Angela Bassett idolized the Jackson 5 singing group while growing up in the projects in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"That was the only group my mother paid money to have outfits made to go to their concerts," Bassett, 34, said in a recent interview. "When I was 12, (my mother asked), 'What do you want for Christmas?' 'I want a guitar like Jermaine.' I took lessons until the money ran out. I grew up with them."
The Jacksons, she said, were a positive influence on the African-American community because they went from near poverty in the steel town of Gary, Ind., to the top of the Billboard charts. "They were shopping at the Salvation Army. Just to be able to look at them and see where this family could go ..."
Back then, Bassett was just beginning to dream about becoming an actress. Twenty-two years later, she is playing the Jackson family matriarch, Katherine, in ABC's five-hour miniseries, "The Jacksons--An American Dream."
The miniseries features 38 Jackson tunes, but it really is Katherine and Joseph Jackson's story. "It starts with the mother and father and their story," Bassett said. I go from 15 to 55."
Even months after finishing "The Jacksons," the soft-spoken actress still seems to be amazed she's playing the mother of her role models. "It is really quite wonderful."
The past two years have been pretty wonderful for Bassett, a Yale School of Drama graduate who has appeared on Broadway in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and in such films as "City of Hope" and "Innocent Blood."
Last year, she made an impression with critics and audiences alike as the mother of Cuba Gooding Jr. in "Boyz N the Hood."
But none of that compares to this week: Not only does she star in "The Jacksons," she also plays Betty Shabazz, the wife of Malcolm X, in Spike Lee's much-anticipated film, "Malcolm X," which opens Wednesday.
Though Bassett loved working with Spike Lee in the film, she said is not pleased the director is encouraging African-Americans to take the day off from school or work to see the movie.
"When I was in school, my mother stressed education," Bassett said. "I am so glad she did. I graduated from Yale College and Yale University with my master's and I didn't do it by missing school. It is a wonderful movie. It is one of the highlights of my career, but I am not showing up at your job. I am not paying you your lost wages or grading your exams!"
Bassett said after completing "Malcolm X" she didn't know if she would ever get another role as satisfying as Betty Shabazz. "Then boom, to get Katherine Jackson," she said. "I think I have been incredibly blessed and it is probably just all downhill from here."
That's doubtful. Jaki Brown, who was casting director on both "Boyz" and "The Jacksons," said Bassett is "an amazing woman. There is just layers of acting there I don't think we have seen yet."
"Jacksons" co-executive producer Suzanne de Passe cried when she watched Bassett's audition tape. "It was a scene where Katherine finds that Joe (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) has been having an affair and confronts him," she said. "Suddenly, tears just jumped from my eyes. She conveyed all that pain. I am the greatest Angela Bassett fan. She is such a fine human being and so steady. She completely submerges herself in the role."
The actress also was very helpful to professional dancer Wylie Draper, who makes his film debut as the teen-age and adult Michael Jackson. "Most of my scenes in the movie deal with her," Draper said. "She brought out the best in me. When you are an amateur and working with someone that talented and experienced, they bring the best out of you. She was so real, you had to be real yourself."
Bassett said she discovered Betty Shabazz and Katherine Jackson share a lot of the same qualities: "They are both strong women--mothers who were there even when things got low-down and ridiculous. The strength of someone like Betty Shabazz, losing her husband, not to natural causes, but to violence. Katherine Jackson comes from such humble, humble beginnings. It is amazing to sit (with her)."
Though Bassett wasn't able to meet with Betty Shabazz because she was out of the country when filming began on "Malcolm X," she did get to know Katherine Jackson, who visited "The Jacksons" sets in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
"She was very quiet, but you feel the support," Bassett said. "She was a shy woman, but very passionate."
Though "The Jacksons" was made with the cooperation of the family--Jermaine Jackson and his wife, Margaret Maldonado Jackson, are the producers--the miniseries doesn't look at the family through rose-colored glasses. It depicts patriarch Joseph Jackson in a less-than-favorable light but shows Katherine Jackson as the one who kept the family together.
"She knows her own mind," Bassett said of Katherine Jackson. "She made some points (to me) you will find out in the story. Like with Marlon, Joseph Jackson wanted to drop him from the group because he wasn't the best dancer at the time or best singer and she said no. She knew what that would do to the self-esteem of this child. She said no more beatings. I found a good deal of strength in her."
Bassett started laughing. "You see some heartache and pain (in the miniseries)," she said. "Listen, I was crying so much. You are crying because you are so proud, crying because you know of indiscretions, crying because of mistakes--getting pregnant when you're not married and you're young and he's leaving town--along with the whippings and beatings and the pain the children are going through. So like Suzanne (de Passe) says, it has teeth."
"The Jacksons--An American Dream" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on ABC.