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In the Shoes of a Legend Gregory Hines didn't think it would be so hard--or take so long--to tell the 'Bojangles' story.

February 04, 2001|MURRAY WHYTE | Murray Whyte is deputy arts editor of the Toronto-based National Post

TORONTO — Gregory Hines is delicately stabbing at his salad on a restaurant patio in Toronto. The dainty lunch isn't just for show; Hines, usually a lithe, sculpted figure--dancers can't get by on much less--is in the process of working Bill Robinson out of his body.

Hines, 54, has just wrapped "Bojangles," the Showtime-produced biopic about Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, one of the most-loved entertainers of the 1930s. While contemporary dancers may slavishly devote themselves to various forms of body-honing, preparing to play one of the greatest tap dancers required a slightly different approach.

"I stopped training in the gym, and I haven't lifted a weight in two months," says Hines, almost surprised at himself. "Bill Robinson didn't have chiseled shoulders. He had a little pot belly. So I changed my whole eating pattern. And I still have some of it. I'm very proud of it. I named it, in fact," he says, drawing upright for a moment, thrusting his modest paunch forward and patting it with both hands. "Philippe."

Not Bill?

"Oh, no," Hines says, shaking his head, his face spreading into a broad smile. "This is mine."

For Hines, a devout fan of bodybuilding and no slouch in the gym himself, regaining his physical form is only the first step in an exorcism that will likely take a long time. Hines and his business partner, Francine Saperstein, have been patiently shepherding the project to fruition for 12 years. The priority, Saperstein says, was to get the story right--a difficult chore when your subject is a fondly remembered icon of the 20th century, and then too, early scripts on the project were one-sided, Saperstein says.

"It was all 'what a wonderful dancer' and how he contributed to the black community, but they didn't focus on the dark side," Saperstein says, a few days earlier, on set for a re-creation of Robinson's dance sequences in the 1935 film "The Little Colonel." A few feet away, Hines is madly tapping away in perfect unison with a young girl whose resemblance to the young Shirley Temple is almost eerie. "It was all about how people adored him," she adds.

There's little question they did--part of the reason, Saperstein speculates, that she and Hines have had such a long, hard sell. At the height of his career, Robinson was one of the premier entertainers in America, starring opposite young Miss Temple in four films. He was also one of the highest-paid entertainers of his day--no easy task for a black man then.

Today, while Robinson is hailed as the first black entertainer to break the color barrier, at the time he was simply a cherished icon for blacks and whites alike. When he died in 1949 at 71, while performing onstage at a charity benefit, 350,000 people turned out for his funeral in New York. He lay in state for three days before burial--a privilege usually only afforded high-ranking dignitaries.

"It was like the king had died," Saperstein says.

But Robinson was not simply a happy face, tapping blithely on screen. The darkness of which Saperstein speaks was there in rich, deep volume. A compulsive gambler and drinker who was known to carry a gun, Bojangles the icon was always kept separate from Bill Robinson the man, even by the man himself. Excavating the reality from the myth is bound to tarnish it, Hines allows, but his priority is hardly character assassination.

"People loved Bill Robinson," he says. "And we certainly didn't want to defame him or denigrate his memory in any way. But we did want to tell the story of who he was, because I feel a full and rich picture of somebody humanizes them. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I know that it's difficult for some people, who don't want to hear anything bad said about somebody that they love. I know that can be sensitive, but I always felt it was a real fine line that we had to tread."

*

Humanizing Bill Robinson was no easy challenge. He was a celebrity when celebrity was not endlessly scrutinized, as it is now, dissected and examined down to the last excruciating detail. A different era allowed a different kind of star to emerge, and Robinson was nothing if not entirely lionized. With his glowing smile and extraordinary gift for dance, he seemed to all the world a success in the true sense of the word--an established careerist at peace with himself.

The reality was entirely different. Robinson, Saperstein says, was frustrated with Hollywood. While he was revered for his gifts and the barriers they eroded--Robinson was the first to break Hollywood's "two color" rule, which barred blacks from performing solo and mandated that they be paired with white performers--in fact, he was continually running into roadblocks in his career.

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