Reliving a Nightmare : TV Movie ‘Heat Wave’ Traces the Watts Riots That Left a City Under Siege 25 Years Ago
Bob Richardson is hanging around locations for “Heat Wave,” a TV movie about those sweaty August nights nearly 25 years ago when the ghettos in South-Central L.A. exploded into a holocaust. It was called the Watts riots, although some people prefer “insurrection.”
Richardson, raised in the neighborhood, watched in horror as much of it was burned and pillaged. Then 24, he was working as a classified ad messenger for The Times. The paper had no black reporters and the white ones were being brutalized by angry mobs that first night of Aug. 11, so he volunteered to go “in.” In one of several Page 1 stories under his byline (which identified him as an ad salesman), “It’s a wonder anyone with white skin got out of there alive.” His story is central to the TV film.
The movie, scheduled for airing on the TNT cable channel during the August anniversary, is midway in a tricky 25-day shooting schedule on locations in several still-very-much-anguished Los Angeles neighborhoods.
It’s different, this time around. The neighbors were applauding Monday when the white California motor cop busted one of the brothers--re-creating the incident that unleashed the rage. But these neighbors were the extras, and the Pueblo projects at Holmes Avenue and 54th Street were representing Avalon Boulevard and 116th Street, where it all happened. The crowd was cheering because it was a good take, show business being show business.
The real riots left Richardson with residual nightmares, as they had other people, but the other day he was recounting some ludicrous scenes. He had been watching mobs pillage a store when “one guy comes up with this truck and he loads these refrigerators and washers on the truck,” he remembered, “and he’s back in 10 minutes and he parks the truck and he comes back with more washers and refrigerators--and his truck is gone!”
Richardson stomped his feet and raged around the room imagining the furious looter: “Some (expletive) stole my truck!”
Richardson went on with his story: “Then it became not funny. The National Guard came, kids brandishing 30-caliber machine guns. They were from places like Redwood City or Eureka or Glendale. The only black person they ever saw was on the Aunt Jemima box. They were killing anything that moved--dogs, cats. . . .”
The deadly reality: 35 killed (30 of them black; some claim this figure is ridiculously low), 1,200 injured, 4,000 arrested in six days and nights of beating, looting, rock-throwing, arson, rifle sniping and fire-bombing over a 150-block, 54-square-mile area. Police were augmented by 13,900 National Guardsmen arriving by truckloads.
These many years later, Michael Lazarou, a young Hollywood writer with a fascination for history, knew that the way to dramatize anarchy of this dimension was to focus on it in human terms. He learned about Richardson and realized he could be the pivotal “story.”
Executive producer Jordan Kerner and director Kevin Hooks have put together major casting for “Heat Wave,” including Blair Underwood (“L.A. Law”), who plays Richardson, and four Oscar-nominated actors: Cicely Tyson (nominated for “Sounder,” in which she played Hooks’ mother) is Motherdear, his righteous grandmother; James Earl Jones (“The Great White Hope”) is Junius, who runs a shoeshine parlor in Watts; Margaret Avery (“The Color Purple”) is the mother of Richardson’s buddy, and Sally Kirkland (“Anna”) is a white Beverly Hills matron for whom Motherdear works as a housekeeper.
Lazarou, 4 at the time of the riots, was an unlikely candidate to chronicle these events. He is white and his career has been writing comedy, including “Doogie Howser, M.D.” and a screenplay for Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment based on the novel “A Super Bowl for the Kremlin” (Russkies take over the Minnesota Vikings). He also has a two-script contract with for Hollywood Pictures, the new Disney division.
He was researching L.A. history for a script when he heard about Richardson. The idea of the riot story began to consume him, even more so when he couldn’t find Richardson. Finally, he did.
“My hand was literally shaking and my heart was pounding,” Lazarou recalled. “Two years of obsessing and I have his phone number staring me in the face. The first thing I blurted out of my mouth was, ‘Where have you been!?’ ”
Lazarou, who sparkles with passion for his movie, said that he conducted extensive research, including interviews with police and rioters, sometimes together.
“There were people who never so much had a traffic ticket who became openly violent,” he said. “The levels of anger and hostility and feelings of betrayal were so deep and so painful that it was just . . . uncontrollable.”
The result of the riots, Lazarou said, is “that we have 120 sets of Crips, 95 sets of Bloods and the whole crack epidemic being franchised by L.A. gang members to small towns all over America. . . . That is directly attributable to the fact that the lessons were not learned. Nothing was done, really. Ultimately, the status quo was maintained and the situation was allowed to deteriorate further.”
Richardson had talked with friends about a riot movie before “but people wanted a happy ending,” he recalled. Producer Kerner said the movie has happy resolves in that Richardson gets hired by The Times as its first black reporter-trainee and the paper wins the Pulitzer Prize for its riot coverage.
Richardson’s life didn’t go so well. His $99-a-week reporting job (versus the $145 he’d been making as a messenger in Classified) had him working nights on the “disaster desk,” which involved, as he describes it, hanging with some other staffers at a popular bar near The Times waiting for a fire or some catastrophe. He’d go to the scene and call in details.
“I was incapable of doing anything in depth,” he said. “I really wasn’t trained for that. I was scared to death every night.”
Richardson, with an exuberant, wry personality, is most candid about his alcoholism. He related that within a year he was fired from The Times for drinking, among many such dismissals he has endured over the last 25 years.
“I wound up down on Skid Row. And I was down there for maybe a year. I became a connoisseur of good cardboard (his mattress).”
His resume is the stuff of the incredible: the Army (a sharpshooter), Kelly Girl temp typist, ditch digger, welfare work, truck driving, insurance, private investigation (including bounty hunting), dish washer in Phoenix, disc jockey in Houston, selling tamales out of a pushcart in New Orleans, three months at the California Institution for Men at Chino for check forgery, plus various assignments on local radio and TV.
“This movie is re-creating my life,” he said. “Nine months ago, when we first started this--well, once again I was sitting on a curb, sleeping on cardboard in shelters and once again the Salvation Army was there and put me to work in a chapel, gaining my self respect back, starting playing piano in the chapel and working as a tutor, reading, writing and math skills. And getting spiritual guidance.”
How long since he’s had a drink? “You know, I don’t like to discuss time. I do this one day at a time. I didn’t drink yesterday, I’m not drinking today.”
He doesn’t know what he’ll do next. “It’ll be revealed to me.”
Joyce Pinney of The Times Editorial Library provided assistance on this article.