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Left Out of the Picture

Members of Petey Greene's family  --  daughter Petra, left, widow Judy and son Ralph Waldo Greene III  --  are angry about Greene's depiction and their lack of input in his biopic.
Members of Petey Greene's family -- daughter Petra, left, widow Judy and son Ralph Waldo Greene III -- are angry about Greene's depiction and their lack of input in his biopic. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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The unmarked grave of Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene is one more bitter footnote to a film that, to outward appearances, should be a celebration of a local legend. Instead, it seems to have embittered almost everyone whom Greene once loved, a warning tale about the perils of Hollywood.

Greene's own family was not invited to the premiere. His adult children had to pay $9 to see the movie in Largo. They hated it. Their mother, Judy Greene, is furious. They are not talking to Lurma Rackley, the writer who worked for 20 years to get Petey Greene's memoir published. Rackley, now a spokeswoman for CARE in Atlanta, was cut out of the movie deal. She is no longer speaking to Dewey Hughes, the former WOL executive whose son wrote the first draft of the screenplay.

The film's producer, Bethesda native Joe Fries (pronounced "freeze"), worked for more than a decade to get a movie made about an icon of his youth -- only to see it garner critical raves, lots of hometown ire and, so far, few viewers. The movie has grossed $3.6 million in five weeks. It cost $15 million.

"They made my dad out to be a womanizer and a clown," says daughter Petra Greene, now a corrections officer at a halfway house in Southeast Washington. "Nobody ever asked us anything. How can they do that?"

"If I had regarded watching the movie as anything other than an assignment, I would have walked out," says Chuck Ramsey, a longtime friend of Greene's.

It seems almost everyone is furious at Hughes, who is portrayed in the film as Greene's closest friend. Hughes, for his part, doesn't want to talk about a movie that is largely about him.

"I don't have anything to say about 'Talk to Me,' " he says, reached by telephone at his home in suburban Los Angeles. "I don't want to get in a ping-pong match with people on the other side of the table."

Fries, the producer, is taken aback by it all.

"The amazing thing is that there isn't this wonderful appreciation for Petey Greene's resurrection," he says from his Los Angeles office. "He deserved the attention. We're delighted with the movie, with the critical reaction. I'm sorry people in the family object to it."

For the uninitiated, Petey Greene was a D.C. native who pulled a six-year bid for armed robbery, spent time in and out of drunk tanks but overcame poverty and alcoholism to become a beloved community organizer and radio and television personality from the 1960s to the early 1980s.

He got a lot of things done for a lot of poor people, working through the United Planning Organization. He had star quality. He did stand-up comedy. He used his irreverent radio and television appearances to entertain his constituency while cheerfully lambasting politicians, both white and black, who he thought were not honest. His show made it to cable, on BET. His friends included everyone from neighborhood drug addicts to Sen. Hubert Humphrey and boxer Sugar Ray Leonard.

The movie idea began with Rackley taping dozens of hours of Greene's memoirs before he died, at 52. Rackley kept working on the book in her spare time over the years, and she eventually contacted Hughes, who had moved to Los Angeles. Rackley sent him a few chapters, he gave them to Fries, and a movie idea was born.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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