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A memorable summer school

Pioneering filmmaker Oscar Micheaux needed a surrogate in 1947, and college student LeRoy Collins filled the bill.

June 15, 2003|Patrick McGilligan | Special to The Times

Chicago — Chicago

Retired Chicago high school principal LeRoy Collins was a movie star once -- and only once.

The movie was "The Betrayal," the very last production by director Oscar Micheaux, shot in the Chicago vicinity in 1947. That makes Collins one of the last witnesses to an era and a man whose mystique has never been greater.

Moreover, Collins played Micheaux -- that is, the lead character, as drawn from Micheaux's 1943 novel, "The Wind From Nowhere," and whose name in the film is Martin Eden, in honor of the novel "Martin Eden" by Micheaux's literary hero, Jack London.

"You are Martin Eden," Micheaux flatly told Collins upon hiring him, "and Martin Eden was me."

The son of emancipated slaves, Micheaux was raised in Illinois, but as a young man homesteaded on the plains of South Dakota, the only black person for miles around, writing novels. The novels provided him with an income that he used to finance his films when he became a director in 1919. "The Wind From Nowhere," his last book, was "the autobiography of his [early] life," Collins recalled recently. "We understood: 'This is my life story. These are people I associated with, and these are the life experiences I had,' and the dramatization of the story is the only thing that changed."

Micheaux ultimately published seven novels, and between 1919 and 1948 made more than 40 films with "all-Negro" casts largely for segregated audiences. He produced, directed, wrote the scripts and edited his films. Although entertainment-oriented, Micheaux's films insistently explored such issues as poverty, courtroom injustice, miscegenation and racial prejudice.

His 1925 silent film "Body and Soul" launched the screen career of Paul Robeson. "Symbol of the Unconquered" (1920) excoriated the Ku Klux Klan, and the crosscutting and graphic lynching scenes of the 1919 feature "Within Our Gates" have been interpreted as an explicit response to D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation."

Micheaux is increasingly celebrated as a pioneering individualist who attacked racism in his films while working outside the official, still-segregated industry. The Directors Guild of America honored him posthumously in 1986. The Producers Guild bestows an annual Oscar Micheaux Award on "an individual or individuals whose achievements in film and television have been accomplished despite difficult odds," and the man who could never have directed for a major studio in his lifetime has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Earlier this year, a Hollywood Entertainment Museum exhibition was devoted to his life and career.


Prospective stagehand

For Collins, playing Micheaux started as little more than an intriguing summer job. After high school and service in World War II, he was attending Roosevelt College when he learned from fraternity brothers that a movie was being shot in Chicago.

Collins went over to a studio on 29th Street, hoping to apply as a stagehand. An assistant director pulled him out of line. He was taken to meet an older, elegantly dressed man with salt-and-pepper hair who was shadowed by his wife, actress Alice B. Russell. Collins, though a motion picture fan, had never heard of Micheaux or read his novels.

Micheaux made introductory small talk and then encouraged him to read a little from the script. No advice, just: "Read it in your own style." Collins read a few pages, and then Micheaux looked at Russell. "I think this is the one," he said. Only later did Collins learn that his chance involvement had ended a long search, and that Micheaux had auditioned 40 or 50 well-known radio and theater performers for the role.

"I got the part because I looked like Oscar Micheaux wanted me to look," Collins recalled recently. Micheaux liked his look so much that alone among the large cast, which included character actors flown out from Hollywood and seasoned players such as Harris Gaines from radio and Yvonne Machen from Broadway's "Anna Lucasta," Collins was told to avoid makeup. "I guess he wanted me to look more rugged, like he was as a young person."

A former high school football player, Collins had acted minimally in a community theater group, and now he had to memorize "a big thick script" while acting in "75% of the scenes" of a major production. Collins signed a contract, though, and didn't fret much. "It all came natural to me," he said, "and that's why he liked me, I guess."

Micheaux financed his own pictures, and his cost-cutting measures are the stuff of legend. Collins recalls a man who indeed "would usually try to do things in the quickest way and the cheapest way," but who also looked for strategic ways to minimize risks -- trying, for example, to limit costly studio and location time by fine-tuning during prolonged rehearsals.

Micheaux launched "The Betrayal" with several weeks of read-throughs in rented space at a Chicago community center. "He wanted to get it down to a fine point, before you got into costume, because he was spending a great deal of his own fortune to do this movie.

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