When James L. White was being raised by a single mother in rural Kentucky, he was taunted by children who chanted, “Who’s your daddy?”
So he would tell stories.
“I’d come up with someone who was famous, like Jackie Robinson or Bill Cosby, and I’d say they were my daddy,” Mr. White said in a 2005 Los Angeles Times interview. “I’d make up all kinds of stories so I’d have something to say back to them.”
He grew up to tell stories in screenplay form. Mr. White wrote the script for “Ray,” the 2004 biographical film about singer Ray Charles that was nominated for a best-picture Oscar.
Mr. White, 67, whose only feature credit was on “Ray,” although he had several projects in development, died July 23 at his home in Santa Monica, Calif. The cause was liver and pancreatic cancer, said his attorney, Matthew Saver.
In the early 1990s, Mr. White met with producer Stuart Benjamin, who was trying to put together a Charles biopic. Benjamin admired Mr. White’s writing samples, and there were similarities in the backgrounds of the singer and writer — both were African American men who grew up in the rural South and endured segregation, and both at one point in their lives were heroin addicts.
But Benjamin didn’t have funding to pay for a script, and Mr. White was getting other work. In 1992, actor Sidney Poitier hired him to write a thriller called “Red Money.”
“I would like to publicly thank Mr. Poitier,” Mr. White said in 2005 in accepting an award from the Friends of the Black Oscar Nominees group in Los Angeles, “who was the first person in Hollywood to take a chance on me as a screenwriter.”
The Poitier film wasn’t made, and neither were several other projects Mr. White was engaged to write, including a biopic on star athlete Bo Jackson.
Finally, the money was raised for the Charles film, but then Mr. White had to deal with the imposing singer of hits such as “What’d I Say” and “Hit the Road Jack.” Charles, who had broken though many barriers in his life, had a reputation for being prickly.
Mr. White asked him at their first meeting: “The type of movie I should write is a love story. What do you think?” Charles shot back, “You’re the writer. What do you think?”
But then Charles asked about Mr. White’s background, and when he learned that the writer had grown up in a small town in the South, they began to bond.
“He opened up to me,” Mr. White said in the Los Angeles Times interview. “We’d talk all the time, and whenever I was struggling with a scene, he’d say, ‘Jimmy, you know how to do it. You’ve been there.’ ”
Mr. White was born in Mount Sterling, Ky., on Nov. 15, 1947. “My father was someone my mother knew who attacked her,” he said, “and out of that violence I was conceived.”
As he grew older he looked for a way out of the rural town.
“The only real way out was through sports or the military, and even though I played football and ran track, I wasn’t fast enough or big enough, and so after high school, I joined the military,” he told the Vancouver Sun in 2005. He was in the Navy during the Vietnam War, then used the G.I. Bill to enroll at the University of Massachusetts.
Mr. White left school after about a year and worked several jobs. And he picked up a drug habit. “In Boston, I became a health inspector and a junkie at the same time,” he said in the Los Angeles Times interview. “It was stupidity, just me trying to prove I was hip like everyone else.”
Mr. White moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s because he wanted to be a screenwriter and did a variety of work, including car sales.
In 1978, he met his future wife, Elizabeth, but he had not yet kicked his drug habit. Finally, in 1985, she told him she was leaving him and taking their baby with her.
“The thought of losing her, or my son being like me, was too horrible to imagine,” he said, and he quit drugs.
Besides his wife, survivors include his son and two daughters.
After the success of “Ray,” doors opened up to Mr. White in Hollywood, but his son said in an interview that his father was particular about the projects he took on.
“He wanted to make things his own way,” James White II said. “He felt a responsibility to write characters of African American descent who were not stereotypes.”