Marvin Worth is dressed in an eye-catching red-and-gold silk shirt, his leopard-spotted socks picking up one of several patterns in the colorful garment. Short and wiry, with gray hair spilling onto his shoulders, Worth seems an unlikely clotheshorse. But his closet is filled with flamboyant and very expensive outfits by designer Gianni Versace, a favorite with the music industry.
Versace, Worth admits, is one of his obsessions.
Enter his modest suite of offices on Warner Bros.' Hollywood lot and the twin obsessions of Worth's professional life come immediately into view. Hanging incongruously over a whimsical love seat imprinted with the image of a reclining Marilyn Monroe are poster-sized likenesses of two angry, defiant figures of the 1960s who died within 18 months of one another: the slain black leader Malcolm X and the comedian and satirist Lenny Bruce.
Worth has spent much of the past 25 years seeking to tell their life stories. Once Bruce's manager, Worth produced the Broadway play "Lenny" and later the movie of the same name, starring Dustin Hoffman. Now he is planning a revised version of the stage play, hoping to open it on Broadway next spring.
He has owned the rights to "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" since 1967 and has struggled since then to turn it into a feature film, working with a series of big-time directors and writers before finally winding up with Spike Lee nearly two years ago.
In the intervening years, Worth, a former jazz promoter and television comedy writer, produced a number of other films and television movies, including "Where's Poppa?," "The Rose," "Patty Hearst" and "See No Evil, Hear No Evil."
Now, with the opening of the long-awaited "Malcolm X" looming, he is busy with last-minute details: reviewing scenes selected for television promotion, planning the premiere (in New York on Monday night, two days before the nationwide opening) and putting in his two cents on marketing details.
"That trailer is really terrific," he says by phone to a Warner Bros. executive. "Have you got the one-sheets (film posters)? When are you getting them?" Another caller informs him about a problem with the Oprah Winfrey show. Denzel Washington, who plays Malcolm, would not be able to make it on the scheduled date, and Winfrey, although she could have Lee and anyone else she wanted, was insisting on Washington. Something would have to be worked out.
Meanwhile, there is time for a schmooze with Attallah Shabazz, the eldest of Malcolm's six daughters. "I'm getting excited," he confides to her. "I feel a little tightening in my stomach. I feel like I'm losing my cool here."
Worth, 67, lives in Benedict Canyon, drives a Mercedes, rises at 5:30 a.m. to exercise on his own equipment, and lunches at Citrus so often that he has a regular table. These Hollywood trappings aside, little else about him can be described as conventional. In an industry where everyone seems to go to the same hairstylist, Worth is a true original, from his unusual background to his flashy clothes to his office decor--a hodgepodge mixing toy soldiers and bowling pins with huge purple, green, black and white paintings by artist Joan Worth, his wife of 38 years.
Also atypical is the unassuming way he has let Lee grab most of the attention for "Malcolm X."
The Brooklyn-born Worth had a personal connection with the teen-age Malcolm, whom he knew as Red when both were habitues of the New York jazz club scene in the 1940s. But it was not until he read the posthumously published "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," as told to the late Alex Haley, that he made up his mind to turn the saga of Malcolm's transformation from criminal to Black Muslim leader into a movie.
As a promoter and manager working for a number of black artists--including Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon--Worth, who is white, had for a long time "lived in a black world." He was immediately taken by Malcolm's story. "(He) not only made a contribution. I was impressed by his mind, his evolution, his learning, his open-mindedness to change," Worth says. "He was a great example of how someone can take himself from the place he came from and get to where he got as a human being. He's one of our great stories."
Worth was untroubled by aspects of Malcolm that he could not reconcile with his own beliefs. As a Nation of Islam minister, for example, Malcolm taught that the original human being was black, and that "white devils" were created by a vindictive scientist named Mr. Yacub, who was angry with Allah. "What he preached I mostly disagree with . . . but all that stuff about whether Jesus was black or white--who cares?" Worth says. In Worth's view, Malcolm had to "throw himself in (to the sect's teachings) and buy it all, to save his own life."
When he came across the autobiography in the late 1960s, Worth was a fledgling producer living in Los Angeles. He immediately flew to New York to negotiate the rights to the autobiography with Haley and Malcolm's widow, Betty Shabazz, getting help from James Baldwin, whom he subsequently hired to write the screenplay. Naively, he says, he never imagined the problems that lay ahead.
First, it took him two years, starting in 1967, to wrest a script out of Baldwin, who was distracted by severe personal problems and the many demands being placed on him as an eloquent spokesman for blacks. Worth said he worked with Baldwin every day, trying to coax pages out of him. He took over some of the details of Baldwin's life so the writer could focus his energies and brought in screenwriter Arnold Perl at one point to help shape the material into a screenplay. When the script was finally delivered, it totaled 250 pages, more than twice the normal length. Not only was it too long but the last third was just not right, the producer says. Too little time had elapsed since Malcolm X's death, and too many questions remained unresolved. Baldwin was nervous about how the Nation of Islam, which was being blamed for the assassination, would react.
Baldwin and Perl's "Malcolm X" was shelved, but despite its flaws, it remained the only screenplay that Worth ever liked. In 1970, Calder Willingham, a hot screenwriter after turning out "The Graduate," tried his hand at "Malcolm X" but "wasn't successful," according to Worth.
Worth decided a documentary might be more appropriate at this stage. Financed by Warner Bros., which had acquired the project from Columbia Pictures, Worth's "Malcolm X" came out in 1972. The documentary, which cost about $500,000, received enthusiastic reviews and went on to win an Academy Award nomination. Ironically, Worth's assistant on the film (also his assistant on the play "Lenny") was Harvey Milk, the gay activist who was later elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and was assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone, in 1978.
Over the years, a succession of actors, directors and writers sought to bring the black leader's life to the screen but all wound up getting rebuffed: Richard Pryor; David Mamet, brought in by director Sidney Lumet; novelist David Bradley; Eddie Murphy; Norman Jewison, and a few Worth refuses to name, describing their efforts as "little aborted attempts."
Lumet was a good choice, Worth thought, but Mamet's screenplay was disappointing. "It was David's version of the civil rights movement," the producer says. "There was no Malcolm jumping off the page for me. It was totally off." Neither Lumet nor Mamet was unavailable for comment.
Bradley's screenplay had "a lot of good scenes," but was handicapped, Worth believes, by his decision to make Haley a character in the film as a device for condensing Malcolm's complex history. "(This character) was supposed to be Alex Haley, but I thought it was more David Bradley," the producer says. Bradley could not be reached.
Not long after, Worth says, he received a call from Eddie Murphy, who had seen Bradley's script and "flipped over" it. But Murphy, who wanted to play Haley, was out of reach because he then had an exclusive deal at Paramount. In a classic example of unlucky timing, a meeting to discuss a possible co-production between the two studios had to be canceled; Paramount and Warner Communications were then engaged in a major battle for control of Time Inc. stock.
For Worth, it was never Warner that stood in the way. Instead, the main stumbling block all along was the Baldwin-Perl script. No one wanted to rewrite it--or even look at it--but nobody could come up with anything better. "They all wanted to do their own (screenplay). That's how it is in this business. . . . The people whose scripts I didn't choose blamed it on Hollywood . . . but that was never true."
Some writers wanted to clean up Malcolm's youthful past. "I would tell them, 'I don't want anybody in awe' . . . I was never afraid of the truth with Malcolm," Worth says. He never questioned the need for including Malcolm's famous comment after President John F. Kennedy's assassination that the "devil's chickens have come home to roost."
By 1986, the New York Times said, "Malcolm X" was threatening to "become one of Hollywood's most legendary unmade films."
The following year, Norman Jewison, newly signed with Warner Bros., became interested in directing "Malcolm X" and wanted the Pulitzer Prize-winning black playwright Charles Fuller ("A Soldier's Play") to write the screenplay. Jewison and Fuller worked with Worth but did not get anywhere, with one exception: Denzel Washington, who had starred in an Off Broadway play, "When the Chickens Came Home to Roost," about Malcolm X, agreed to portray him on film. Worth began to realize he would soon lose Jewison, who was about to go into production with "Other People's Money."
By now, young African-Americans were becoming increasingly fascinated with Malcolm, and Spike Lee was complaining publicly about the selection of a white director for a movie about a figure so important to blacks. According to Worth, Jewison had all along believed that the picture should have a black director. Worth gave Lee the Baldwin-Perl script to read, "and here was the clincher for me--he loved it. Boy! I saw signs of getting this picture done."
Lee boiled the script down to 170 pages, leaving about 65% to 70% of it intact, according to Worth. But the screenplay is credited only to Perl, now deceased, and Lee. Baldwin died in 1987, and his family asked Worth to remove his name from the credits "because (the screenplay) wasn't all his words." Worth reluctantly agreed to honor the request.
On the screen, some details from Malcolm's autobiography are altered either to avoid lengthening the 3-hour-and-20 minute film or for heightened dramatic effect. For example, the teen-age Malcolm is depicted as more menacing than he appears in the book to build up to the scenes in prison where he becomes so crazed that the other inmates call him Satan. "You have to show cause and effect, and you can't just have it happen all of a sudden," Worth says.
Worth also says the filmmakers decided that Washington should not adopt Malcolm's dignified manner of speech, lest he distance himself from less well-spoken viewers.
Experience with other film biographies has taught him that such changes are not important "as long as you get the essence. . . . What did Malcolm stand for, where did he come from, where did he arrive?"
As far as Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm's eldest daughter, is concerned, that goal was achieved. "Overall, I find the movie to be inspiring, informative and clarifying, especially toward the end of Malcolm's life," she says, while acknowledging that the family told Worth that her father's humorous side was underplayed.
For years, Shabazz says, she watched Worth handle the project "like a brother-friend who happens to be a producer. It was a taboo subject for many, but he was always very tender with it. . . . Though he personally owned the rights, I didn't feel like the rights were surrendered."
Shabazz, who will share in Worth's earnings from the film along with the rest of the family, is grateful too that hanging in his office, "amidst his wife's art, he always had my father's picture. I'm sure it caused strain among his own friends and colleagues."
For Worth, visiting the set was an exercise in nostalgia, taking him back to the Harlem of his youth, where he had worked with a number of jazz legends. A high school dropout, like Malcolm, he had left home at 15, moving to Manhattan's 52nd Street so he could be near the clubs. He completed his education while serving in the military.
Though he was hospitalized for six months for injuries incurred while serving as a paratrooper during World War II, his memories of that period are "blurry, like they happened to somebody else," he says.
It was Lenny Bruce's mother, comedian Sally Marr, who asked him to manage her son. Worth says he got Bruce his first break, putting the comic on the Arthur Godfrey show, and teaming him with Buddy Hackett on a program called "Broadway Open House." During the 1950s and 1960s, Worth wrote monologues for Bruce, Hackett and other famous comics, but by the time Bruce was being hounded by police for uttering four-letter words on stage, his manager had embarked on a new career as a television writer, working on such shows as "Get Smart," "The Milton Berle Show" and "The Judy Garland Show."
After Bruce's death from a drug overdose in 1966, his mother again approached Worth, asking him to buy movie rights to her son's life. He worried about exploiting a close friendship but eventually relented and initiated still another career change. "So now I was producing movies," he says. But the movie "Lenny" did not come out until 1974.
Today, Bruce's battle against hypocrisy is more relevant than ever, Worth says, explaining why he plans to produce a " '90s version" of "Lenny."
He is reluctant to draw comparisons between Bruce and Malcolm, who also railed against societal hypocrisy. "People will say, 'My God, you're comparing what goes on in this world with racism and the plight of black people with what Lenny did.' I don't want to get into that."
He is also reticent when it comes to the subject of his controversial and outspoken director, giving the impression that theirs was mainly a relationship of convenience between two people with a common mission. "You certainly can't want more commitment than Spike Lee gave this movie," Worth says. ". . . He's a very talented filmmaker, and I didn't have a bad experience. I've had much worse. . . . I'm thankful he made this movie."
* IN TODAY'S TV TIMES: Actress Angela Bassett discusses her roles as Betty Shabazz in "Malcolm X" and Katharine Jackson in the miniseries "The Jacksons."