It's always a bad sign when they tell you they're really just like other people. Why should anybody want to read about a movie star who's just like other people?
"Nobody sleeps late when they have a 2-year-old. You're up at 7, getting the apple juice and changing diapers."
Five months on the set of "The Cotton Club," one of the most difficult movies in history, and this is the best that Gregory Hines can offer?
Here's something else you do not want to hear:
"I'm not sure it's healthy for me to talk about myself so much. There's so much that's unhealthy in this business. I saw it when I did 'Sophisticated Ladies' . . . 'I did this, I did that, me, me, me.' I'd come home and want to talk about myself some more. My wife said, 'Okay, Mr. Broadway Star, take down the garbage.' And, you know, I respected that.' "
Gregory Hines. He of the casual style and the flashing feet and the smile that spreads like sunrise over the face, that great boyish signature smile, melting, melting. Gets up and starts to dance, looking serious -- glances at his feet, then here it comes, that slow breaking smile of building delight. That's the charm of him, as if looking at his feet he's pleased and mildly astonished. As if he's made a discovery. As if it delights him. He of a childhood in show business. He of taking the stage in hotels where a black man could not sleep. He of leaving the family act and the marriage and the kid and the dog to bum on the beach. Goodbye Hines and Hines. Goodbye Hines and Hines and Dad. So what if, when you want to get down to the bone-deep personal, Gregory Hines, with great charm, will not speak. He dances. Oh, how he can dance.
He's sitting in his publicist's office now, in baggy wool trousers and a dark pullover and a long dangling gold earring and a big Rolex watch. The publicist is the one who handles Gere and Rivers and Hawn. The Rolex is gold. Looks like business is good.
"Yeah," he says, his eyes moving toward it with the same slow-growing appreciation you see when he looks down and notices his dancing feet. "It was actually a gift from this guy named Bob Shapiro, who used to be head of Warner Bros. I did him a favor and he gave me this watch. It's like a hot-shot watch, and when my wife and daughters saw it they wanted me to take it back and get three watches, one for each of them, but the guy gave me the watch, you know, so I thought I'd wear it till someone takes it off of me."
His style is easy, good-natured, relaxed. A 38-year-old guy who just dropped by from Greenwich Village to do a little promotion -- really-good-movie-with-a-lot-of-truth-to-it, talk like that, but not too much. He's doing well. A starring role in "Cotton Club," as Sandman, a dancer so eager to make the big time that he breaks up his brother act. A starring role in "White Nights," a movie about an American defector set in Russia that he recently finished filming, costarring "Mike Baryshnikov." Mike Baryshnikov? That slow-building grin again. "Yeeaah."
He doesn't have much dirt to dish on "Cotton Club," either. Got into it about two years ago in L.A., when he was out there doing "Sophisticated Ladies" and heard that Robert Evans, the film's original director, was interested in him. The script he saw was light years away from the final version -- they went through about 40 drafts to get that script. But he saw the role he wanted. Heard the part had been offered to Richard Pryor, "hit on" Evans every day for about two weeks. The first three days Evans was amused, after that he had people screening his calls, but that didn't stop Gregory Hines.
"Look, I'm gonna get this role and you're gonna feel real uncomfortable when I come around and you didn't put me through," he says.
He gets the role and then, when Francis Ford Coppola comes in as director, brings in his brother Maurice for some improv work. Coppola likes Maurice, casts him. Working up their roles, he asks them about their life, their old act. "Actually, all the roles in the film were culled from whatever real experience Francis could find in you," says Hines. "My brother and I did have an act, we did split up, we did have a reunion of sorts. Our situation wasn't as hostile as the Williams Brothers the team in the film , but we did have some resentments we had to work through . . ."
He worked many jobs in the film -- choreography, casting, writing. The day he and his brother were scheduled to shoot their big reconciliation scene, the film's main choreographer, Henry LeTang, was ill, so they went off and choreographed their scene in about 25 minutes.
No dish from Hines about that or anything else in the movie, though.
"There were problems, definite problems, but every movie I've worked on had problems. It just seemed like in this film everybody was interested," he says.
Forty scripts not a problem?
"Early on Francis said he was gonna continue to work on scripts and develop it as he went along, and that was his way and I dug it right away. I dug the fact that he was interested in the black story and input."
"You'll never get me to answer a question like that," says Gregory Hines.
Here is the question: When you were a little kid, who did you feel was a better dancer, you or your brother?
Forget the answer -- when it finally comes it will be a non-answer. It is so much more interesting that this is a question to which he will not give a full reply. Why? A sense of privacy? A sense of familial secrets? An old wound? A normalcy so abnormal that there was no competitive spirit between boys two years apart who worked together more than 20 years of their lives?
Who did you feel was better, Gregory?
"My brother was better."
If we asked him, what would he say?
The fabulous Hines grin. "He might say I was better."
Who seemed to work better, who did it come to more easily, or were you both just naturals?
"Well, one of the things about tap-dancers, they just have so many different styles. Bill Robinson was up on his toes. John Bubbles, of Buck and Bubbles . . . was down on his heels. So you learned very early on to respect everybody's style. Because a guy couldn't dance on his heels like John Bubbles didn't mean he wasn't great, or because he was up on his toes a la Bill Robinson. So a lot of the real intense competition vanished early on."
Did Hines and his brother have different styles?
"Oh, yeah. My style of tap is much more improvisational. My brother had much more of a choreographic aspect, working things out beforehand . . . Very early on, when I was about 8 years old, I saw Teddy Hale at the Apollo. We used to sit through two, three shows, our mother would drop us off, the ushers would watch us, and I sat through three shows and they were all different. I could see this guy didn't have a routine, he just made it up as he went along . . . I was amazed . . . I thought to myself, 'This is what I want to do. I want to be Teddy Hale."
Does he think dancing style reflects personality? Does he think he's more spontaneous, his brother more organized, the planner?
A denial of anything that might invite comparison.
"No, he'll go with it. He's game . . ."
This is how it started: Gregory was 3, Maurice was 5, when their mother started them with tap-dance lessons. They lived in Harlem. Their father worked different jobs -- soda salesman, bouncer, semipro ballplayer. If they were pushed, Gregory didn't see it.
"My mother, she -- my parents, they gave us lessons like parents give kids violin lessons, and when we showed a little aptitude they just decided to see if it was something we could use," he says.
If she had ambitions for them, it was not specifically show business.
"Our mother wanted us to have an outlet," Gregory said once, some years ago.
"To get us out of the ghetto," said Maurice.
They were good, they were cute, they were naturals, they enjoyed it.
By the time Gregory was 7, they were enrolled in professional childrens' schools, working summer vacations around the country. By the time he was 10, they were doing European tours. When he was 11 he worked with his hero, Cab Calloway, in a revue in Miami called "The Cotton Club." Gregory used to sit in his dressing room. "This isn't the Cotton Club -- this is just a revue," Cab Calloway used to tell him, and tell him how the Cotton Club used to be the place to go, and about Lena Horne and Ethel Waters, and about how even though a black artist couldn't sit in the audience it was still the place to perform, and how when the boats arrived "and the Prince and Princess of BipBop got off the boat the first thing they wanted to know was, 'What time is the first show at the Cotton Club?' "
But there were some not very nice things that happened on the road, too.
For one, he learned about racism. In 1958, to go over to "Miami proper," you had to have a police card, says Hines. He had been raised in New York, he didn't know about any of this, and all of a sudden he was in a police station getting fingerprinted and getting his card. He is characteristically oblique about his reaction: "Those were the conditions. You lived within those conditions and pushed to change, but you knew the score."
He also, on the road, had to deal with the fact that the family was separated, Hines' mother traveling with her sons, his father remaining at home. If that was a sacrifice, Hines prefers to understate it. Part of the business, he'll say. Making a movie, he's often away from his family for weeks.
It was important enough to his family, however, that his father, who was not a musician, learned drums in order to keep the family together and joined the act. They did Vegas. They did Carson. The professional persona was like this: Hines Sr. was the drummer, Maurice was the straight man, Gregory was the comic relief. By age 27, married, with a young daughter, the comic relief had had it.
"Maurice and I just didn't get along anymore," Gregory once said of this time. "In fact, we hated each other. I knew if the act continued, I would end up losing a brother."
These days he takes a gentler approach.
"Hate, that's a pretty stiff word," he says. "I think what it was, was we had worked together for 25 years and we were at the point where it's a natural evolution for an artist to want to go off on their own for awhile . . . I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn't want to do what I had been doing, that I didn't want to work with the family, which was traumatic to begin with . . . I just needed the opportunity to not do . . ."
He had married, after all, very young, at 22. He needed time on his own. He takes great pains to say that much of its failure was his fault.
"I've said it before -- I think maybe I've got to find another way to say it -- the marriage didn't work out, but I wasn't unhappy because of this woman or because of this marriage. I had problems . . . I questioned my ability to take care of myself. I had always had a manager, or my parents . . . I hadn't been alone much . . . it was the '60s, do your own thing."
He lived on the beach in Venice, Calif., writing songs, playing guitar for $35 a week. He taught karate, worked as a busboy, met Pamela Kolow, the woman who is today his wife. He reconciled with his brother, considered alternative means of livelihood, maybe owning a health food store, maybe running a farm. He was happy, he says -- he had recognition as a local musician and no great desire to return to a larger stage. He came back east only because his ex-wife had moved to New York and he missed his daughter, missed "being involved in her life."
He did not come back to New York for the business. He got back into the business because he had $40 in his pocket and because his brother told him about an audition the next day.
"To this day I think if I had had three days to consider it, I might have said, 'I'd rather not,' " says Hines. "But it was very romantic -- $40 in my pocket, my backpack and guitar -- so I went and got it. I haven't stopped working since."
And now that he's working in films, as an actor, as a singer, how does he think of himself?
"I like to think of myself as an artist entertainer," he says. "But deep down inside, I think of myself as a tap-dancer."
The slow-growing smile. "I mean, like whenever I go abroad, and they say, 'occupation,' I put down, 'tap-dancer.' I'm so proud of it, you know?"