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Mission Accomplished : A TUSKEGEE AIRMAN RECALLS THE REJECTIONS ALONG THE WAY TO THE REALITY: AN HBO FILM ABOUT AN IGNORED CHAPTER OF HISTORY

August 20, 1995|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fifty years after the conclusion of World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen are getting their just due.

A new HBO film, premiering Saturday, illuminates this little-known chapter in the history of the global conflict. "The Tuskegee Airmen," starring Laurence Fishburne, chronicles the remarkable tale of the U.S. Army Air Corps' "Fighting 69th," the first squadron of African American combat fighter pilots who battled not only the Axis powers in Europe and Africa but also the ugly specter of prejudice at home.

The story of how "Tuskegee Airmen" finally made it to the screen is itself an epic tale of heroism, perseverance, love and passion.

The "Tuskegee" saga begins with the film's co-executive producer Robert W. Williams, now 72 and a veteran of the Tuskegee Airmen. Williams flew 50 missions in the U.S. Army Air Corps 332nd Fighter Group, receiving the rank of captain. He was honored with a Distinguished Flying Cross and the Presidential Union Citation.

For the last 43 years, Williams has struggled to bring the story of the Tuskegee squadron to life. He was working for Ebony magazine in Chicago as an advertising space salesman when in 1952, "I learned while I was there that 20th Century Fox wanted to do this picture." During a visit to Los Angeles, the UCLA graduate decided to stop by the studio where he was introduced to Fox's story editor.

"He said, 'I would love to do the story but we don't have one,' " says Williams. "I said, 'I'm not a writer as such, but I flew with the group and I have a background in theater. Perhaps if you could put me in touch with someone who is a writer, maybe he and I could collaborate and we could come up with a story.' "

The story editor introduced Williams to writer Sy Bartlett, of "Twelve O'Clock" high fame, who explained the harsh realities of Hollywood to Williams. "He said, 'Bob, I can't help you because I was in the Air Corps and many of those who didn't want you in the program were friends of mine. But I will give you some tips on writing so you could write it yourself.' So that's exactly the arrangement we made."

By the time Williams, who acted in such films as "Pork Chop Hill" and "A Gathering of Eagles," finished his script, Hollywood was no longer interested in World War II films.

"But I never gave up on the concept," he says. "It was a very important piece of our history and it had to be made somewhere . So from that period on I have been trying to get it made. I guess I have been rejected by every studio and every TV network in the country."

And also by African American filmmakers. "I don't mean to put them down, but I know there are people who I approached who, with the raising of their hand, could have had this picture made or made it themselves."

Williams' luck changed 11 years ago when he met executive producer Frank Price, former president of Universal TV and chief executive officer of MCA Motion Picture Group and former chairman and CEO of Columbia Pictures.

"This man had a fertile mind and saw all the value, excitement and pathos of this picture," Williams says. "I applaud him because this picture wouldn't have been made if it were not for Frank Price. [African Americans] have had people like Martin Luther King Jr., but every bit of progress that we as a people have made, we have had some help from people from the white community. Somebody who can make things happen like John Kennedy who were committed to fairness and civil rights. Frank Price played that role. He was the straw who stirred the drink and made it happen. I will be forever grateful to him."

Price, currently chairman and CEO of Price Entertainment, realized Williams' story was a powerful one. Though Price had heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, "I really didn't know the story. What was so terrific about the story was that it was Bob's personal story that had many, many scenes in it that wouldn't appear in the history of the Tuskegee Airmen."

Williams began flying in 1940, when, he says, "there were 102 licensed black pilots in the entire United States. Three of them were in my family--my father, my brother and myself. My father then bought a Piper Cub and we flew all over southern Iowa. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, a white friend of mine and I went to volunteer at the Air Force and the recruiting sergeant handed my white buddy an application and said, 'There's no use wasting time on that boy, because the Air Corps is taking no niggers.' That was quite a slap in the face."

Initially, Price attempted to get "Tuskegee" made as a theatrical film, but was unable to get a script that satisfied him. "I certainly had a picture in my mind of the story Bob had told. That's the story I wanted to tell. We didn't quite get there [despite] a number of attempts. The good thing about coming to HBO was, at that point, we became very focused. We are now going to do this picture, period. It helps to have a deadline."

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