Street Toughs Gaga Over TV Casting : Tinseltown Dream Wows Gang Members

Times Staff Writer

Anthony (Duce) James sprawled in front of the television set, grinning as he watched himself on the screen.

Duce was among 11 Long Beach gang members cast in “Helltown,” a television movie starring Robert Blake, the tough-guy actor best known for his role as TV’s “Baretta.”

As the short scene involving the gang members concluded, applause broke out in the cramped apartment where Duce and a few others had gathered with friends to watch the program.

“You were baaaaad, Duce!” came the chorus.


Duce--cast as the leader of a street gang played, appropriately enough, by his Long Beach buddies--didn’t bother to hide his pleasure with the performance. Jumping to his feet, he thrust his arms upward: “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! I’m an actor now!”

Although they had bit roles, Duce and the others hope the $2.5-million television pilot, in which Blake plays a street-wise ex-convict turned priest, will become a series and they’ll get regular parts.

It’s the sort of Hollywood fantasy that few realize, especially a bunch of street toughs who never took an acting class. But that doesn’t stop the dreaming.

“The only thing I’m looking forward to now is it becoming a series,” said Vincent Wells, 21.


Despite predictions of fame and future work, Wells had to concede he was happy just getting on TV.

“Usually when it’s somebody on TV from around here, it’s because they killed somebody, not for being on some movie,” he said. “This was a big deal. Even when I’m old and gray, I can say to my grandson, ‘Look, that’s me on TV.’ ”

Jeff (Stutterbox) Williams agreed. “I’ve been waiting for months for this, ever since we shot the movie,” said Williams, 18. “Our scene was too short, but that’s OK. I’m still proud of it.”

“I enjoyed seeing the guys in the movie,” said Jennifer Thompson, a social worker who played an instrumental role in setting up the auditions for the youths. “And I really enjoyed watching their reactions when they saw themselves on TV.”

‘Shows They Can Do Something Positive’

Thompson said the experience of appearing in a TV movie was a productive one for the gang members.

“These are guys who’ve had it hard, who grew up to be gang members,” she said. “The movie hasn’t eliminated all the bad things in their lives, but it showed them and everyone else that they can do something positive.”

The Long Beach gang members shot their single scene in a dank, abandoned warehouse in downtown Los Angeles over a two-day period last November, getting $600 each for their work. The movie revolves around the adventures of a street priest named Noah (Hardstep) Rivers in a fictional 10-block section of Los Angeles called Helltown.


In the gang scene, Hardstep confronts Duce and the others to ask for help in keeping Helltown quiet after a killing. The gang leader agrees only after Hardstep promises to help the gang chief’s heroin-addicted sister.

The film’s producers at first cast professional actors in the roles. But the professionals could not capture the sense of realism Blake wanted. The actor turned to Thompson, whom he had met while giving a talk to gang youths at a recreation center, to provide the players for his drama.

Although the gang members--most of whom have arrest records--dream of becoming stars, Blake said in

an interview during the filming that it is unlikely the youths would be used in a regular series.

“They’re good because they’re real,” said Blake at the time. “But if the series goes, we probably won’t be able to use them. Maybe Duce. Maybe. If he’s lucky. If he doesn’t get killed first.”

Undaunted, some of the gang members--including Duce, Wells and Williams--plan to apply for membership to the Screen Actors Guild to better their chances for future roles. (Having been in a SAG production they are eligible, a guild spokeswoman said.)

Thompson invited gang members to her apartment for the Wednesday night airing of the program, ordering pizza and icing down bottles of soft drink for the throng.

“Ever since we shot the movie, I’ve been just kicking back and staying out of trouble,” Wells said as he slumped in a chair waiting for the show to begin. “If this turns out to be a big series, I don’t want to end up in jail with nothing to show for it.”


Though he stayed out of jail, not everyone else did. A few weeks after the filming, one of the gang members who appeared in the movie was sent to the California Institute for Men in Chino for a previous conviction, Thompson said.

Wells said many of his neighbors didn’t even believe he was going to be on television until they saw an advertisement for the program in TV Guide magazine.

“I’ve been telling everyone about it,” he said. “They say, ‘Get me in the movies.’ I just say let me get famous first.”

Indeed, Thompson said news of the movie had spread throughout the community--especially among the area’s gang members.

“The streets will be quiet for a few hours tonight,” she said. “All the gang members will be at home watching the movie.”

Group Grew Quiet

The group packed into Thompson’s apartment grew quiet as the two-hour show began at 9 p.m. Finally, at about 10 p.m. their scene came on.

Afterward, Wells looked a bit dejected. During the filming, he was given two lines of dialogue, but only one made it on television.

“I had two parts,” Wells said. “He cut one out. It ain’t no thing. It’s all right, long as I got on TV.”

“I thought I looked fat,” Duce said later. “But I did pretty good for being on TV for the first time in my life. It went fast, but I was on screen pretty long. That’s better than nothing. It’s enough to get noticed.

“The day,” he concluded, “was one of the best days of my life.”