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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)

But this is Hollywood. Things change.

Fries didn't think a bio of Greene would work. He liked the idea of contrasting Hughes and Greene, two very different types of black men -- the former serious and uptight, the latter freewheeling and profane -- combining their talents.

"It turned into a buddy picture," Fries says.

The resulting film is "inspired by" Greene, Fries notes, and does not intend to be a factual recitation of events.

"Beat by beat, it's a movie about Dewey Hughes," he says. "It's misrepresented as a movie solely about Petey Greene."

The film omits any mention of Greene's community work, his social consciousness, his kids. Shorn of that substance, friends and family say, he comes off as a caricature, a drunken loudmouth with a floozy on his arm. The movie portrays him as falling into alcoholic squalor at the end of his life, when he actually stopped drinking, joined a church, owned two homes and worked steadily.

Most galling to his family, it portrays Hughes as delivering a moving eulogy at Greene's funeral. In reality, Hughes had fired Greene and the pair never reconciled. Hughes did not come to the funeral and the family says he did not send a condolence card.

Twenty years on, he never contacted the family about the film, they say.

"Dewey didn't get in touch with Petey's sister or his family," says Frank Wilson, 75, Greene's lifelong friend. "He just did what he wanted to do on his own."

Fries, the producer, doesn't deny that, and says there's a simple reason why Greene's family members weren't more involved -- because they alienated everyone involved in the project.

"Judy Greene has sent angry letters to other studios, various letters to various people, always asking for money and kind of threatening everyone, when she did not have any idea of what we were doing. It's not a way to endear yourself to anyone in a creative process. . . . This was a hornet's nest, and I wasn't going to get into it."

Judy Greene doesn't deny sending at least one letter, but denies it was angry.

"I simply said that under no circumstances was any movie to go forward without consulting the family," she says. "What on Earth is wrong with that?"

Filmmakers did contact Terence Greene, a nephew, who cooperated with filmmakers and is putting together a documentary about his uncle. He says Greene's children and their mother mistakenly think they own the sole rights to Greene's memory.

"I thought the movie would bring the family together with a lot of memories of what happened while we were growing up, but that just didn't happen," he says. "I don't understand the bitterness. Sometimes people just get to talking, perhaps out of ignorance, because they think that people can't make movies about your family members. The fact is, they don't have to have your permission."

* * *

It's all over now.

The movie is fading from area theaters. Greene's memory is fading from the D.C. landscape. Washington was "my town," he often liked to say. But it isn't anymore, and not so many people care about a flamboyant talk show host who tooled around town in a flashy Cadillac 30 years ago.

At his final resting place, Mercer, the cemetery official, says payments were never completed on a monument, so one was never installed.

The groups that are not talking to one another now say they have only recently discovered that Greene lay in an unmarked grave. They all say they are repairing that oversight.

"I went out to the grave for filming this documentary, I couldn't find the marker and thought, 'You've got to be kidding me,' " says Terence Greene. "Somebody dropped the ball, I don't know who. But I'm going to take care of it."

"We're certainly going to see that's taken care of," says Fries.

Judy Greene says, contrary to cemetery officials, that there once was a marker there, but it was removed: "There was a lawsuit going to be filed. . . . I don't want to go into it. We're dealing with that situation."

R.I.P., Petey Greene.

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