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By All Necessary Means : It took producer Marvin Worth 25 years to turn Malcolm X's story into a movie. Why didn't he give up and what made it happen (Besides Spike, of course)

November 15, 1992|TERRY PRISTIN

Marvin Worth is dressed in an eye-catching red-and-gold silk shirt, his leopard-spotted socks picking up one of several patterns in the colorful garment. Short and wiry, with gray hair spilling onto his shoulders, Worth seems an unlikely clotheshorse. But his closet is filled with flamboyant and very expensive outfits by designer Gianni Versace, a favorite with the music industry.

Versace, Worth admits, is one of his obsessions.

Enter his modest suite of offices on Warner Bros.' Hollywood lot and the twin obsessions of Worth's professional life come immediately into view. Hanging incongruously over a whimsical love seat imprinted with the image of a reclining Marilyn Monroe are poster-sized likenesses of two angry, defiant figures of the 1960s who died within 18 months of one another: the slain black leader Malcolm X and the comedian and satirist Lenny Bruce.

Worth has spent much of the past 25 years seeking to tell their life stories. Once Bruce's manager, Worth produced the Broadway play "Lenny" and later the movie of the same name, starring Dustin Hoffman. Now he is planning a revised version of the stage play, hoping to open it on Broadway next spring.

He has owned the rights to "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" since 1967 and has struggled since then to turn it into a feature film, working with a series of big-time directors and writers before finally winding up with Spike Lee nearly two years ago.

In the intervening years, Worth, a former jazz promoter and television comedy writer, produced a number of other films and television movies, including "Where's Poppa?," "The Rose," "Patty Hearst" and "See No Evil, Hear No Evil."

Now, with the opening of the long-awaited "Malcolm X" looming, he is busy with last-minute details: reviewing scenes selected for television promotion, planning the premiere (in New York on Monday night, two days before the nationwide opening) and putting in his two cents on marketing details.

"That trailer is really terrific," he says by phone to a Warner Bros. executive. "Have you got the one-sheets (film posters)? When are you getting them?" Another caller informs him about a problem with the Oprah Winfrey show. Denzel Washington, who plays Malcolm, would not be able to make it on the scheduled date, and Winfrey, although she could have Lee and anyone else she wanted, was insisting on Washington. Something would have to be worked out.

Meanwhile, there is time for a schmooze with Attallah Shabazz, the eldest of Malcolm's six daughters. "I'm getting excited," he confides to her. "I feel a little tightening in my stomach. I feel like I'm losing my cool here."

Worth, 67, lives in Benedict Canyon, drives a Mercedes, rises at 5:30 a.m. to exercise on his own equipment, and lunches at Citrus so often that he has a regular table. These Hollywood trappings aside, little else about him can be described as conventional. In an industry where everyone seems to go to the same hairstylist, Worth is a true original, from his unusual background to his flashy clothes to his office decor--a hodgepodge mixing toy soldiers and bowling pins with huge purple, green, black and white paintings by artist Joan Worth, his wife of 38 years.

Also atypical is the unassuming way he has let Lee grab most of the attention for "Malcolm X."

The Brooklyn-born Worth had a personal connection with the teen-age Malcolm, whom he knew as Red when both were habitues of the New York jazz club scene in the 1940s. But it was not until he read the posthumously published "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," as told to the late Alex Haley, that he made up his mind to turn the saga of Malcolm's transformation from criminal to Black Muslim leader into a movie.

As a promoter and manager working for a number of black artists--including Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon--Worth, who is white, had for a long time "lived in a black world." He was immediately taken by Malcolm's story. "(He) not only made a contribution. I was impressed by his mind, his evolution, his learning, his open-mindedness to change," Worth says. "He was a great example of how someone can take himself from the place he came from and get to where he got as a human being. He's one of our great stories."

Worth was untroubled by aspects of Malcolm that he could not reconcile with his own beliefs. As a Nation of Islam minister, for example, Malcolm taught that the original human being was black, and that "white devils" were created by a vindictive scientist named Mr. Yacub, who was angry with Allah. "What he preached I mostly disagree with . . . but all that stuff about whether Jesus was black or white--who cares?" Worth says. In Worth's view, Malcolm had to "throw himself in (to the sect's teachings) and buy it all, to save his own life."

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