It was an unconventional pitch to NBC's Lindy DeKoven, executive vice president of movies and miniseries: "No one knows him. He's a meaningless name to people. He died in obscurity."
Yet that's how Frank Von Zerneck described Alan Freed over an informal lunch in February with DeKoven and his partner and co-executive producer Bob Sertner. Credited by pop historians as being the first to apply the term "rock 'n' roll" to a music style, the controversial '50s disc jockey later became the center of the payola scandal before fading to a sad, premature demise. But over the years Freed's story had faded away, even factoring in "American Hot Wax," a 1978 movie based on his life.
"I knew [Freed's] name but not the details of his life," DeKoven says. "And this is an extraordinary story."
Barely seven months after that lunch, "Mr. Rock 'n' Roll: The Alan Freed Story," with Judd Nelson playing the deejay, lands on Sunday night as a high-profile entry in NBC's movie lineup. Based on the 1991 book "Big Beat Heat: The Alan Freed Story" by John Jackson, for Von Zerneck, this is a chance to restore Freed's good name.
How did Von Zerneck manage it? The same way Freed sold himself as the godfather of '50s teen culture. Starting in Cleveland and dubbing himself the Moondog before moving to New York, this average-looking white guy was the John the Baptist of rock 'n' roll. At the time, Freed was arguably the best known of a series of deejays around the country breaking down walls of segregation and turning suburban kids on to the excitement of black music.
As Freed was a true believer in the power of the music he loved, Von Zerneck is a true believer in Freed.
"I listened to Alan Freed in New York as a kid," he says. "Right in the middle of the dial, here comes the most incredible music . . . the only place on the dial you could hear Frankie Lymon, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino. I was a middle-class kid. I had no idea this music existed. Radio and television were basically segregated. But then there I was at Alan Freed's stage shows at the Paramount, in the audience screaming."
It didn't hurt Von Zerneck's case that pop-music-related stories have become a hot TV commodity, particularly for NBC. Two of the networks top-performing projects last season were a Temptations bio-pic and the music-heavy miniseries "The '60s."
Though DeKoven insists NBC's interest wasn't a matter of rock-TV trendiness, the appeal of the music is not insignificant. Indeed, NBC brass is counting on the music to help sell the movie. During the film, actors re-create performances by the Dominoes, the Chantels, Jackie Wilson, Bill Haley, Little Richard, Frankie Lymon, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, all done to the original recordings by those artists, along with 10 other classic songs.
The music was certainly a powerful lure for Judd Nelson, a big fan of '50s rock and R&B who readily admits that he knew little about Freed before signing on.
"Most of the great hits of the era, our generation knows, but we don't know the stories behind them," says Nelson, 39. "Yes, we know Little Richard did 'Good Golly Miss Molly,' but we don't understand the historical situation where he, as a black musician, was not going to get played on the radio, so Pat Boone did the song. But Alan Freed was not going to play the white artist's version rather than the original, and that was part of the beginning of Freed making enemies in the business."
At his peak in the late '50s, Freed orchestrated such then-unthinkable acts as allowing black singer Lymon to dance with a white girl on his New York TV show, "Big Beat." That broadcast ultimately led to the show's cancellation, a blow that came as Freed's marriage was falling apart, his health was declining and his debts were mounting up.
Then, in 1959, in the wake of the quiz-show scandals, Freed became the most celebrated player in the FBI's investigation of radio payola, the then-common (and not yet illegal) practice in which record promotions men routinely delivered their latest platters with cash or other enticements to encourage airplay. Almost instantly his career was over, drummed out of the industry he'd boosted so much only to die broke and broken and forever associated with the scandal.
Lance Freed, son of the late legend, who was not involved in the production, is hopeful but taking a wait-and-see attitude about the movie. Says Freed, 52 and president of Rondor Music: "If in 1965 when my father was very ill I had said to him, 'At the end of this century people might make movies about you, and there would be interest in you not just because you're passionate about music but also because you became something of a civil rights figure . . . he would have been very happy."
* "Mr. Rock 'n' Roll: The Alan Freed Story" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).