It was Valentine's Day -- Gregory Hines's fortieth birthday
-- when we met at his gym and walked to the West Village duplex apartment he shares with his wife,
Pam Koslow, and their son Zachary. (He has a teenage daughter from his first
marriage.) Having recently finished shooting the detective comedy
Running Scared in Los Angeles with Billy Crystal, Hines got the idea from Crystal of
joining a gym and lifting weights to add bulk to his slender dancer's body. At the
age of two, he started singing and dancing with his brother Maurice and his
father in an act called Hines, Hines, and Dad that performed together for nearly
two decades. Although he is best known for appearing in musicals such as
Eubie and Sophisticated Ladies, he began taking small nonmusical roles in films like
Wolfen and Deal of the Century. Before long, roles such as those he played in
The Cotton Club and White Nights began to be tailored to his special talents as
both actor and musical performer.
How did Running Scared happen?
I read the script, and I knew it was a good part. It was written for a white
actor. That's what I'm up against -- I have to try to make roles happen for me
that aren't written black. The roles written black are the "cool guys," and I don't
want to play the cool guy. I did an episode of Amazing Stories directed by Peter
Hyams, and I knew he was allied with Running Scared, so I hit on him. He went
to bat for me and fought for me to get the part.
Is it up to you to introduce the idea of casting the character black?
It's incumbent upon me to go after things, because nobody's going to say,
"Why are we just looking at white actors? Let's look at everybody. " They never
do that. So once I know about a property, I'm aggressive just to the point of
Do you like acting as much as singing and dancing?
I love to play vulnerable men. It's so rare that you get to see a black man be
something other than in control of his emotions. Superfly, Shaft, now the
character on Miami Vice -- these guys are always in control. A black man gets
into a frightening situation and he's not afraid. When he's with women, he's
always got more experience. That's why in The Cotton Club it was great to play
that type of character, because the woman had so much more experience than
How did you start acting?
I got cast in a movie called Wolfen because I knew the director, Michael
Wadleigh, from when we were hippies together. Once I got the part, I was with
Albert Finney, and I was hooked. Just a small conversation with Albert Finney
is like Acting 101. I remember one time when we were supposed to come
through this doorway, walk through the morgue, and have some dialogue. I was
back there trying to figure out how to do this thing. Wadleigh wasn't the type of
director who'd really talk to you, unlike Francis [Coppola, director of
The Cotton Club]. If you even look like you don't know what you're doing, Francis will
say, "Wait! What do you need?" Or he'll just start talking to you about the way
you should be feeling. Anyway, Albert was sitting down, waiting for our cue,
and he said to me, "If I were you, when I go through that door,
I'd feel anxious because I'm late. I have someplace else to go, yet I'm intrigued by the possibility
that this will be an interesting case." It was like a light bulb going off in my
head. Then I knew exactly what to do.
Wolfen was the first time I ever did any kind of a job where I didn't dance.
Once we were working at the Persian Room at the Plaza -- me, my brother, and
my father -- and Dustin Hoffman came to see the show. He told me he thought
I had some ability as an actor and that I should try it. So I did. I read for a
basketball movie called The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, and a movie that was
never released called House of God that Howard Rollins was in. I wanted to
make a movie, because the whole life of the movies appealed to me. You work
hard for three or four months, then you don't work at all for a couple of months.
I also like the idea of doing a movie, then doing a play, couple of movies, then
a play. Also, if you do a movie, you can go see it.
Did you always want to be a performer?
No. I didn't choose to be in the business. I don't remember not dancing. I
could always do it. When I got to be about twenty-five, I became very
disenchanted. We were in the slick part of show business, the nightclubs.
[He sings.] "Things are great, dah dah dah. " Once I got to be about twenty-five, I got
interested in the music of the time. I started smokin' dope, I started drinking, I
started slowing down and trying to find myself. I didn't want to work in
nightclubs. I didn't want to do Fiddler on the Roof medleys. I didn't know what I
wanted to do, I just knew I was miserable. I moved to Venice [California], and
Pam supported me for a couple of years. It was a great time. I think everybody
at some point -- especially if they've been working their whole
lives -- should take time out and think about what they've done. That period of reflection meant a
lot to me. I grew up a lot. With the family, I always had a buffer. After a while,
I didn't know how to take care of myself. I was twenty-seven years old and very
immature. During that period in Venice, I found out how to take care of myself.
How did that period end?
It was like a story out of a movie. The divorce came through with my first
wife, and in the custody settlement I got reasonable visitation with my daughter,
and I wanted to move back to New York to be near her. I thought I would teach
karate to make money, because I was a black belt back then. My brother said,
"Come to New York and live with me. I've got an East Side apartment, and I
just auditioned for the road company of Pippin, and I'm going to make $1200 a
week. I'll take care of you." I said, "Great." I came back to New York with $40
in my pocket, my guitar, and my backpack. My brother was in the apartment
when I got there -- he was supposed to be in Miami with Pippin, but he didn't
get along with the director and he quit. The place was a dump, an East Side
sublet with cockroaches all around. He had to take the mattress off the box
spring and put it on the floor for me to sleep on. I had $40 to my name, and he
had $120. He said, "Well, I had my agent submit you for this play called
The Last Minstrel Show." I went down and auditioned the first day I was back in
New York, and I got it. It was amazing.
On a really great week in Venice in five years, I made $40. When I auditioned
for this show, the agent said, "Yeah, you got it, and they've offered $650 a week,
but that's not good enough. I'm going to try to get $750 and get your name in a
box." I said, "Are you kidding? I don't care about $750, I don't care about a box,
I just want this job. Man, if you blow this for me, I'm going to tear your office
apart." But he did get $750 and my name in a box.
And the show closed in Philadelphia.
Yeah. By then I was used to the income -- naturally, it came to about $280 a
week after they took everything out. I bought my daughter a dress, I sent for
Pam to visit. Right away I auditioned for the Broadway musical
Eubie. They didn't give me the job. I called up the producer, Ashton Springer, and said,
"There must be some mistake. I was great at the audition. You've got to give me
another audition." He said okay, which probably pissed off the director, because
she still didn't cast me. They wanted Larry Marshall, who was in Paris doing
Porgy and Bess and didn't want to come back. My brother had already been
cast. The choreographer was Henry LeTang, who had taught me and my
brother to dance. So I kept calling the producer, and finally the second day of
rehearsal they said, "You've got the job."
After that, I was really aggressive, 'cause I figured it paid off.
Cotton Club was another Eubie, 'cause I heard through the grapevine that Robert Evans was
going to direct Cotton Club and he was interested in me for the Cab Calloway
part. I went over to my agent and said, "I've got to see the script. " He said, "No,
Evans won't let anybody see the script. " But the script was actually in his office,
so when he was called away, I took the script in the men's room for about an
hour, and read it. I could see that Calloway wasn't the part for me.
I wanted the main black part. I asked for a meeting with Robert
Evans -- the easiest way to get something is to get directly to the
guy -- and I went with my hair slicked back, wearing a '40s suit, and told him I wanted that part. He said, "But the part
of Cab Calloway ..." I said, "1 don't want that part. I won't do it. I want this
part. " He said, "I've offered it to Richard Pryor, and if he wants it he's the man.
I can get another seven to ten million dollars of financing with his name. With
you, I can get maybe $1500." I could understand his point, but I said "You're
making a big mistake."
After I left his house, I did as much research as I could on Richard Pryor, and
I found that he'd already committed himself to doing Superman III and
The Toy. Once I found that out, I instituted a reign of terror on Robert Evans. I
called him every day. I went over to his house twice again, uninvited. It got to
the point where he was actually yelling at me over the phone, "Stop calling me!
I know you want the part. " At first, he liked it. Then when I started calling every
day, his people would answer the phone and say, "You can't talk to him." I
would say to them, "Look, I'm going to get this part. And after I get this part,
he's going to love me, and I'm going to tell him how rude you were to me. So
you get him on the phone and let me talk to him. Because if you don't and I get
this part, you're out and I'm in."
Gregory, you told me your aggressiveness stopped short of obnoxiousness.
Well, I got close on that one.
First published in Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face
to Face, NAL Books, 1986 -- photograph copyright 1986