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He forged the way for others

Young filmmakers and stars will pay tribute to Julius Harris, 80, who helped open the door for black actors.

October 22, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

African American actor Julius Harris remembers the old days, when he had to worry about finding a decent place to live in Los Angeles while making a movie or doing a TV show, or when he would be one of the few or even the only African American working on a studio lot.

"I did all my own stunts because they couldn't find a black stuntman my size," says Harris, 80. "There were only certain types of pictures we could do because of the color problems in the South. Hollywood wasn't saying 'come on out.' "

The tide turned for African American actors, directors and writers in the 1960s and '70s, Harris says, thanks to inroads made by Sidney Poitier and the enormous success of black exploitation films -- a term Harris doesn't like -- such as "Superfly," "Shaft" and "Black Caesar."

"It was our renaissance period and it opened up the whole door," he says. And tonight, Hollywood's young filmmakers and stars are paying tribute to Harris. The Next Generation Council of the famed Motion Picture & Television Fund in Woodland Hills holds its fifth annual Legacy Film Series at the Directors Guild of America Theatre in West Hollywood.

The event will feature a clip reel of Harris' film work introduced on tape by Halle Berry, followed by a screening of the 1973 James Bond film "Live and Let Die," which features Harris as the villainous Tee Hee.

After the screening, Harris will also participate in a panel discussion moderated by New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell and featuring director George Tillman Jr. and screenwriter-director Tom Mankiewicz.

Harris, now retired, lives in the long-term health facility at the picturesque Motion Picture & Television Fund campus off the Hollywood Freeway. Harris, who is divorced and the father of two adult children, has been a resident of the facility for nearly three years and gets around the extensive grounds in his motorized wheelchair, which he uses due to back problems.

The Philadelphia native says he is "thrilled and very honored" by the tribute at the DGA. "It just turns me on," he says, smiling broadly.

The Legacy Film Series, says Ken Scherer, chief executive of the fund's foundation, is a creation of the Next Generation Council, which consists of 400 people in the movie industry.

"Kevin Spacey got involved in the fund a number of years ago. He thought he was on the set every day with young people who had no sense of history of their own business, so he started this.

"Unlike AFI or UCLA [film tributes], this is not so much about the picture as it is about him. Frankly, for some of us we just felt that Julius' story was part of our history that we don't talk much about. We decided to do the James Bond picture because it's fun and it has a large black cast."

Though Harris' mother was a Cotton Club dancer and his father was a horn player, he never thought he would become an actor. "I was a male nurse," he says. "I was in the Second World War. I was a corpsman and when I came out in 1950 there were no jobs." So he became an orderly, eventually entered the nursing profession and moved to New York City.

"I lived in the Village and I hung out at a bar called the Riviera. Everybody used to hang out there, guys like Yaphet Kotto, James Earl Jones, Al Freeman and Lou Gossett. I got to know them as friends."

Harris always teased them for being out of work. "I would say to them, 'You bums. You are always broke. What kind of actors are you? You never have any money. I am always buying you beers and things. I can do your job with my arms tied behind my back.' "

Then he had to back up his claim. He was cast in the small role of a drunken one-armed man in the 1964 drama "Nothing But a Man," with Ivan Dixon. He nearly lost the part because he decided he needed to get drunk in order to play one. "Not knowing the business, feeling I had to be in character, I got me a pint of bourbon, some of the worst rot- gut stuff I could get."

When he made it to the set, the producer and director just looked at him and said, "We can't do anything with you today, Julius, but if you are the man we think you are, you'll come back tomorrow.' I was so embarrassed. So I went back home, sobered up and came back the next day and did the master [shot] in one [take] and close-ups in two [takes] and went home."

He also worked on stage in New York as a member of the famed Negro Ensemble Company. "I was with them for about three years and then I started touring," he says. "Shaft's Big Score," "King Kong" (the 1976 remake) and "Let's Do It Again" are among his 51 film credits. He's also guest-starred on TV shows ranging from "ER" to "The Bob Newhart Show."

He's perhaps best known for his gangster role in 1972's "Superfly." "Even today if I am walking in a black neighborhood, people call me by my 'Superfly' name -- Scatter."

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