MME Exclusive: Hollywood Icon Bill Duke Reveals His Secrets To Success… And What Nearly Ended It

Bill Duke (X Men: The Last Stand, Predator, American Gigolo, Hoodlum) is a revered and celebrated actor, director, producer and writer who has worked with some of Hollywood’s top-tier talent.  His combined films have grossed over $1 billion dollars and his reputation is one of hard work, excellence and integrity. His resume reads like a “Who’s Who” of hit films and MME was fortunate enough to sit down with this entertainment icon, who was part of our very first seminar series which was held October 24, 2015 at The Los Angeles Film School.  

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MME: How did you get your start in the entertainment business and what was your very first professional acting job?

BD: I was first in theater in New York and did a number of small plays for the Negro Ensemble. And one of the first plays was Day of Absence with the great Michael Schultz. It was a great play and won some awards too. And then, I was fortunate to get another Broadway play, Ain’t Supposed to Die A Natural Death by the great Melvin Van Peebles. After that, I came to Los Angeles and was very fortunate to work with Michael Schultz again on a movie called Car Wash. It was my first major feature film and I worked with a lot of good people (Richard PryorGeorge Carlin, Danny DeVito, Garrett Morris) in that film.

MME: As an African American man, what types of obstacles did you face at the beginning of your career?

BD: Well, in those days being 6 feet 5 inches tall, dark skinned, and a black male, they saw you as a bad guy from the start for the most part. You got pegged as a criminal who was dark and dangerous and threatening. It was not easy to get roles in that climate, so I always made sure that I did things and took roles to show my humanity and not my restrictions.

MME: What motivational advice would you give to a young filmmaker just starting out in the business?

BD: I would say don’t play checkers in a chess game. And what I mean by that is this: as an actor today, you have to see yourself as part of a paradigm shift in this evolving entertainment world (from film and TV to multimedia) that has created virtual worlds, games, cell phone apps, and social media access. It’s not just in Hollywood because now, Hollywood is global. A Chinese company just bought up AMC Theatres. If you don’t think globally, you’ll be left behind. It’s like standing at home plate with a football helmet on; it’s not good and you’ll be left behind.

MME: Of all the characters you have played, what’s the one role that you feel is closest to your own personality and why?

BD:  That’s hard…wow, but I think one combined effort between Norman Lear and Alex Haley called Palmerstown, U.S.A. They created a role (Luther Freeman) that was a father in the Deep South in the 1940’s; he was a holistic man. Not just a mythical character, but a father, activist, good husband, and man of integrity. That was my father and many men that I grew up with.  It was a privilege to play that character. He was a holistic Black man.

MME: How did you transition from acting to directing and what was your first directing gig?

BD: I had gone to the American Film Institute (AFI) and worked for two years and said that I was going to rethink this (entertainment). I was a stage director and was a little afraid of directing, but I worked with Jack Valenti who was the head then, and other great teachers. I directed a short film called Heroes. That short film won prizes so I took it around and shopped it. Nobody would give me a job as a director and I was down about it, so I went on a retreat and did some meditation. Next thing I know, my agent calls and tells me that David Jacobs (EP/Creator) over at Knots Landing wants me to come and direct an episode. I left my retreat, had the interview, and two days later my agent called and said, “You’ve got a job!”  I just yelled and told everybody. We were in pre-production for one week and Joe Wallenstein (producer) came in and told me, “You’re gonna be great! I know because of your reel.”  And I was like, “What reel?” And he responded, “The reel you submitted; the one you submitted to David Jacobs.” I told him that I never submitted any reel and we were both confused. I went over to talk to David about it and come to find out, David had mixed up my resume with somebody else’s reel, but it was too late to go back on the deal [laughs]. They were a little nervous after that and followed me around for three days, but then left me alone after they realized I knew what I was doing. God has a sense of humor, doesn’t he? That’s how I got my first job.

MME: As a director, name a few of the projects and actors that were a delight to work with and why?

BD: That’s hard because I’ve worked with so many great actors. But a few that I enjoyed working with were: Laurence Fishburne, Jeff Goldblum, Vanessa Williams, Cicely Tyson, Forest Whitaker, and so many other great people who take acting serious as a craft. I don’t hate reality TV, but those aren’t actors, they’re celebrities. To work with actors, they become that person, they become those characters, they become those people; like Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act 2: Back In the Habit. Working with her and the others was a learning experience. They would take what you told them and make it better. I applaud wonderful acting because it’s a craft.  That’s just a few of the great people I’ve worked with.

MME: Do you have a dream project that you would like to direct in the near future? If so, tell us why it’s so close to your heart?

BD: Several! I’m developing films on the lives of Joe Louis and Mahalia Jackson, a couple of documentaries on the history of the black church and gospel music, and another one that deals with the concept of what is a man and what is a woman. I call them “edutainment” because they provide both education and entertainment. I’m also getting into the media world and starting to develop games, virtual worlds, and apps—that’s where it’s going now. I want to own something.

MME: How did the concepts for the documentaries Dark Girls and Light Girls come to be?

BD: Well, it was an attempt to pay homage to the women I had grown up around.  I observed how black women got tortured in childhood and adulthood because of skin color and texture of hair. What moved me most is when little girls in school were called monkey, baboon, tar baby and ugly. A light skinned black girl said that she was held down by dark skinned black girls who pulled out her hair by the roots. She told me that the dark skinned girls thought she was too cute.  I gave a voice to that trauma and a lot of times, it’s not outside our race; we’re doing it to ourselves. It’s barbaric and stupid and I wanted to discuss it. That why I made the films.  The irony is that if you go online and type in “#teamDarkskin vs #teamLightskin”, you’ll see that there are close to 2 million members bickering over who’s the best. Meanwhile, white women are in salons getting tanned, their hair crinkled and Botox lip injections. They want to look black and we don’t—a little ironic.

MME: How has race in TV and film changed (or stayed the same) since you first started out in the business?

BD: When I first started out there were a variety of shows on with black people in them, but not with the breadth and scope like the shows now. Sitcoms like Blackish to dramas Empire and How To Get Away With Murder with black women in serious roles; dark skinned women in leads. They have changed the face of TV and I hope it’s not temporary but evolving.  The ratio (blacks vs whites on TV) is not the same and I would like to see that increase.  The more diverse subject matter— the better.

MME: Do you have any new projects coming out?  Can you tell us a little bit about them?

BD: We did a thing called Blexicans that we shot in Chicago last summer. We’re trying to get some interest. It’s about a Hispanic and black community and I hope someone will buy it. The story is about a black and Mexican family. A black man marries a Mexican girl and they have a child that’s referred to as a “Blexican”. The Mexican father doesn’t like the black father and vice versa. It’s a sitcom with an edge to the comedy. I’m trying to shop it now and it stars Marla Gibbs, Richard Gant, Michael Colyar and a lot of other good people in it.

MME: What’s something about yourself that your fans might not know?

BD: I’ve been meditating for close to 40 years now.  I used to be a drug head in the early ‘70s on the streets of New York and a friend introduced me to transcendental meditation and it saved my life. I meditate every day and it’s been a blessing.  Meditation saved my life.

We hope you were inspired by this honest and transparent snippet of our Bill Duke interview, covering only a small portion of his personal Hollywood journey.