Sylvia, David, and Amy
In a composite Nation like ours, made up of almost every variety of the human family, there should be, as before the Law, no rich, no poor, no high, no low, no black, no white, but one country, one citizenship, equal rights and a common destiny for all.
A Government that cannot or does not protect the humblest citizen in his right to life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness, should be reformed or overthrown, without delay.
Washington D.C. Oct. 20. 1883
The new president who stands center stage in Wallace’s drama is Douglass Dilman, a reserved former college professor with no “fire in his belly” for presidential politics. Tragedy thrusts him into the nation’s highest office, and fate inaugurates him as the first black President of the United States of America.
In 1972, it was my privilege to play Douglass Dilman in what was initially intended to be an ABC Television Movie of the Week, based on Irving Wallace’s best selling novel. Whether he was writing fiction or nonfiction, Wallace had a passion for research. In 1963, as background for
As I prepared to play
In those volatile days of the seventies, there was a general public insistence that a black man be militant. This seemed to be expected of black men by other black men, by white men, by liberals, and even by conservatives. There was the attitude, often liberal, that said, “If I were a black man, I would sure as hell be screaming or angry.” At the other end of the spectrum, there were those people, often conservative, who seemed to prefer stereotypes, saying, “Give me a black man who is yelling and screaming and I’ll know what to do with
Douglass Dilman, to the contrary, is a quiet, rational man trying his best to do a difficult job in daunting circumstances. Thrown into the center of a political earthquake, he is an apolitical creature, and something of a Milquetoast. He is an intellectual, and a good man with a commitment to principles but no appetite for political battles. His adversaries in the administration try to isolate Dilman, shutting him off in a corner so that they can run the government and leave him out of the loop.
I am not an intellectual and I don’t think of myself as a Milquetoast, but Dilman is not unlike me. I am not saying that I was ideal casting, but a truly remarkable cast and crew were assembled around me to try to bring Wallace’s novel to life on the television screen-Burgess Meredith, Martin Balsam, Barbara Rush, Anne Seymour, William Windom, and Lew Ayres, among others. Comedian Jack Benny opened the film in a cameo role.
Rod Serling, who enjoyed a huge success with
Certain creative decisions were made to compress Wallace’s complex novel for the small screen, to take
This was a time when television shows had to be very careful about the treatment of racial issues and themes. Otherwise some Southern states, including my native state of Mississippi, would refuse to air them. For the television script, the decision was made to eliminate the sensational issue of the impeachment of the first black President of the United States. His enemies had fought dirty and tried hard to get rid of him. In the novel, Dilman is charged with violating his oath of office, committing treason against the United States, obstructing justice, and demonstrating “loose morals, intoxication, partisanship, and maladministration.” He is even accused of raping his social secretary. At that time, I did not protest when this material was cut from the script.
In the film, a South African official is assassinated by a young African American, and a huge public outcry ensues when Dilman considers extraditing the young man. I went to Rod Serling and said, “I find it a weakening factor in our drama that President Dilman does not meet one-on-one, face-to-face with representatives of the South African apartheid regime” Irving Wallace seriously explored issues of African unity in the novel, and Dilman’s meetings with President “Kwame Amboko” of the independent African democracy of “Baraza” form a very important facet of the story. When I urged Rod to consider this encounter, he said, “No, Jimmy, that would be another story.”
He didn’t have the space or the time for that story for television, and that was a disappointment for me. From that point on, even though I enjoyed the story, the character I was playing, and the actors I was working with, I did not feel that we were achieving the full dramatic potential of
Additional decisions were made, however, to reflect the political climate of the early seventies We added an allusion to the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. In the novel, Dilman’s daughter is passing for white, and his son is involved in a militant group. In the film, the new President has one child, a black militant daughter,