‘Lean on Me’: A Modern Myth? : Principal and Actor See Things Eye to Eye

Times Staff Writer

Sidney Poitier turned it down. Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy had other commitments. Danny Glover was briefly considered.

But Norman Twain, producer of “Lean on Me"--the new movie about Joe Clark, the controversial Paterson, N.J. high school principal--said, “I never thought of anyone to play him but Morgan Freeman.”

And yet Clark, principal of Eastside High, didn’t even know who Freeman was.

“But my youngest daughter had seen him on ‘Sesame Street’ and liked him,” he said.


The way the part was cast gives insight into the pecking order of black actors today. Poitier was Warner Bros.’ first choice in making a latter-day version of its “Blackboard Jungle.” But Poitier reportedly told the studio he didn’t believe in the politics of Joe Clark.

Cosby was next on Warner’s list, but there was some concern that the TV star had too low an energy level for the role. Additionally, the studio was developing a feature film version of “I Spy” with Cosby.

As for Eddie Murphy, his management had seen the script and was interested but his contract with Paramount prevented his appearance in “Lean on Me.”

As for Glover, Warner expected him to star in their “Lethal Weapon” sequel. That left Freeman, an Obie-winning stage actor (“Driving Miss Daisy”) who was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe for his performance as a pimp in “Street Smart.”

“If I take credit for anything, it’s for starting the project and for really fighting for Morgan Freeman,” said Twain, who in 1986 saw an NBC News report about Clark’s saga and decided to make it into a feature film. “Luckily for me, Morgan had just done ‘Clean and Sober’ for Warner, so they were already aware of him.”

Unlike Poitier, Freeman decided he could live with Clark’s philosophy of education. A product of inner-city Chicago schools, he shared Clark’s belief “that you have to have discipline at school. Once you lose it, you’ve lost the whole ballgame. And that’s why, on the job, Joe’s a tyrant.”

Once the principal got to know the actor, he was impressed because “he understood the importance of hard work, a proper behavior, of a supportive environment that is conducive to learning. So I did not have to articulate too much. I could just tell from the expression on his face that he had an incredible degree of understanding of what I was about.” Still, unlike most people who suddenly get a call from Hollywood, Clark wasn’t overawed. In truth, he was suspicious.

Universal bought the rights to his story five years ago but nothing came of it. Then, in 1986, Twain approached him for Warner Bros.


“I’d become accustomed to promises being made and declarations declared and ultimately nothing emanating from it,” said Clark. “So I said to myself pessimistically that nothing will ever come of this new attempt either.”

Even when he was told last year that shooting would start at his high school, Clark still did not believe it. “Only when I saw the cameras in the building with (director) John Avildsen, Morgan Freeman and everybody else, did I say, ‘yes a movie is really being made.’ ” Meanwhile, for Morgan Freeman, the biggest challenge was playing Clark as the principal looked on. “Because when you don’t get it right, you can’t convince yourself that this will slide by,” he said. “If you’re going to play John Adams or Abraham Lincoln, or somebody dead like that, who knows?”

The actor became Clark’s shadow off and on for several weeks, to see the way he talked, the way he stood, the way he dealt with students and staff. Freeman was able to replicate Clark’s personality so accurately that Clark’s daughter said, “Dad, he has you.”

For authenticity, most of the students in the movie were played by students either of Eastside High or nearby New Jersey or New York schools. First-time actors, selected at open auditions, were selected for the lead teen roles.


Clark, who earns $65,000 a year as a principal, sold his story to Warner for about $15,000 and a “small” percentage of the movie’s take, he said. While noting that the sum is considerable “for a little poor welfare boy from New Jersey,” he realizes that in terms of Hollywood it’s a “mere pittance,” and he should have asked for more.

“But when you look at something as unreal and unimaginable, you tend not to be as diligent in getting the appropriate things that you should,” he said.

Still, he doesn’t regret negotiating on his own with the studio. “I said to myself, ‘somebody’s going to rob you blind. Either it’s going to be the lawyer or Warner Bros. I opted for Warner Bros.’ ”

Clark said that his input was only “basic.” He did stipulate that he did not want any “heavy profanity” or sex--"because I couldn’t deal with that. I wanted everyone--black, white, young, old--to go see a clean, funny movie. The most important thing to me is that they go there and be entertained. And then, maybe, they’ll get something beyond that from it. And maybe not.”


He does not feel exploited by the studio, he said, because it has been “accommodating” when he has gone back to them to “correct” some things. “At this point if I felt they were not accommodating, I would probably have been much more difficult.”

After promising the principal that “nothing in the picture would be untrue without his approval,” Twain said he told Clark “at the very beginning that whatever is true, even if that embarrassed him, had to stay. And he bought that.”

Twain, director John Avildsen (“Rocky”, “The Karate Kid”) and screenwriter Michael Schiffer (“Colors”) decided to have Clark’s wife leave him in the movie (the Clarks are married with three children, two from his first marriage).

“That was something they felt they had to put in,” Clark said. “I didn’t understand why but I didn’t even question that because it wasn’t important. Knowing the media, it could have been worse.”


But while many of the incidents in the movie actually happened--Clark really did take a student up to the roof and told him to jump (“Now I know that if that kid had jumped, my black butt would have been in jail for the rest of my life.”), and he really did fire a music teacher (“She was the best teacher I had in the school, but that to me was irrelevant.”)--the movie’s dramatic wind-up never happened.

Why did Clark allow his story to be changed?

“Because I go by instinct. And because I believed in Norman Twain’s honesty and integrity, and because I had a very good rapport with the writer and director,” Clark said. “So I never had any confrontations about what should and should not be in the movie.”

Twain has no problems with the changes that were made. “We’re not doing a documentary. We’re doing a movie. And we’re doing an entertainment--and entertainment sometimes gets a little manipulative. I will opt to move the audience to laughter and tears with a little white lie anytime. Just because someone pays their $7 that doesn’t mean they have to be told the truth.” Freeman, however had this explanation: “It’s Hollywood. You’ve got to have the big finish.”


Now the challenge facing Warner is how to market an essentially black movie--there are only two white roles of any importance--to non-black audiences. Without any big stars, the studio went looking for a different star. This week, Warner began airing an ad showing Tyson emerging victorious from a fight. An announcer says, “How are you going to celebrate, champ?”

Tyson answers, “I’m seeing a knockout new movie called ‘Lean on Me.’ ”

The studio also is hoping to sell the movie by selling Joe Clark.

“I think, and I state this humbly, that it comes from the fact that I served as a catalytic agent, a gadfly, a stimulus. That somehow I pricked the conscious of an entire nation as a quixotic crusader with my unswerving desire to bring about a reviviscence in this country’s decadent educational environment, especially in the inner city.


“I wanted a true depiction of me. Now I admit some situations call for a Mother Teresa. But I’m more of a Dirty Harry kind of guy. So when I’m portrayed as being ornery, obdurate, rebellious, irascible and especially adversarial, it’s absolutely right.”