Hero Role in Riots Pushes Actor Onto a Larger Stage : Human relations: ‘I can’t be a bystander anymore,’ says Gregory Alan-Williams. He writes of life-jolting changes.
In Los Angeles during the riots two years ago, he saved a Japanese American man from being beaten to death. In New York last month, on tour to promote his book about those moments, he saved a hotel bellman--mostly from the bellman’s own worst impulses.
“I can’t be a bystander anymore,” said Gregory Alan-Williams, explaining why he invited the black bellman, spouting anti-Semitic theories on the cause of the Holocaust, into his hotel room for a chat. “He was a very smart man who was a bellman--that was part of his frustration. He was looking for a scapegoat.”
Alan-Williams is a professional actor who walked into the real world during the riots and finds he cannot go back. Everything in his life has changed since he waded into the violence of Florence and Normandie--a black man acting “under cover of darkness,” he quips--to rescue the badly beaten Takao Hirata from an angry mob. He dragged the dazed and profusely bleeding man on an almost Biblical trek from front lawn to front lawn, seeking refuge and being turned away by residents gripped with fear or anger. After trusting a concerned motorist to take Hirata to a hospital, Alan-Williams emerged from the intersection a hero whose life was jolted out of its routine.
His two-year marriage dissolved. He even parted ways--amicably--with his talent agency. But his biggest metamorphosis was into book author. He secretly toiled at his word processor during the filming of “In the Line of Fire,” in which he played one of Clint Eastwood’s fellow Secret Service agents.
“A Gathering of Heroes--Reflections on Rage and Responsibility” (Academy Chicago Publishers) exhaustively covers Alan-Williams’ day at Florence and Normandie (there’s even a map of his movements in the intersection), but more important, it chronicles the people--the “heroes” of the title--and events of his own past that compelled him to be more than a bystander at the intersection.
In the slender book, Alan-Williams, who still keeps in occasional phone contact with Hirata, recalls being victim and victimizer. He talks about being a young black boy in a predominantly white Des Moines, Iowa, junior high school, the kid who got whacked in the face after band practice while the other kids stood around and laughed. He also recalls himself as a young Marine recruit who joined others in his platoon in a brutal nighttime assault on a fellow Marine they considered inept and disgraceful.
That image haunted him as he drove toward the riot flash point, drawn by radio accounts of violence:
Those who beat Rodney King, those who battered the people at Florence and Normandie, and those like me who participated in the beating of Private Ladieu--we had all abandoned principle and decency in the self-serving name of order and justice.
Even his sense of his vocation has changed since that day. In the wake of the book, now trickling into stores, he has found a new calling as a public speaker. Whether he is talking at a Catholic high school in Chicago or a community forum in Pasadena, where two dozen people showed up at small bookstore for an informal Saturday night chat with the author, he is blissfully in his element.
“I talk about myself as a victim of intolerance and violence, as perpetrator, as bystander, and as rescuer,” says Alan-Williams, whose sonorous voice has won him lucrative voice-over work and made it easy to write a one-man theatrical show for himself, “The Life and Times of Deacon A. L. Wiley.” He plays a turn-of-the-century former slave sharing his life experiences and talking about taking control of his own destiny.
He makes his living playing a beach cop on “Baywatch,” the syndicated television show. It offers a pleasant working environment--the beach--but it’s not about him; it’s about blond girls and David Hasselhoff. Few of Alan-Williams’ acting roles so far have fulfilled him. “You do it, you see it, and there’s nothing left,” he says. “It leaves you very empty. That’s why all this other (book tour) work is very welcome. . . . You can address issues.”
He sits in the den of his rented Hollywood hillside apartment, the drone of the freeway coming through the open patio doors. At 37, he is considering moving back to his home state of Iowa for the summer and commuting for acting jobs or speaking engagements. (“I never liked L.A.,” he says. “It’s a pit.”)
The accolades have not erased nagging problems: Financial difficulties caused him to fall behind in support payments to three children by two different women. He struggles to pay the money back and uses the experience of unwed fatherhood in his speeches as a cautionary tale. (“I talk to young black men about this all the time.”) His divorce is bitter. His estranged wife, B. Sylestine Williams, a hairdresser, doubts his selflessness.
“He saved Tak Hirata’s life. I’m OK with that,” she says, but “he went there for his own self-aggrandizement.”
Alan-Williams’ former talent agency didn’t see how his need to travel as a speaker dovetailed with its need to have him auditioning in L.A. The speaking trips also strained his marriage. “I was away a lot, and I couldn’t always bring my wife. I think there was a lot of fear. She saw me moving beyond. . . . As you can probably tell from the book, we’re very different people.”
In the book, he recounts arriving home after the riots, covered in Hirata’s blood, and his wife’s observing his cut finger and his bedraggled condition:
She took my hand in her lap. “Is that his blood on you?”
“Don’t you think you oughta get checked?”
“Checked? For what?”
“Hepatitis . . . HIV.”
. . . Syleste and I argued back and forth for a while. I told her that her concerns were cynical and ridiculous. She was getting on my nerves. “Do you think God would let me get away with what I got away with out there and then let me get AIDS!” I yelled.
Legions of publishers turned down his manuscript. And the small company that did pick it up found some bookstores uninterested, particularly in riot-weary Los Angeles. For one thing, the author’s interpretations did not seem politically correct to those who viewed the riots as a righteous rebellion, years in the making.
By the second day of the Los Angeles Riots, I was absolutely livid with rage. I had witnessed firsthand . . . the consequences of intolerance and unchecked anger. Yet folks were running around screaming about uprisings and revolutions--seemingly unable or unwilling to make distinctions between legitimate protests against systemic injustice, and terrorism.
His publisher sent him on a book tour that largely skipped Los Angeles.
“I got the vibe that people think it was a revolution and a good thing,” said Paul Bennett, the publisher’s marketing director.
Alan-Williams shrugged it off.
“I told Paul early on, ‘First of all, don’t nobody want to hear about them riots,’ ” he said. “And secondly, everybody writes a book. This is a very cynical town.”
Esowon, one of the city’s most prominent African American bookstores, declined to carry the book. “When I read the little synopsis, it just didn’t sound very interesting,” says co-owner James Fugate. He added wearily, “The local authors always feel the local bookstore should sell their book.”
Midnight Special, a Santa Monica store specializing in political social science, agreed to a book-signing only after Bennett pleaded with them. (“I was desperate,” he recalls.) In the end, Alan-Williams had to cancel--he was filming an episode of “L.A. Law.”
“I had a lot of reservations about whether we would get folks to it if we did,” says Cynthia Cuza of Midnight Special. “I think he misses the point. . . . The folks that were at the intersection of Florence and Normandie have had years of legitimate complaints and it was a spontaneous uprising.”
But she relented, she says, because “part of what we do is give first-time authors an opportunity.”
Other stores had no problem with the book. The Black and Latino Multicultural Center in Pasadena held a book-signing. Book Soup ordered 10 copies. So did Dutton’s in Brentwood. Crown Books bought 250 to spread around its 68 L.A.-area stores. “I did read the book, I loved it,” said Miriam Bass, Crown’s assistant vice president for merchandising on the West Coast. “I moved here when I was 7. I love reading about the city, problems and all.”
When Alan-Williams speaks, he doesn’t mince words preaching self-discipline and control of one’s own destiny. His listeners can be just as blunt.
“Why,” one disgruntled black man wrote after Alan-Williams gave a talk in Brookline, Mass., at the invitation of a human relations group, “do you keep bringing in these Uncle Clarence Thom-as niggers?”
That hurt, Alan-Williams said. “My question to him would be, ‘Why didn’t you say that when I was there? I invited dialogue. Why are you such a punk that you won’t even write the letter to me? You write it to the white people.’ ”
During the Reginald O. Denny beating trial, Alan-Williams was asked on the witness stand to identify Damian Williams, later convicted of attacking Denny, as one of Takao Hirata’s assailants. He couldn’t. In the madness, he said, he had never had a good look at any of the suspects’ faces.
While he was on the stand, Damian Williams winked at him.
He winked back.
“I had been wanting to make a connection with Mr. Williams,” he says. “We were kept so separate. In the public eye, in the eye of the prosecution, these were monsters and I was a hero. They wanted to cut me off. And this is what black folks suspect about my book--they don’t think I understand that this is how people are separated from one another: You are good. They are bad. We love you. We don’t love them. I love them. And I love Hirata. Because I love Hirata doesn’t mean I have to stop loving them.”