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COVER STORY : A Kinder, Gentler Spike? : Spike Lee has always seemed to thrive on controversy. But with 'Crooklyn' he's moved into a quieter zone. It's about the daily life of a Brooklyn family in the 1970s. But not just any family--sounds like a family Spike knows pretty well

April 24, 1994|JONATHAN MANDELL | Jonathan Mandell is a staff writer for New York Newsday

"I've said more than my share about the Academy Awards," he says now, in his Fort Greene office, a converted firehouse decorated with huge posters of his films. "People know how I feel. So why should I keep wasting energy about it?" But then he launches into it once again, winding up with his review of the relative merits of 1989 winner "Driving Miss Daisy" and 1989 reject "Do the Right Thing."

Why does he think so many of his films cause such a ruckus?

"It's part of the agenda that I stir up controversy," he says. "At least I try to make thought-provoking films."

As for his own work, he looks forward to making "musicals, romantic films, all kinds of films." Including thrillers: His next film is "Clockers," based on the gritty Richard Price novel about cops and drug dealers in New Jersey. The executive producer is Spike's idol Martin Scorsese.

In each new film he expects the cast and crew to form a kind of family. "Some films are good family. Some films are bad families. But you definitely have family. Family does happen."

Family and music seem to be the central themes of Bill Lee's life, yet he has stopped talking about a particular member of his family. "I can't dwell on that," he says.

"He's not even our son anymore," says Lee's son (and Spike's half-brother) Arnold.

"I've never been a Spike Lee fan," says Susan Kaplan-Lee, Bill's wife, wearing a "Do the Right Thing" jacket.

The conflict began when Susan started living with Bill shortly after Jacquelyn died in 1976--when "my mother wasn't even cold in her grave," Spike has put it.

It grew during production of Spike's "Jungle Fever," about an interracial relationship: "That's directly talking about me and my wife," Bill says, with some heat.

Then early in 1992, Bill has said, he asked his son for a few thousand dollars to help pay his household bills; Spike turned him down, "and his attitude was very insulting." ("Why should I dignify comments my father said," Spike Lee replies, "or play it out in a public forum?")

The loan request came not long after Bill's drug bust; did drug use contribute to the split?

Bill Lee says no. "I'm glad I was arrested. It woke me up. . . . Dope was not part of my life until I was 40 years old," adds Lee, now 65, which means he started getting involved with heroin when his children were young, around the time his wife was dying of cancer.

But all this, he says, is insignificant. "People remember you by the work that you do." And Bill Lee, like his oldest son, has often used his life experiences as a source for his seven folk jazz operas. One of them, "Little Johnny," is about the purchase of the Lee family home in Fort Greene that is the setting of "Crooklyn." "It has old people and kids and a story," he says vaguely. It doesn't have conflict. "In all these operas, I never think about no conflict."

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