Alex Haley swings out of a parking lot onto a busy Los Angeles boulevard, his bronze and green 250 SL Mercedes nosing along. A woman glances in her rearview mirror, takes a second look, checks out the license plate "KINTE," then beeps.
A white truck driver gets out for an autograph at a busy intersection. "Oh, if all this had happened when I was 25," says the 57-year-old Haley, especially when two black teen-age girls giggle and point. "But I don't let it get to me.I stay within the bounds of where Sister Scrap Green in Henning, Tenn., used to keep people. Once when my father was pontificating about his fraternity key, Sister Scrap said, 'Fine, 'fessor Haley, but what do it open?' All this is nice," says Haley. He lights another Marlboro and tilts his moonish face to the right, sighing slightly. "But I have to keep thinking what do it open?"
Two years ago, the morning after "Roots" attracted a record television audience of 80 million viewers, Alex Haley walked into Kennedy International Airport in New York. He was mobbed by a couple hundred people; his clothes were ripped; the security guards escorted him onto the airplane.
It was the end of privacy. One day 5,000 people lined up at a Los Angeles department store to buy his book and get an autograph. The office received 50,000 pieces of mail in six months. In a 10-month period Haley only slept at home 22 nights. "It was because of technology, television, no other writer had been pushed that far because of the media," says Haley now. "I couldn't handle that any more. I'm so pursued by things even now that you have to get away. I have a thing about getting away."
The pursuit of Haley has abated. Now, as "Roots: The Next Generations," the continuation of his family saga, gains respectable but not recordshattering ratings, Haley receives it all with a serene confidence. He is rich in California, a power in the hot, small world of entertainment. As millions of viewers are moved through stages of sorrow, mirth and rage by his tales on the magic box, Haley works on in a studio apartment, dines well in chic tennis clubs, receives flowers of congratulation: the Tennessee wanderer sojourning in lotus land. "This is a long way from Henning," he keeps saying.
On the huge TV screen in Alex Haley's living room, Ruby Dee and Dorian Harewood, as Haley's father and grandmother, were discussing how the young man could continue his education. For 10 minutes no one in the room moved or said a word.
Then, at a commercial break in "Roots: The Next Generations," Haley's guests -- cast members Lynne Moody, Fay Hauser, Stan Shaw and Harewood -- burst into applause and glanced triumphantly at each other.
"Hey Son," said Moody, who plays Haley's great-grandmother, as she turned to the author. "It's so touching." Sitting in the back of his comfortable living room, lined with the hundreds of plaques he has received in the last two years, Haley reflected, "It's great to watch those young actors become stars out of something you have been the genesis of."
During the breaks, punctuated by Shaw's yelling of "Get that baby up there," the group talked about reactions. "I went to the department store this morning to buy some slippers and I was mobbed by old Jewish ladies," said Shaw, who plays Will Palmer, shaking his head. Haley, the godfather of this group, just chuckled and said, "It's all starting for you."
This was a defensive, not a critical, audience. The settings didn't look too pristine, the philosophy of some characters didn't appear rigid, or even stereotypical, nor the action sentimental.
"White folks haven't seen us romantic. This episode shows a certain stage of sensitivity," said Shaw. "In certain societies the credo was uplifting, idealistic and very middle class. They always clean up white productions, so why not sanitize ours," said Hauser, who plays one of Henning's leading school teachers.
As the group dispersed from Haley's home, Haley himself went to his writing hideaway. He completed nine more pages of "Search," the long-over-due-at-the-publishers journal of his 12 years researching "Roots." At 9 a.m. Wednesday, he was at his office.
Haley now has extraordinary clout within the entertainment industry. He recalls that a few months back he was sitting in his office when the telephone rang.
"Brother Haley, I feel so deeply about what 'Roots' contributed to the world, I would be privileged to have a part." Alex Haley recognized the voice of Marlon Brando.
All he could say was, "Yes, you know there's the part of my Coast Guard commander." Brando replied quietly, "I don't want to be a good guy."
So on Sunday night Brando makes his television acting debut as the American Nazi leader, George Lincoln Rockwell, in the concluding episode. The fact that Brando volunteered, at Brando wage scale, underscores not only the significance of the "Roots" phenomenon but the status Haley has achieved.
"I'm still in the 'gee whiz' stage. I had never met Brando and still haven't but the fact that he called made me a big man around the studio," says Haley.
But for all of the perquisites of fame, he is haunted by a sense of inadequacy, a knowledge that he himself falls short of the family ideal that his work is all about.
It's a subject Haley brings up himself. The public perception of Haley as a symbol of family, the man who relentlessly traced the history of his own family, shared it with the world and became rich and famous because his story struck chords with millions of other families.
Yet the reality of Alex Haley's life tears that image to shreds. "Publicly I'm seen as a great family man, bringing family life and genealogy into consciousness. But may private life is quite the opposite," says Haley, driving between appointments, thinking of who he is now. "Largely my family or my lack of family is due to my nomad instinct. I'm really like Chicken George."
Family life has been one of the most consistent and lucrative themes of American television. From "Life With Father" to "The Waltons," rarely does the reality of the crumbling of the nuclear family get serious attention from the myth makers. Haley's story fits into the most reliable theme and promotional machinery of American television, making its own history because it mirrored a black society. Because of the first series' success, the continuation of "Roots" doubled its budget to $16.5 million and doubled its advertising rates. The Nielson overnights indicate the audiences are building.
In all the curiosity about Alex Haley and his family, which some considered overexposure, Haley successfully concealed many of the details of his private life. Night after night as he stood before black-tie audiences and shopping-bag ladies in church basements, Haley spoke of the charismatic moment when he found the griot in West Africa who linked him to his ancestor, Kunta Kinte.
Now his secrets are Hollywood's melodrama. In the two concluding episodes of "Roots II" on Friday and Sunday night, Alex Haley's private life is revealed. His rise through the Coast Guard, his abandonment of his wife of 20 years, his association with people he interviewed for Playboy magazine, Malcom X and Rockwell.
Haley winced at some of the revelations but gave the go-ahead. "We posed the question with Alex, only a small percentage of people know about the marriages," recalls Stan Margules, the producer, referring to Haley's two failed marriages. "Not only are we going to disseminate your private life but millions of people are going to see you coming off as a louse." Haley just shrugged.
Perhaps the pleasure of watching James Earl Jones, a close friend of Haley's, portray his contemporary self, lessened the pain. But the irony is not lost on Haley. "Several times I have been told you are married to your typewriter and somehow I don't feel guilty about it, maybe I should," says Haley. Since his success, Haley has doubled his first wife's alimony and increased the second's and keeps in frequent touch with his three children.
"Sometimes once in a while I get the feeling, sometimes for as long as four hours I might think about it, think I would feel comfortable in a family life," says Haley, rushing through the thought and showing his displeasure with the notion. "But I wouldn't thrive on it. 'Roots' and whatever else I have done is the result of being flexible."
"A woman in labor called recently to see if Haley could be godfather of her child," says Jennie Haley, Haley's office manager and cousin by marriage. "Not to mention the ones who want me to be the father," interrupts Haley, who is handwriting letters in green ink.
Haley's good fortunes haven't altered his style; he wears his suits with the air of a handyman rather than a bankable personality. He still calls people "honey" and "brother" with the folkiness which has carried him through high school assemblies and Johnny Carson. "I find it wry when I am portrayed as a historian, placed in the category of John Hope Franklin and the St. Clarie Drake. That's like the survivor of the Johnstown flood talking about the similarity to Noah," Haley says at one point.
But with the phenomenal reaction to his story, people begged for money and people sued.
In the wake of the plagiarism suits, some historians, intellecturals and readers question Haley's reputation. Haley is the man, more than anyone else in the 1970s, who made people see American history from a black perspective. In court he admitted three brief passages of Harold Courlander's book, "The African." made their way into his work, and settled out of court for a reported $500,000.
"When I settled I did think about what it would look like. But much more was at stake, the completion of my other work. I know the one person the lawsuits didn't mar my reputation with is me," he says. "And the public, not from what I have seen."
What he wants, says Haley, is solitude for writing. He recently changed his secret studio for writing -- for the second time. Once the other tenants in the apartment complex discovered his room, he received manuscripts under the door, and visitors at 3:30 a.m. In this studio he has hung the first original painting he has ever bought, an oil of a jockey and his horse alone on the track, by Ernie Barnes.
"That's me -- how many times the solitary work out, before the grandstand is filled. That's me, the drafts, the drafts, the rejection slips."
He moves around, constantly lighting cigarettes, checking on the purchases of the decorator, the supply of thin steaks and Chinese food in the freezer. He sits on the copper suede couch and talks about dreams.
"If I could arrange my life I would go on an American freighter, spend one month at sea, then one month on land. That's where I learned to write, the sea," says Haley, the brown eyes behind his gold-rimmed glasses focused straight ahead. "The combination of the soft vibration of the ship under you, the sea and the night stillness, those are my creative points."
It was in the night, when Haley works best, that he dictated over four months 1,000 hours of material about his family. Those anecdotes about personality and events of four generations of Haleys from 1882 to the present provided the source for this week's continuation. The Haley tapes were turned over to Ernest Kinoy, a veteran television writer, who produced a 350-page outline and then wrote most of the seven scripts. That process, and even the detachment, was not frustrating for Haley.
"I was the source, it is my story but I know where my capabilities are. I feel utterly competent as a writer but television writing is new to me, so I functioned as the source and interpreter."
While he still desires privacy, Haley will face the cameras again at the conclusion of Sunday night's episode.
This was, apparently, not an easy decision for those involved. "I argued with Alex very firmly," says producer Margulies, "Only if you say something that hasn't been said in the previous 14 hours, can you do it. I didn't want him to be anticlimatic to "Roots."
Haley won and will take two minutes to talk about the importance of family. "Margaret Mead once said that the fact that links us all together is that we have a mother and a father, that's one of the reasons 'Roots' has touched so many people," says Haley.
Behind Alex Haley's head, outside his picture window is a panorama of the Los Angeles hills. Next to his desk is a bookcase crammed with copies of the 28 translations of "Roots." "Just as 'Roots,' the book, got off the ground there were times I thought my knees were going to turn to jelly," he says. "It was wild, an absolutely wild time. And even now it makes me queasy to think about being famous," says Haley, smiling suddenly, "though I think I'm still only famous in a certain context, as a man who gave an impetus." And that, Sister Scrap, is what it do open.