This Time, Do The Right Thing

Karen Grigsby Bates is a Los Angeles-based writer for a national magazine

The retrieved Oscars were still warm from the TV crews’ lights at the press conference where they’d been displayed when the jokes began, all a variation of the same thing: “That’s about the only way a brother’s gonna get an Oscar in Hollywood.”

Well, that’s a slight exaggeration, but the spirit of the observation isn’t too far off the mark. In its 72-year history, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was been a bit, well, stingy in awarding its coveted little gold statuettes to actors who happen to be significantly browner than the general membership. Hattie McDaniel was the first person to win one in 1940 (best supporting actress) for her role as Scarlett O’Hara’s devoted slave, Mammy, in 1939’s “Gone With the Wind.” Since then, there have been so few more that we can name them all here:

* Sidney Poitier won as best actor in 1963 for his role as itinerant laborer Homer Smith in “Lilies Of the Field.”

* Louis Gossett Jr. won best supporting actor for his portrayal of a tough drill instructor in the 1982 movie “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

* Denzel Washington won best supporting actor for his role as a slave-turned-soldier in 1989’s “Glory” and is nominated this year for best actor for his depiction of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in “The Hurricane.”


* Whoopi Goldberg won best supporting actress for her performance as a sharp-talking medium helping to find the killer of a New York banker in the 1990 film “Ghost.”

* Cuba Gooding Jr. won best supporting actor for his 1996 role as a “show-me-the-money” football player in “Jerry Maguire.”

As Porky Pig would note, “That’s all, folks"--until Willie Fulgear found the filched Oscars that made him, temporarily anyway, the most Oscar-laden player in all of Los Angeles. Of any color.

Fulgear, 61, was looking for moving boxes in dumpsters near his Koreatown home when he stumbled across some suspiciously heavy cartons, opened one and found himself face to face with Oscar. Suspecting foul play, he loaded the boxes into his car, drove to his home and told his son. They surfed the Net and discovered that some Oscars had, indeed, been stolen. There was even a hefty reward posted. Cool! They called the police and a local news station. (Prudent move, that: Black folks in places like Los Angeles and New York have had infelicitous interactions with the police enough lately that it is a good idea to have a camera crew along. Just in case.)

The police came, took the boxes and asked Fulgear to show them where he’d found them, which he was happy to do.

Fade to black. Now, focus on Oscar night with Fulgear, $50,000 richer with his reward, dressed splendidly in formal wear, his Significant Other on his arm, walking proudly down the red carpet, past the media, clicking and whirring away on wooden risers, past fans screaming for the famous behind them.

Oops. Somebody call rewrite. Because so far, that doesn’t seem to be in the script.

Officials of Roadway Express, the company that employed the alleged thieves, is dragging its heels about delivering the promised reward until they’ve closed the investigation. (Let’s see now: Fulgear isn’t a suspect, he found what was missing and notified the proper authorities, but he has to wait for his reward because someone else hasn’t completed the paperwork?)

And when a representative of the academy was asked if Fulgear would be a guest at this Sunday’s ceremony, he sputtered and hemmed and hawed and said the equivalent of, “We’ll have to see how things work out.”

How shabby is that? Fifty-two of the 55 missing Oscars have been found, and the big night will go on with the original statuettes, not last-minute replacements. If Roadway Express and the academy had any class, Fulgear would get a $50,000 check before week’s end, decent seats to the ceremonies and tickets to the Governor’s Ball afterward. But class, like Oscars for black actors, seems to be in short supply.

Except at Fulgear’s end. He was classy enough to be amused at all of this: “Look,” he told a television crew Monday, “what did I have, 52 Oscars? That’s more than anybody else. That’s got to be some kind of record, right?”

Maybe he should get a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.