to relax. As the dessert cart came rolling toward our table, I had enough confidence to ask dryly whether my picking up the check would allow my earlier pratfall to be entirely forgotten.
“Oh, is that the deal?” Mr. Belafonte replied, raising an eyebrow.
I nodded hopefully. He turned in his chair to address the entire dining room:
Ladies and gentlemen,” he declared to every other table, “This fellow here would like to buy everyone their dessert this evening.”
In truth, he didn’t so burden my credit card that night. “Just make a good series,” he said warmly at the end of the meal, “and that will be everything and more.”
Several months later, with the pilot script on the desks of execs at HBO and an afternoon call scheduled with HBO production on our proposed series budget, my office phone rang and an HBO exec informed me that to their great regret, the project could not go forward. “West World” had pulled a huge ratings number for the first two weeks of its premiere season; and the network was now obliged to renew that project for an expensive second season. They would need to employ whatever production money was reserved for us.
I left it to Taylor to break the news to his friend. But I will remain, forever it seems, indebted to that man.