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Hero Role in Riots Pushes Actor Onto a Larger Stage : Human relations: 'I can't be a bystander anymore,' says Gregory Alan-Williams. He writes of life-jolting changes.

March 23, 1994|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Los Angeles during the riots two years ago, he saved a Japanese American man from being beaten to death. In New York last month, on tour to promote his book about those moments, he saved a hotel bellman--mostly from the bellman's own worst impulses.

"I can't be a bystander anymore," said Gregory Alan-Williams, explaining why he invited the black bellman, spouting anti-Semitic theories on the cause of the Holocaust, into his hotel room for a chat. "He was a very smart man who was a bellman--that was part of his frustration. He was looking for a scapegoat."

Alan-Williams is a professional actor who walked into the real world during the riots and finds he cannot go back. Everything in his life has changed since he waded into the violence of Florence and Normandie--a black man acting "under cover of darkness," he quips--to rescue the badly beaten Takao Hirata from an angry mob. He dragged the dazed and profusely bleeding man on an almost Biblical trek from front lawn to front lawn, seeking refuge and being turned away by residents gripped with fear or anger. After trusting a concerned motorist to take Hirata to a hospital, Alan-Williams emerged from the intersection a hero whose life was jolted out of its routine.

His two-year marriage dissolved. He even parted ways--amicably--with his talent agency. But his biggest metamorphosis was into book author. He secretly toiled at his word processor during the filming of "In the Line of Fire," in which he played one of Clint Eastwood's fellow Secret Service agents.

"A Gathering of Heroes--Reflections on Rage and Responsibility" (Academy Chicago Publishers) exhaustively covers Alan-Williams' day at Florence and Normandie (there's even a map of his movements in the intersection), but more important, it chronicles the people--the "heroes" of the title--and events of his own past that compelled him to be more than a bystander at the intersection.

In the slender book, Alan-Williams, who still keeps in occasional phone contact with Hirata, recalls being victim and victimizer. He talks about being a young black boy in a predominantly white Des Moines, Iowa, junior high school, the kid who got whacked in the face after band practice while the other kids stood around and laughed. He also recalls himself as a young Marine recruit who joined others in his platoon in a brutal nighttime assault on a fellow Marine they considered inept and disgraceful.

That image haunted him as he drove toward the riot flash point, drawn by radio accounts of violence:

Those who beat Rodney King, those who battered the people at Florence and Normandie, and those like me who participated in the beating of Private Ladieu--we had all abandoned principle and decency in the self-serving name of order and justice.

Even his sense of his vocation has changed since that day. In the wake of the book, now trickling into stores, he has found a new calling as a public speaker. Whether he is talking at a Catholic high school in Chicago or a community forum in Pasadena, where two dozen people showed up at small bookstore for an informal Saturday night chat with the author, he is blissfully in his element.

"I talk about myself as a victim of intolerance and violence, as perpetrator, as bystander, and as rescuer," says Alan-Williams, whose sonorous voice has won him lucrative voice-over work and made it easy to write a one-man theatrical show for himself, "The Life and Times of Deacon A. L. Wiley." He plays a turn-of-the-century former slave sharing his life experiences and talking about taking control of his own destiny.

He makes his living playing a beach cop on "Baywatch," the syndicated television show. It offers a pleasant working environment--the beach--but it's not about him; it's about blond girls and David Hasselhoff. Few of Alan-Williams' acting roles so far have fulfilled him. "You do it, you see it, and there's nothing left," he says. "It leaves you very empty. That's why all this other (book tour) work is very welcome. . . . You can address issues."

He sits in the den of his rented Hollywood hillside apartment, the drone of the freeway coming through the open patio doors. At 37, he is considering moving back to his home state of Iowa for the summer and commuting for acting jobs or speaking engagements. ("I never liked L.A.," he says. "It's a pit.")

The accolades have not erased nagging problems: Financial difficulties caused him to fall behind in support payments to three children by two different women. He struggles to pay the money back and uses the experience of unwed fatherhood in his speeches as a cautionary tale. ("I talk to young black men about this all the time.") His divorce is bitter. His estranged wife, B. Sylestine Williams, a hairdresser, doubts his selflessness.

"He saved Tak Hirata's life. I'm OK with that," she says, but "he went there for his own self-aggrandizement."

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