WHILE INDUSTRY analysts and Hollywood studios tally the proceeds from what is predicted to be the biggest box-office summer in cinema history, not everyone is cheering the tinseltown revival. Hundreds of black actors, directors and writers and the NAACP are protesting the near-total absence of blacks both on and off the screen in this season's crop of films.
For the past two weeks, NAACP officials have been jetting between coasts, negotiating with studio heads and organizing seminars on boycott techniques for the organization's 400,000 members as a follow-up to their July 1 decision to confront the studios head-on.
The NAACP recently released figures showing that blacks comprise 30 percent of the moviegoers at major-city first runs and pay $400 million annually for their tickets. But, according to the NAACP's findings, only 12 of the 240 feature films released in 1981 had black males in leading or supporting roles. Only one black female had a leading role -- Cicely Tyson in the film "Bustin' Loose."
Black performers and filmmakers add flesh and voices to the frustration reflected in the bare-bone statistics of the NAACP.
"You just can't tell me that E.T. couldn't have landed in a black family's yard," said actor Howard Rollins, who hasn't worked in a film since he snagged the role of Coalhouse Walker in "Ragtime" two years ago. "A black actor could easily have done 'Taxi Driver.' Or 'Butch Cassidy.' Or 'Garp.' What's so exclusive about that?"
Ben Vereen, Chicken George in the ABC mini-series "Roots," says he's tired of the stereotypical roles in the scripts he's been asked to consider. "I don't want to do a film about: a black issue," he said. "I don't want to play a black man out of work, hustling and on drugs all the time. Why can't I just be the guy next door -- like Dustin Hoffman in 'The Graduate?' "
Carl Weathers, who plays fighter-turned-coach Apollo Creed in Sylvester Stallone's successful "Rocky III," is one of the few black actors this summer's record flock of filmgoers has had the chance to see. But, as the pimp-and-junkie offers trickle in, he says, "I worry that it'll never happen again, that people will forget who I am, that I'll forget who I am."
The scene: The set during last year's shooting of Paramount's "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." The problem: Production manager needs a double for actor Paul Winfield in a final series of action shots, but says he can't find a black stunt man.
The solution: Use a white stunt man already on the set, "charcoal" him black with makeup.
The Los Angeles-based Black Stuntmen's Association is still reeling and recently filed a petition with the EEOC against the studio for the "ultimate casting insult."
"They could have gotten as many blacks as they wanted," said Len Glascow, the association's co-chairman. "I would love to have had the chance to fill in. That 'painting down' is a definite no-no in the business. They don't play us and we don't play them."
Michael Eisner, president of Paramount Pictures, which promptly apologized for the incident, said, "We were furious when we found out about it. It was ridiculous and never should have happened. I think it's in totally bad form. But this was a minor incident, not a major incident. It doesn't go to the heart of the issue of blacks in film. I've never heard of it ever happening before or since."
"There's no excuse for that kind of insensitivity," said Curtis Rodgers, a member of the NAACP's film industry task force, which looks out for such employment practices. Having gotten a major boost in its protest plans from a July 2 Supreme Court ruling sanctioning peaceful protest of unfair employment practices, the organization announced last week that it will soon target its boycott on one major studio.
The NAACP's boycott plan was sparked by its Los Angeles branch, which annually holds an "Image Awards" ceremony for prominent blacks in several fields. When they found there was only one nominee in the "best black actress" category, branch members concluded that black participation in the industry had reached "an all-time low," and suggested boycott pressure.
"You're dealing with arteriosclerosis here," said Rodgers. "The studios have been doing things the same way for decades. They don't care anything about the rest of the country's equal opportunity laws. They've been given unbelievable latitude because they're artists expressing their creativity."
Studio officials counter that race rarely enters the equation in filmmaking decisions. "There's no other industry that has less interest in who you are," said Eisner, whose company distributed "Reds," "Ragtime," and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," among others. "Race never crosses anybody's mind. I've never known anybody in the industry to care what anybody was. We don't think about black or white. But we do discriminate strongly against untalented people."
EMMY AWARD winner Lou Gossett, Jr. took a chance last year. He showed up at Paramount to try out for the part of Sgt. Foley in "An Officer and a Gentleman." The character was that of a tough but perceptive drill instructor whom the script described clearly as white.
Gossett felt he was perfect for the part.
"I just went up to the producer and told him this role could be played by a black, white, Chinese -- anybody," said Gossett. "It wasn't a white role. It was a role. Just consider me for it."
Producer Martin Elfand went for the idea and Gossett turned in one of the most critically acclaimed performances by a black actor since those of Sidney Poitier in the '60s. It was also Gossett's meatiest part since his award-winning Fiddler in "Roots " five years ago.
"But you should have seen the shocked looks on the white actors' faces when I sat next to them for this," he said. "It doesn't faze me. I'm not going to carry any picket signs. I just told them, 'Don't say no before I show up.' "
Although Gossett will star as a CIA agent in the next James Bond film, he said the only way to keep the roles coming is "to be thought about. And once you get the chance to be thought about, you have to be good, real good, so they won't ever forget you."
BIG BREAK. Star billing. A spot on "The Tonight Show." Fame. The kind of name recognition that guarantees offers and scripts written around you because you're hot has eluded actress Lynn Moody.
Relatively unknown, treading halfway between stardom and unemployment, Moody hit Hollywood nine years ago.
It was during that much-criticized "blaxploitation" era that Moody landed her first screen role -- a typical girlfriend part in the 1973 film "Scream, Blacula, Scream." She didn't appear on celluloid again until nine years later in this year's "Some Kind of Hero," in which she played the unfaithful wife of Richard Pryor.
In between the two, she's had various starring, feature and bit roles on television dramas and sitcoms--from "Lou Grant" to "Love Boat." She costarred in the short-lived 1974 series "That's My Mama," and portrayed Alex Haley's great-grandmother in "Roots."
"But I don't have the choice of auditioning for -- much less playing -- Norma Rae or Annie Hall," said Moody. "I might be a guest star one week and a secondary character the next month -- maybe. And I'm lucky. I work more than most."
She's trudged to her share of movie auditions and, invariably, she says, white directors say that blacks are more prepared than whites come tryout time. "That's because we're hungry and can't afford not to be good. They usually throw us one bone and have us all fight for it. But we'd rather see one of us get it than none of us.
"Lord knows we never get the chance to be box office hits," she sighed. "We don't get the chance to make people love us. When 'Roots' came out, people said, 'Where did all these people come from?' We were here all the time."
BEN VEREEN. He's instantly recognizable with or without his American Express Card. "Pippin" on Broadway, "Roots" on television, a cameo spot in the film "All That Jazz." Oscar and Tony award presentations. Stardom clearly is his.
But, after all the glitter and glory, after the talk shows and telethons, after "Tenspeed and Brownshoe" -- his own TV series -- even Ben Vereen has trouble finding the right film role.
"They're into this science-fiction kick, you know. That shouldn't matter. There's always room for a black person in any movie. They just don't know it," he said. "If you're doing a film about a nice Jewish family, fine. But don't they have any black neighbors? If you're doing a story about Three Mile Island, don't you have any blacks working in the plant?"
His name has pull, more pull than most. "But that can change overnight." said Vereen, who managed to get his friend Bob Fosse to create a role for him in "All That Jazz" in 1978. "The only thing I can do is to keep working. As long as I keep working, others will have jobs."
Carl Weathers. The name has yet to become a household word, but the face and the rippling muscles glistening on his solid, broad-shouldered frame have flashed across thousands of silver screens as fighter Rocky Balboa's number-one nemesis Apollo Creed in all three installments of the "Rocky" saga.
"I'm hot these days, thank God," he said, "I just hope it lasts."
He's won raves for his expanded role in "Rocky III" and "people now recognize me on the streets," but the scripts are coming in slowly and "I don't see that much quality material," he said. "If I didn't care about the type of roles I play, then I'd be working more. But the point is . . . I do care."
Originally from New Orleans, Weathers played defensive end and studied drama at San Diego State College, played linebacker with the Oakland Raiders and, eventually, won a supporting role in Michael Ritchie's "Semi-Tough."
Now, he says, "I want to work more, I want better roles. I want my talent showcased. I would love to have had Marlon Brando's role in 'Last Tango in Paris,' " he says.
"The ideal role hasn't come along yet, not by a long shot," he said. "I'm still waiting. I may be waiting till the day I die. But I know it's out there, somewhere."
FEW WOULD question the acting prowess of stage veteran James Earl Jones. In 25 years, he has played everything from Paul Robeson to King Lear. He's done numerous films -- from "Claudine" to "Mandingo," played Alex Haley in "Roots II," and is the original basso voice of nefarious Darth Vadar in "Star Wars."
"At this point, I would love to retire," said Jones, who has done mostly theater for the past few years, "but I can't afford to. I want to do more film work. I can't make a living off the stage. Not off Broadway and barely on Broadway."
So James Earl Jones is thinking of doing commercials.
With the fervor over last year's "Ragtime" having subsided considerably, Howard Rollins is now shuttling between a teacher's part in the PBS series "Moving Right Along" and a periodic role as a Vietnam veteran in the soap opera "Another World."
"I've gotten lots of inquiries, but the roles are either the same old rehash or Super-Negroes," said Rollins, who previously played Alex Haley's brother in "Roots II." "Just because I got one exceptionally good role doesn't mean I should settle for just anything now."
He says his white "Ragtime" colleagues have fared much better than he since that highly publicized film: "One's already done two films since then." Rollins has his eye on a screenplay of Toni Morrison's "Tar Baby," which is years from production at best. "I guess that will be my next movie -- if anything," he said.
Until his next role turns up, Ben Vereen has gone back on tour with a cabaret act, started writing a play, and is considering an ABC series in which he would portray "another con artist."
Other actors, with either enough name recognition, capital or that nebulous kind of "pull" (not necessarily in that order) are going independent -- forming their own production companies and creating roles for themselves based mainly on biographical scripts.
Diana Ross, who made her last film appearance five years ago as Dorothy in the extravagant box-office bomb "The Wiz," is now planning a film with her production company, Anaid Films, about singer-dancer Josephine Baker, in which Ross would play the lead. Dorian Harewood, costar of the ABC series "Strike Force" and another "Roots" alumnus, is producing "The Nat King Cole Story" with himself in the title role.
After acting credits on various TV series and last year's film "Body and Soul," Jayne Kennedy has been looking for appropriate roles, "but I'm always too something. I've been too light, too dark, too beautiful, too short," said Kennedy, who stands 5 feet 10 inches. "When they said I was too short I knew I'd heard it all."
She, too, has formed a production company and is working on "The Dorothy Dandridge Story," in which she is to star. Meanwhile, until another film job comes along, Kennedy is appearing in commercials for Esoterica skin cream, hosting a beauty care show for cable TV and releasing an exercise album.
THREE BILLION dollars. That's roughly how much cash rolls out of the hands of millions of filmgoers and into theater ticket booths in an average year worldwide. What kind of dent would an NAACP boycott make in those box office receipts?
"Little, if any," said Harold Vogel, industry analyst for Merrill Lynch. "I don't think a boycott will keep people away from the theater in the first place. It makes hardly a bit of difference. People aren't looking for cultural issues or social issues. If it's a must-see film, they'll go."
This year, said Vogel, Hollywood's faring better than ever. Film attendance this summer alone has beaten all previous records by 20 to 30 percent and the season's most prominent "must-see" film, "E.T.," has already grossed $170 million.
"The boycott didn't strike me as a major economic issue at the box office," said Arthur Rockwell, securities analyst for Crowell, Weedon & Co. in Los Angeles. "Most major films draw a white middle-class majority market. Of course, if they the NAACP manage to pull 15 percent of the audience, then that would be a significant number. And it certainly wouldn't help the industry."
"A boycott would hurt everybody," said John Veitch, president of Columbia Pictures ("Annie," "Tess," "Stir Crazy"). "And it wouldn't solve any problems. Over the years, we've been making fewer and fewer films. There's just not much to go around."
Rodgers of the NAACP said that his organization, which last week began notifying African ambassadors of its boycott plans in order to "disrupt the international market," only wants the few roles available shared.
"We're not suggesting that if only 10 percent of all actors are working then blacks should be working more than whites," he said. "We just want some equity here."
But Paramount's Eisner said he couldn't think of a single movie his company has made that deserves to be boycotted. "People who make movies are human and sometimes what we do goes sour," he said. "But I think that, just like everybody else, the NAACP has to forgive us for making a few bad movies from time to time."
HOW DOES a studio decide from among the field of available scripts -- black and white, grave and glib -- which ones are worthy of the screen? "God only knows," said Michael Eisner of Paramount. "The only affirmative action we have is to be entertaining. We're not trying to cure cancer or solve the problems in Lebanon."
Robert Shapiro, president of Warner Bros. Studios ("Chariots of Fire," "Arthur," "The World According to Garp"), said that companies are forced to target their releases for the lowest common denominator. "You cast the best people in the roles you have, gear it for the largest audience you can get and leave it in the hands of the movie gods. You take a chance with every movie you make and an even larger risk with a black film."
CALL IT a brainstorming session of sorts. Shapiro of Warner Bros. got together over coffee with Richard Pryor and producer Marvin Worth one day and came up with what Shapiro thinks is a masterful idea for an epic biographical film: Richard Pryor as Malcolm X. Sidney Lumet as director.
Black actors and directors are outraged. "Malcolm would turn over in his grave if he knew whites were directing a film about him," said director William Crane, who hasn't worked since he directed "Roots II" in 1978. "Obviously, the studios think there's no black person in the country who can tell that story. They don't let us direct the 'Masada's or 'Funny Girl's as it is. If we don't get to tell our own stories, what do we get to do?"
"Obviously, Hollywood doesn't want to make a serious film about Malcolm X," said actor-director Ossie Davis. "Hollywood wants to make bucks at the box office . . ."
This particular choice is the latest evidence of the lack of black participation in the industry since the brief era of blaxploitation films -- those low-budgeted B, C and D movies that sometimes cast athletes and models as fast-talking pimps and their voluptuous ladies, but often gave serious black actors, directors and writers a chance to try their wings.
The love affair lasted five or so years, produced hits -- like "Shaft" -- along with a number of flops, and fizzled out toward the mid-'70s, leaving hundreds of black actors out in the cold. Economists cite production cutbacks resulting from the rise in movies on cable TV and a general industry downswing as major reasons for the decline in black movies.
Davis thinks there's more to it. "Hollywood just got tired of us," he suggests. "Let us say, blacks were no longer in fashion."
Crane said that "the circle is small as to those who work. You see the same names and faces over and over again. What if something happens to Richard Pryor? According to the studios, there is no one else. They do the same thiing with producers and directors."
Make that writers, too, says Lonnie Elder, who wrote the screenplay for "Sounder" and hasn't worked since co-writing "Bustin' Loose" in 1979. "There's this hired-hand syndrome that puts you totally at the studios' mercy. They look at films like 'Sounder' as a fluke, an accident."
Shapiro said his main reason for hiring a non-black director and screenwriter was to ensure objectivity. "We wanted someone who could deal with Malcolm as a man, a person -- not someone who worshipped him," explained Shapiro, who said he read a number of screenplays by blacks, but considered only Pryor for the leading role.
"Pryor's the right age and has the passion that symbolizes Malcolm X," he says. "You have to remember that Malcolm's early life involved drugs, prostitutes, tough neighborhoods -- quite a character."
Asked about box-office considerations, he replies, "We certainly don't select an actor because he's bad box office. You wouldn't write about this if I said Joe Schmo was in it."
Actress Saundra Sharp of the Black Anti-Defamation Coalition, which loudly protested the mini-series "Beulahland" two years ago, feels this defense doesn't wash. "When white people cast their heroes, they don't bring out the comedians and tap dancers. Would they get a comic to play John Kennedy?"
CHECK ANY career guide or occupational handbook under the category "actor," and, in the adjacent block, under the lofty heading "JOB PROSPECTS," you'll more than likely find the words "poor," "gloomy," "bad," "bleak," and any number of other lugubrious modifiers, regardless of the prospective job-hunter's race.
"At this point, I just tell them to take any job they can," said Michael Kahn, who teaches some of the nation's most promising drama students at the Julliard School. "But I worry about my minority students especially. My God, what are we training them for? Where do they go after this?"
Some of his students -- like William Hurt of "Altered States" and Christopher Reeve of "Superman" -- went on to considerable success. But, asked about his black students, he's stumped. A pause and then an answer: "I guess that gives you an idea of the situation. We did have Bernadette Stannis, who dropped out to star in 'Good Times.' The rest are still kicking around in the theater."
Ben Vereen, who did his share of kicking around before finally hitting it big, has his own strategy for getting up-and-coming and "already arrived" black actors on the screen: Make black versions of proven box office hits. Like "Gone With the Wind." "But, I'll play Rhett Butler," said Vereen. "Let somebody else plow the field this time."