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'Roots' Author Alex Haley Dies of Heart Attack at 70 : Culture: Miniseries riveted millions of viewers and produced a swelling of pride among blacks.

February 11, 1992|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alex Haley, whose epochal pursuit of his roots brought the black experience into the hearts of hundreds of millions, died early Monday in a Seattle hospital. He was 70.

The Pulitzer Prize winner's novel, "Roots: The Saga of an American Family," produced a swelling of pride among blacks, brought enlightening entertainment to countless others, and painted broad smiles on the faces of television executives when the final episode of a miniseries based on the book attracted more than 100 million viewers.

A spokeswoman for Swedish Hospital said the onetime Coast Guard cook was admitted to the emergency room late Sunday night and died shortly after midnight.

Haley, whose other works include "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," died of cardiac arrest, said Jane Anne Wilder of the hospital staff.

Haley was in Washington to speak at a banquet tonight at the Bangor Naval Submarine Base. He had been staying in an apartment in Seattle when he was stricken. Family members said Haley suffered from diabetes and a thyroid condition that could have contributed to the attack.

Haley came to writing relatively late in life after a military career. Although he had written for magazines, it was his meticulously researched quest for his mother's forebears that brought him the 1977 Pulitzer Prize and the gratitude of blacks around the world.

"It was the story of our people. It was the story of how we came from Africa," said Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, from his Baltimore home. "The facts about the extended family he grew up in and that most black families grow up in is so important.

"He was truly a gifted person who wrote a book that was monumental," Hooks added.

The 12-hour miniseries that evolved from Haley's yearslong quest drew the then-largest audience in American television history, and millions more saw it when it was sold to television stations around the world.

Originally broadcast over eight nights in 1977, it was rebroadcast in its entirety a year later, attracting additional millions, and again last month on cable TV.

Although the last segment of the series has been surpassed by the final episode of "MASH" and the "Who Shot J.R.?" thriller on "Dallas," each of the eight episodes remains among the top 50 shows ever broadcast.

Haley's combination of fact and fiction set forth his tribal origins in Gambia, West Africa, his ancestors' capture by slavers and their subsequent evolvement to a limited freedom in America. It sparked an unprecedented interest in genealogy.

Time magazine said the TV production will go down in history as a "special place" in black culture.

Critic Edmund Fuller said the book "Roots," which was reprinted in 37 languages, not only confirmed a sense of continuity for black Americans, but was a useful reminder to whites of how the histories of both peoples are inextricably linked.

ABC executives originally planned to air the episodes once a week, but decided that black material would not attract predominantly white audiences stretched across several weeks of prime time. They compressed the time frame to minimize their gamble.

Perhaps the series's ultimate testimonials came from restaurant owners, theater managers and taxi drivers who said their business was almost nonexistent while it aired.

Haley had spent 12 years writing and researching "Roots," traveling half a million miles, talking with a tribal griot, or oral historian, in Gambia and poring over papers in more than 50 libraries on three continents.

As part of his research, he booked passage on a freighter from West Africa to the United States, sleeping each night in the belly of the ship on rough boards.

He said he wanted to imagine what it was like for his ancestors "to lie there in chains, in filth, hearing the cries of 139 other men screaming, babbling, praying and dying around you."

Asked if he had ever anticipated the book or the miniseries' success, the bespectacled, stocky author replied: "No, if I had, I'd have typed a whole lot faster."

Haley's success never seemed to interfere with his commonality and interest in all peoples.

John Rice Irwin, founder-director of the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn., and a friend of Haley's since 1982, recalled a time when the author disappeared during a lunch in New York with the editor of a national magazine and a number of celebrities.

"Someone looked back in the kitchen and he was signing autographs for all the cooks," he said. "He spent more time doing things and talking with common people . . . the people at the gas pumps. He wasn't impressed with celebrities."

Many years ago he visited The Times, a return to his roots as a journalist, he said during an informal tour. Several writers and editors had brought copies of "Roots" for autographs. And although he was pressed for time, Haley asked each for the names of their children and a little about them. He then inscribed the books to those children, writing a message to each.

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