PASADENA, CALIF. - Bojangles. It's a distinctive name. But how many people know the story of the man who bore the name? Probably not many.
That's why Gregory Hines chose to take on the role of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the eponymous Showtime film that premieres tonight at 8.
"People don't know hardly anything about him," Hines said at a press conference last month. "Most people remember him for the movies he did with Shirley Temple."
But Hines was eager to take on the part so he could communicate more about Robinson's story.
"People will learn what a great pioneer he was for African Americans in show business and how he was one of the first to refuse to wear a black face on stage and how he broke the 'two-color' rule which kept black people on stage as duos," Hines said. "They couldn't go onstage in a solo performance."
| || || TV PREVIEW |
When: 8 tonight on Showtime.
Starring: Gregory Hines, Kimberly Elise, Savion Glover
Born in 1878, Robinson left school in Virginia and traveled to Washington, D.C., where he watched Minstrel shows. He then created his own dance style, complete with fancy footwork that appeared effortless.
Robinson landed an agent, Marty Forkins (Peter Riegert), and later a wife. Fannie Clay (Kimberly Elise) was in college studying to be a pharmacist when she met the 38-year-old Robinson. She prodded him to examine his on-stage routine and question whether black-face contributed to stereotypes. Eventually he refused to wear black face.
"It was from her that he got the impetus to do it," Hines said. "He did have a sophisticated image on stage once he broke free of black face. But when he went to Hollywood, that changed. In those days it was very difficult for African Americans to be anything other than butlers or maids or menial workers. That was difficult for him to deal with."
At 55, Hines had to forsake his preferred form of dance, improvisational tap, to learn Robinson's routines. He and the film's choreographer watched as much footage of Robinson as they could find, including Robinson's stair dance, made famous in "The Little Colonel" with Shirley Temple.
"It was very difficult for me," Hines said. "Going in, it didn't look difficult, but once I started studying the things he was doing, I discovered he was left-footed and that he would start all of his steps on the left side. I'm right-footed.
"It didn't look complex watching him do it, but once I went up and down the stairs a couple of times, it was really hard," he said. "Ever since, I take the escalator whenever I can."
But Robinson was no saint. He had a gambling addiction and cheated on his wife, traits that also will be revealed in "Bojangles."
"He had a real dark side to him and he was a very difficult man," Hines said. "It is our hope that, through understanding how he got the way he did, that maybe you won't learn to love him, but you will appreciate him and what he went through and how difficult it was."
Showtime's "Bojangles" telecast coincides with the start of Black History Month, and Hines said he sees a connection between Robinson's career and his own.
"If there is any truth to the notion that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, then I am definitely standing directly on the shoulders of Bill Robinson," Hines said. "I would not be here today if not for what he went through."
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