Thursday, January 20, 2022

‘Five Heartbeats’ Star Hawthorne James Talks Big Red, Shakespeare and Suge Knight’s Love of Movie

hawthorne james *Believe it or not, William Shakespeare was in “The Five Heartbeats.”

Ok. The famed playwright may not have been physically present in Robert Townsend’s 1991 sophomore feature, but his influence was felt in the form of Big Red Davis, the corrupt record label owner played by Hawthorne James.

According to the actor, Shakespeare played a big role in the funeral of the Heartbeats manager Jimmy Potter (played by Chuck Patterson), who Big Red had killed amid threats of exposing his illegal activities to authorities.

Surprisingly enough, there was no trace of Big Red initially in the scene. But James, a theater veteran who studied at the London Shakespeare Academy, took it upon himself to campaign for the character’s inclusion, based on similarities he found in Shakespeare’s play “Richard III.”

“I wasn’t originally in the funeral scene the way it was written,” James confessed to EURweb. “One day during rehearsal I went up to Robert and said, ‘I need to be in the funeral scene.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you do.’

“One of the plays I fell in love with when I was going to school in London was ‘Richard III.’ In ‘Richard III,’ he kills the king and woos Lady Ann, who was the king’s wife, over the casket and he actually marries her. I fell in love with that play because I’ve been doing Shakespeare since I was in high school. So to go to London to actually study Shakespeare was an amazing thing to me. When I came back and started work on ‘The Five Heartbeats,’ I said, ‘I need to been in the funeral scene.’”

five heartbeats Hawthorne James big-red2Recalling Jimmy’s funeral and the manager’s wife Eleanor (played by Diahann Carroll),James shed light on why Big Red was at the homegoing as well as his character being anything but an “old country boy.”

“The backstory for me was I’m so mad at Jimmy because he stole Eleanor from me. She was originally mine. This is not in the film, but this is as an actor, I’m doing my homework,” said James. “She was originally mine, which is why I’m so angry at Jimmy. If you look at the scene where you first see Jimmy and Eleanor together, I go meet the boys and I tell them, ‘I’m just an old country boy.’ Well what happens is Jimmy and Eleanor come over immediately. I start speaking French to her.”

“When he [Big Red] says, ‘I’m just an old country boy,’ that should make you very speculative,” James continued. “When he says ‘I’m an old country boy and all of a sudden he starts speaking French, that totally negates him being a country boy. And also what it does on a different level was it immediately establishes a relationship between Big Red and Eleanor. And on a third level, it cuts Jimmy out of this conversation because Jimmy doesn’t speak French. So it works on several different levels.”

Big Red’s French-speaking skills may have added another level to his relationship with Eleanor, but it almost didn’t make it into “The Five Heartbeats,” in light of resistance from Townsend. Fortunately, James was able to convince the filmmaker that Big Red’s second language would be more of an asset than a liability.

“When I first came to Robert and said, I want to speak French to her, he fought me tooth and nail. He said ‘No, it’s not gonna work,” James shared. “I said, ‘Come on Robert. Let me do this.’ He eventually said, ‘Ok. Do it’ and a couple of months after the film came out, he called me and said, ‘You know you were right about that.’ We had some disagreements about other stuff, but he was right on a lot of stuff. On this particular instance, it works on that level.”

In addition to Big Red’s appearance at Jimmy’s funeral, the scene is noted for the Big Red’s speech as well as the hard slap he received from Eleanor on his way out of the church after speaking. James admits Big Red’s speech was “a lot longer than what wound up in the film.” Although the speech made it into “The Five Heartbeats,” moviegoers may not have heard it at all, had James kept it to himself instead of giving it to Townsend.

“I had written out this speech which you see in the funeral scene, that I say to Eleanor. I wrote that whole thing out myself….I didn’t know Robert that well, so I said, ‘What am I going to do?’ I’m holding this piece of paper with this speech in my hand and it’s like, ‘Should I tell him or not’ and I finally said, ‘Forget it.’ I handed it back to him. I said, ‘Robert. This is what I think I ought to say.’ And he read it and he just edited it down. It was a lot longer than what wound up in the film, but he edited it down and said, ‘Ok. Let’s do that.’ That’s how that funeral scene got to be because that’s a direct link to Shakespeare. I’m linking it to Shakespeare because he woos Lady Ann over the casket and I’m thinking, ‘She’s mine. This is a perfect time for me to get her [Eleanor] back. At the funeral.’”

hawthorne james 4Looking at “The Five Heartbeats” now, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than James playing Big Red. While Warner Bros. originally had the film and tried to pull in bigger names, Townsend stuck to his guns with keeping the people he had in mind to bring his vision to life. The actor-director’s refusal to yield was good for James, who applauded Townsend for doing what he felt he needed to do with no regrets.

“He pulled his movie out of Warner Bros with nowhere to go. I give kudos to Robert to this day for that because he could’ve done what the studio said they wanted him to do, but he said, ‘No. This is my film. I’m not doing it that way.’ He pulled it out without nowhere to go and 20th Century Fox eventually picked it up. But he fought for me to play Big Red. So I owe that to Robert and he allowed everybody to do their work.”

James’ Shakespearean roots did more than enhance the funeral scene. It made Townsend take notice after seeing him in “Macbeth.” Although he was there to see a friend in the play, Townsend was so impressed with James that he offered him the role of Big Red after taking in his performance.

Suge-KnightThat move proved fruitful as Big Red exposed James to a wider audience. One that included former rap mogul Suge Knight. With Knight’s reputation as a tough and intimidating executive at Death Row Records, it’s not surprising that folks would classify him as the “original Big Red.”

Considering Knight is a big fan of “The Five Heartbeats,” James has no problem with the comparison.

“I know for a fact that many people that were around Suge used to tell me all the time, ‘Suge would watch that movie over and over and over. That’s how Suge became Suge,’” James revealed. “There was several of his friends that were talking about doing a biography of Suge at one time and there were several friends and people around him that wanted me to play Suge. The film never took place, but that was many years ago.”

For James, recognition for playing Big Red is something he can’t help but be proud of and humbled by.

“It’s extremely flattering that people would remember that because I have 5- and 6-year-old kids who come up to me who know that movie [“The Five Heartbeats”]. That movie is like it came out yesterday, honestly,” he said. “The popularity of that movie has never waned and that’s rare. Movies come and go but that movie is on all the time. There are little kids whose mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles and grandparents watch that movie all the time and therefore they sit and watch it with them. It’s an amazing thing in my head. I still can’t wrap my head around it sometimes.”

Big Red is one of many characters James has played, but that hasn’t stopped filmgoers from being a little scared to approach him. In their eyes, there’s no separating the actor from his best-known role.

“There are people who have forced their friends to come up to me because they are scared of me. That’s fascinating to me, because of that character,” said James, who adds that a day doesn’t go by when he’s not acknowledged for playing Big Red. “I mean literally years later, people come up to me and say, ‘I saw you, but I was just too scared to come up and say anything to you. But my friend told me, ‘You better go over there.’

“People won’t talk to me,” he added. “They tell me straight up, ‘I saw you and I didn’t want to come up to you. You’re too mean. I was scared of you.’ I said, ‘OK, I must’ve done something right then.’”

Hawthorne JamesDespite some actors who may be tired of getting approached about the same role, James reacts the opposite way. To hear him tell it, the attention is a “blessing.”

“That’s a blessing for me to know that my work resonated and people remember it. That only makes me work harder to find the next one, to keep getting better,” said James. “That’s another question people ask me, ‘Don’t you get tired of that?’ No. No. I want people. Come. Come because that only tells me that I did something right. I was blessed to be in the film, but at the same time, I want people to understand that that didn’t come out of nowhere.”

“That came from years of training, years of work. That character did not come out just from me. That came from me working my butt off to get better,” he added.” I’ve done over 300 plays in my life. That came from hard work. That comes from going to class and going to school in London, going to school in Notre Dame, going to school in Michigan.”

James’ remembrance of Big Red comes amid the 25th anniversary of the “The Five Heartbeats,” which arrived in theaters on March 29, 1991. To celebrate the occasion, Townsend plans on releasing a documentary on the making of the film in the fall.



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