Monday, May 20, 2024

Hawthorne James (Big Red) and Roy Fegan (Bird) Revisit ‘Five Heartbeats’ 9 to 5 Scene


*“My office hours are from 9 to 5.”

If you know “The Five Heartbeats,” that line ranks among the best quotables from the revered Robert Townsend musical drama, in addition to the scene it came from.

The infamous remark, uttered by Hawthorne James’ Big Red Davis, comes amid a simmering exchange between the corrupt record label owner and Bird, the lead singer of Bird and the Midnight Falcons played by Roy Fegan. Feeling he’s been shorted his just due in royalties, Bird confronts Big Red about the lack of funds. Although Big Red recites the 9 to 5 line cordially to Bird, the singer is not taking no for answer. As a result, Bird learns firsthand that after office hours isn’t the best time to talk business with Big Red when he finds himself hanging upside down outside a hotel room window after being roughed up by the music executive and his goons and carried to the window.

Needless to say, Bird’s change of heart was very noticeable. The moral of the story: Messing with Big Red after 5 can lead to traumatizing circumstances.

As extreme as the 9 to 5 scene was, Fegan says it did imitate real life in the case of The Dells. The group, known for the hit “A Heart is a House for Love,” was one of a few singing collectives that inspired the story behind “The Five Heartbeats.”

“Supposedly from history, we gathered that this story really happened to The Dells. That this Big Red was someone who represented the label or a tough guy who worked with the label who wanted to shut up the artist, hung him over a balcony and showed him who the boss was,” Fegan confessed to EURweb while jokingly giving James credit for doing “a great job kicking my butt up and down that hallway.”

From the looks of it, James and Fegan were in tune with exactly what “Five Heartbeats” director Townsend wanted. So much so the filmmaker let his actors do what they do best in putting their personal stamp on the scene to make it a memorable piece of cinema.

“Robert let us go like wild dogs. Both of us being dramatic actors, us both appreciating the craft of acting, it was a very intense moment. It was a moment that there was no time to think about what we were doing. There was no rehearsal. It was about me asking for my royalties and him showing me where my royalties were gonna come from: His foot in my ass,” Fegan explained.

For the entertainer’s mother and others who saw him get manhandled on the big screen, the scene’s realism came across in a big way.

“The threat that the physical showdown was so intense that it horrified my mom in the theaters,” Fegan said. “It horrified people watching it. It was so real.”

Roy Fegan“I approached it as a guy who was serious about getting his royalties,” he continued. “I approached it from the standpoint of any artist that felt like he was due what was owed to him and no one was standing up. And I stood up and got slapped down. But it represented something that later on, if you saw, I came back in the church and The Five Heartbeats befriended me to turn in, to be a key player to turn in, the entire bad force of who’s doing this. Who was in charge? Who was this guy that killed Jimmy [Potter, the Heartbeats’ manager]? Who was this? Was this Big Red? And all along, as you saw, Big Red was at the church.

“I became one of the heroes that took an ass whoopin’. I took the ass whoopin’. That wasn’t just about my royalties. It was a pivoting movement in the film. That was a pivoting movement that people stand up, have to go through something. They have to either get beat up, get slapped down. It’s not gonna be an easy fight.”

The end result may have prevented any other actor from fully putting himself and his ego on the line, but Fegan noted a deeper motive behind his approach to the scene.

“I’ve always been one person willing to take on a fight. I’ve always been one to speak up for what’s mine. I’ve always been able to articulate what’s wrong, what’s right, what’s wrong with this picture. And I think that particular moment was easy for me to get in to. It was easy for me to submit as an actor and a person, to know that maybe an ego of a person or an actor would prevent him from getting into the role as I did,” Fegan stated. “I got into it because I knew that this force was greater than me. This force was hanging me out of a window. At the end of the day, the bigger picture was we put them out of business. It was a powerful scene. It was today and forever, one of the greatest scenes that I’ve been involved in. Period.”

Overall, the 9 to 5 scene was done in “two or three takes,” according to Fegan, who opened up about Bird’s unexpected wardrobe malfunction before he was hung outside the window.

“There was a point where my pants tore wide open from the two thugs, the goons. One guy took my leg and the other guy took my leg and my pants ripped [makes ripping noise],” Fegan said. “As it ripped, there were no pairs of back up pants. It just so happened I had boxer shorts on that were similar to the color of the pants or at least darker. And other than that, my balls would be hanging out onscreen because it was truly one of those things you don’t count on when you’re doing live action. That was something that wardrobe had not prepared for. It was something we didn’t expect. But we kept rolling. I think we did another take where that shot didn’t show.”

“It was obvious when they threw me out the window, my pants were ripped,” he added. “But it was one of those moments where when you’re getting’ roughed up, rough things happened. Like, you know, bruises and a couple of kicks in to the ribs. Here and there, it was somewhat choreographed so you don’t get hurt, but in the moment, things do happen. A few extra kicks got in there.”

Despite the hours put in and breaks between shooting, Fegan chose to stay in character to keep the 9 to 5 scene and Bird’s mindstate intact.

“I remember sitting there in the moment because I didn’t want to come out of character. I did not. They said ‘cut,’ and they go back to hanging me out the window. We would pick it up. I did not want to come out,” the actor explained. “So when Robert spoke to me or gave me a direction, which he really didn’t give me a lot of direction. He just kind of let me go for it. I think the scene was going in the direction obviously he wanted it to go in. It wasn’t a lot of dialogue, more technical stuff. But I remember in between takes, sitting around in character. I had already been out the window.”

“We went back to reset the shot. I clearly remember my choice as an actor was not to come out of character, to huff and puff and stay there emotionally in the moment. Don’t try to be like, ‘This is nothing and you can go back to the moment’ because you cannot. You may get close to the moment. You may get near the moment, but you’re not gonna be right at the moment where you need to be. So as a choice, I stayed there. So when they re-set up and they got everything the way they wanted it for the shot and they lifted me up back at the window, I was still in the same moment or close to the moment of just being beat up, just being tasseled and thrown around the floor a little bit and then back out the window,” Fegan mentioned. “It helped me as an actor stay in the moment. It helped us all keep the scene very real. And that’s something I remember.”

hawthorne jamesLike Fegan, the impact of the 9 to 5 scene isn’t lost on James. Although he is forever grateful for the recognition he’s gotten for the scene, don’t expect James to recite his most famous line. For him, the remark is “too precious” to abuse.

“Everyday, people come to me. I won’t say that 9 to 5 line. People come up to me all the time and say, ‘Say that line. Say that line.’ I won’t say it because it’s too precious to me. I make them say it. I’ve only said it one time on a radio show. Other than that, I won’t say that line because it is too precious. I don’t want to mess it up. I don’t say it. I make other people say it to me because it has become that phrase.”

Meeting “Heartbeats” fans, James mentioned that they’ve told him how they’ve carried the 9 to 5 line over into their lives. Coworkers and kids are not spared as they say it “all the time” to them. Despite how it may come off, James shared that people aren’t put off by his refusal to say the line. In fact, they’re more than happy to recite it to the man who made the line famous.

“No, they’re not offended. I just smile and I tell them, ‘No you say it.’ Most people, no, they’re not offended or anything. They’ll say it back to me because they want to say it. Every once and a while, I’ll have to explain. It’s very rare,” said James. “I’ll shake their hands and they say it and we part ways smiling.”

Big Red may be a fictional character James portrayed, but that isn’t enough to stop folks from being on their guard since “The Five Heartbeats” came to theaters in 1991. The film celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. In honor of the milestone, Townsend tweeted that he is trying to have a documentary on the making of “The Five Heartbeats” done by the end of the year.

“I’ve had people come up to me. They said, ‘I saw you two, three, five years ago and I was just too scared to come up to you,” James said. “That was one of the first times I ever got recognized for that film. It was an amazing feeling to know. And then when that film hit video, it just took off like crazy. I have to give a little bit of that credit to that character Big Red because for some reason, which escapes me to this day, that character resonated with people. That line. That ‘9 to 5’ line. I hear that line every day of my life. When I step out in public, I hear that line. It started off with black people, but it has gone to Asian people. It has gone to Latinos. They know that film.”

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