Left Out of the Picture
For Petey Greene's Family, 'Talk to Me' Is Anything but a Feel-Good Hit

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 20, 2007

Washington's own Petey Greene, hometown hero and subject of the new film "Talk to Me," is out here somewhere.

When he died of cancer in 1984, something like 10,000 people endured freezing January weather to attend his wake, funeral or burial and say goodbye to the ex-con, activist and broadcaster who had captured their hearts.

Twenty-three years on, you come to the hilltop where they laid him by -- Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland -- to pay your respects, but something is wrong. Row 372, Plot 12, the Frederick Douglass section. No Petey Greene. Not in this jumbled row or the next.

The temperature is 102. Brown grass. Baked dirt. Weeds.

Jerry Mercer, a family services counselor for the cemetery, gets out of a car and offers to help.

Petey Greene? Row 372?

"You're standing on him."

Come again?

"You're standing on him. Well, right there. See that pink headstone? He's right next to that. He doesn't have a marked grave."

Mercer steps over to a patch of weeds and red dirt between the headstones of Millie E. Carpenter and Fred Cason Sr. He holds his hands about the width of a coffin. He gestures back and forth, north to south.

"Petey's right down there."

* * *

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.

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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