Interview with actress/singer Lonette McKee

(This interview was originally published September 16, 2012 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Lonette McKee. You should know her as an actress from her many film and television roles, but she is also a multi-talented Broadway star who is a wonderful singer as well as a songwriter/composer, screenwriter, director and more. With one look, it is obvious that she is quite striking as also evidenced by her inclusion in People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” (in 1995). I always remember her best as “Miss Angela Drake” from 1985’s Brewster’s Millions with Richard Pryor, but you will find out about her many other roles and much more as we get on to some selections from my interview with Lonette McKee…

Q: Did you ever have any formal acting or music training?

Lonette: No formal training, at least at first. I grew up in Detroit, Michigan listening to all the legendary Motown stars. No doubt this was what influenced me to start playing the piano, writing songs and singing at about five years old. My mother quickly became a quintessential “stage mother” and encouraged me to practice and keep writing. She convinced my father to invest in a small tape recorder, microphone and acoustic piano. We went around to record companies and people in the music industry where I would sit at the piano and sing my songs.

When neighborhood small-time music producers heard me sing and play they arranged for me to go into a recording studio to cut my first demo. I started getting live bookings at local clubs. Then when I was about 13, I was introduced to Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey, who were well-known local producers and top-notch musicians. We went in the studio and recorded an R&B single called “Stop Don’t Worry ‘Bout It.” The record made the charts and became a regional hit and I became a regular on a local hit television variety/dance show called “Swingin’ Time” hosted by radio personality, Robin Seymour. That transitioned me into the professional music scene. Admittedly, it was difficult doing gigs at night and trying to gear up for high school in the morning. Eventually, with my parent’s blessing, I dropped out of school in favor of pursuing a music career. Soon after that, I went to Los Angeles and I was on my way…

Q: Did your music career at such a young age help open up opportunities for acting?

Lonette: That’s a good question. In some respects being in music helped. But in the mid-70s it was actually kind of troublesome to be multifaceted. As my career moved forward I was met with a lot of resistance when I wanted to do both music and acting. There was some weird (and obviously false) notion that to do several things well was almost a sentence to do none. Thankfully times have changed and nowadays artists are expected to do everything well and it’s quite desirable to be multi-talented.

Q: Which do you love more, music or acting?

Lonette: Writing and composing/producing music are my first loves. I’ve also started writing screenplays, television concepts and have begun work on my first novels. I love acting too and enjoy teaching my actor’s workshop at CCNY.

When and how did you get your start in acting?

: My first film and professional acting job was a starring role in the now cult-film, Sparkle [1976]. I auditioned for the part of “Sista” along with a lot of other very fine actresses. My then-agent had given me the script and I immediately fell in love with the story and character and felt deep down that I could nail the role, even though I hadn’t had formal training as an actor.

Making Sparkle was an outstanding experience and introduction to filmmaking. A stunning cast of newcomers, Irene Cara, Philip Michael Thomas, Dwan Smith and Tony King exploded onto the movie scene. I’m still in touch with these incredible people and am currently writing and producing our first ever Sparkle Reunion Concert to star the original cast members.

Q: You received a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a musical in 1983 for Show Boat. Please tell us a little bit about your early Broadway career, your favorite memories of that and your feelings regarding performing on the Broadway stage.
Lonette: Well, actually, my very first experience with musical theatre was a powerful lesson. I was a wild child from Detroit who sang my own songs at the piano without training. I realized that to do musical theatre, I needed to – had to – study vocal technique, which I then did. I studied hard with a wonderful vocal teacher in L.A. for many years who became one of my mentors. Dini Clark was solely responsible for my learning to sustain my voice during the rigors of musical theatre and also introduced me to Billie Holiday and the jazz greats.

My first Broadway show was The First [1981]; a musical version of the Jackie Robinson story. After going through a grueling series of auditions, I won the role of his wife Rachel Robinson. Following that show, I was immediately cast in a wonderful Chicago production of a musical headed for Broadway called Ladies in Waiting. The show never made it to Broadway, but the experience was great. I discovered that doing musical theatre could be a joy.

Show Boat came next with the Huston Grand Opera and it afforded me the distinction of becoming the first African-American in the U.S. to play the coveted role of “Julie”. That show was a total joy for me. We went on the road touring across country on our way to Broadway and I made friendships for life. I had the good fortune of being directed by the wonderful Michael Kahn and worked alongside opera greats Sheryl Woods and the late Bruce Hubbard, who was to become my dearest friend for many years.

Q: How did the role of “Angela Drake” in 1985’s Brewster’s Millions come your way?

I had known Richard Pryor since I was about 16 years old. He and my older sister were friends so sometimes she would take me with her to visit him. I realized later that being welcomed into his home and considered a friend and even watching him work on material was an extraordinary privilege for a fledgling artist. My first movie with Richard came about after he attended a screening Sparkle. He loved the film and my work in it, so asked me to join the cast of his movie, Which Way is Up [1977], in which he was starring in and also co-writing. The second film Richard and I did together was Brewster’s Millions. I read and screen-tested for Walter Hill and got the part of “Angela Drake.”

The 1985 version of Brewster’s Millions was actually the seventh adaptation of the 1902 novel of the same name by author George Barr McCutcheon. The novel was first adapted into a Broadway play in 1906 with the first film version made in 1914 by none other than Cecil B. DeMille. There would be additional film versions released in 1921, 1926, 1935, 1945 and 1961 prior to the 1985 version which I would eventually know and love. The screenplay for the 1985 version was written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod and the film is directed by Walter Hill. It is pretty cool when a story written over 80 years prior could still have relevance so many decades later. The film stars two of the funniest people of my lifetime in Richard Pryor and John Candy and now reminds me of how much I miss their genius. In addition to McKee, there are several other strong contributions from Stephen Collins, David White, Jerry Orbach, Pat Hingle, Rick Moranis and Hume Cronyn. Here is the original trailer from Brewster’s Millions

Q: I am a huge fan of Richard Pryor. As you said, you worked with him in three films including Brewster’s Millions. What can you tell us about Pryor both onscreen and off?

Lonette: All the good things I can say about Richard Pryor will never be enough to do justice to his legacy and contributions. Richard was a true genius and a legend… an icon. He set the standards for comedy as we know it today and broke the glass ceiling in terms of the power and types of deals being offered to Black talent in the entertainment industry.

Before Richard, Hollywood would never have considered the kinds of lucrative contracts that Richard made possible by example. It just wasn’t happening. Blacks were considered second-class citizens in the film and television industries until Richard, represented by his African-American power-broker manager, blew it wide open. Richard got the attention of Hollywood in a way that forced the money/dealmakers to recognize that Black performers and actors were a force to be reckoned with. Richard proved that there was a huge audience of all ethnicities for the projects featuring Blacks and that we could sell tickets at the box office. What he wasn’t willing to do was work cheap or cow-tow to White folks. He broke the mold.

What many may not know about him is that Richard was a kind and generous man, both with his talent and his guidance. He was always the perfect gentleman and was very protective of the women he worked with. In retrospect, I’m sure his life was tortured, as are most genius-types. Substance abuse and addiction are complex, compelling and painful issues and the suffering of those afflicted cannot be underestimated. I have the deepest love, respect and adoration for Richard Pryor and will remain grateful for the time I spent with him both on screen and off.

Q: I am equally a huge fan of John Candy’s work. Your characters did not interact much in the film, but did you get to know Candy at all during filming? What can you tell us about John Candy and your experience working with him in this film? 

John Candy was one of the sweetest and funniest people I’ve ever known. I spent much time laughing with him and cutting up. I remember he was often working out on the treadmill he had brought into his mobile home on the Universal lot and he stayed on a perpetual diet. He made me laugh constantly and it became hard to do scenes with him, because he always set off my crack-up button. I love to laugh and have been known to go on a laughing-jag. John was fully aware of this and took delight in setting me off.

Q: Any interesting stories or facts about making Brewster’s Millions that you can share with us?

I admit I want to save most details for my own memoirs. However, one incident that comes to mind involves Richard’s insistence on hiring private bodyguards for me when not on set after a strange and inexplicable occurrence took place one night at my apartment during the shoot. The bodyguards Richard hired wound up driving me nuts and were such a distraction and nuisance that I begged Richard to let me send them away. He finally relented and my life and filmmaking went back to normal.

Here is one of the final scenes from Brewster’s Millions which includes both Pryor and McKee…

Q: What were your feelings about the film when when it was released in 1985? What are your feelings about the Brewster’s Millions now over 27 years later?

I loved it…and still do. As a rule I don’t watch my own movies as I’m very critical of my performances. But I think Brewster’s Millions was really an exceptionally good film and certainly Walter Hill deserves kudos for his fine direction.

Q: You were directed by Francis Ford Coppola in two '80s films. What can you tell us about Coppola and your experience working with and being directed by him?

Again, the pleasure of working with a genius in Francis Ford Coppola. He was kind and fatherly and liked to cook pasta in his trailer. I ate a few of his wonderful meals! I also got to know and love the incredible Gregory Hines and his brother, Maurice. I was married at the time and my then-husband and I became fast friends with Gregory and his wife, Pamela. We spent a lot of time with them at their downtown loft for dinners and movies. They were wonderful people.

Q: 1984’s The Cotton Club just had a tremendous cast including Gregory Hines and Richard Gere among so many others. What can you tell us about your experiences making that film? And your feelings regarding the final film when you saw it?

Loved it. I do remember a disturbing fact though: The money people were quoted as saying, “Too many scenes with Black folks.” Of course that’s absolutely absurd since the real Cotton Club was in Harlem and represented a page out of our Black American History. I believe it was Bob Evans who specifically resented the “blackness” of the film. But Francis wasn’t bowing to Evans’ archaic and fundamentally racist attitude. Instead Francis stood up for us and for what was right. Thinking back it was amazing to work each day with stars like Gregory, Bob Hoskins, Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, Fred Gwynne, Diane Lane, Tom Waite, Gwen Verdon… It was awesome.

The Cotton Club is a 1984 film centered around the famed Jazz club in Harlem, New York during the 1930s. As mentioned, it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Lonette McKee starred as “Lila Rose Oliver” and she was able to show off her wonderful voice when she sang “Ill Wind (You’re Blowin’ Me No Good)” in The Cotton Club

Q: You were again part of a wonderful cast in 1987’s Gardens of Stone including James Earl Jones who played your husband in the film. What can you tell us about the great James Earl Jones and working with him in this film?

Lonette: James Earl Jones… what a brilliant actor and classy, wonderful man. However, this movie represents a profoundly sad chapter in my life. It was while making the film, that Francis’ beloved son, Geo, was killed in a terrible boating accident in Arlington. There are no words to describe how horrific it was and I can only imagine the heartbreak Francis and his wife must still endure. Geo was such an exceptional young man; gifted, smart, warm, kind and devoted to his father. We all adored Geo and the tragedy of the untimely death of such a charismatic young man can never be fully expressed.

Q: You were a part of the remarkable cast that brought The Women of Brewster Place to life as a television miniseries in 1989. What are your feelings from being a part of that cast and creating this special television event?

Lonette: Yes, I’m very proud of my work in The Women of Brewster Place and admire all of the women who made up its exceptional cast. 

Q: Did you have any hesitation or concerns over portraying that particular character of “Lorraine”? It seemed to surely be a difficult and very emotionally draining role. What can you tell us about your experience bringing this character to life on the screen?

It was definitely an emotionally draining role but I actually felt quite honored that the director, Donna Deitch, opted to go against type and take a chance casting me as a gay woman. My character’s partner in the film was the incomparable Paula Kelly. She was so great in that role and you know at the end of the day we’re only as good as those we work with. Another actor’s bad performance reflects on us and affects our work. Likewise, working with a great actor can pull our performance a level up. I’ve always thought that Paula is a greatly overlooked and under acknowledged actress. She was smart, kind, generous and fun to work with.

The Women of Brewster Place was a television miniseries which originally aired on ABC on March 19-20, 1989. It was based on the critically acclaimed 1982 novel of the same name by author Gloria Naylor. In addition to McKee, it featured an outstanding ensemble cast including Cicely Tyson, Oprah Winfrey, Jackee Harry, Robin Givens, Lynn Whitfield, Paula Kelly and many others. 

Q: Were there any '80s roles (TV or movies) that you auditioned for and did not get that would be particularly interesting especially looking back now? If so, would you share any of them with us?

Lonette: Sure… the one role I really wish I had gotten was The Josephine Baker Story. Of course, Lynn Whitfield did a spectacular job in the role… but truth be told, I would have loved to have gotten that role. But I believe what is meant for us, is what we get… and vice-versa. Anyway, Lynn married the director so I suspect there was never a chance in hell for anybody else to get that part.

Q: Are there any other '80s roles that we haven’t touched on that you feel deserve mention?

Lonette: When thinking back on my work in the '80s, I feel we must acknowledge my role as Billie Holiday in the Off-Broadway production of Lady Day at Emersons’s Bar and Grill. This was a one-woman show, a tragedy really with music. A lot of music – I think we had 23 songs. It was without a doubt the most difficult yet rewarding work I’ve ever done. Far from being an uplifting review-type musical, rather it was the slow, painful unraveling of Billie’s life and her descent into the hellish world of racism and drug addiction. I was completely emotionally and physically spent after doing the show and actually declared to close friends that I would never sing again! Of course, I did sing again – a few months later I starred at Carnegie Hall with legend, Mel Torme for the JVC Jazz Festival. Hah, so much for declarations when we’re feeling burned out!

Q: I read that you studied film directing and apprenticed with Spike Lee. During what time period did you apprentice with Spike? How was that experience apprenticing the incredibly talented filmmaker?

Yes, Spike was kind enough to let me shadow him on She Hate Me [2004] and has always been a mentor. I’ve done four films with Spike and was the first artist he signed to do an original music CD on his now defunct record label. He has always been open to sharing his ideas on how he wrote, directed and set up shots. And I was always interested in learning from him, which he kindly supported, so hopefully I’ve done that.

Q: As you said, you also acted in several of Spike Lee’s films. What can you tell us about Lee both on set and off? And your experience working with and being directed by him?

Lonette: Spike is a very interesting and innovative person. I consider him a great warrior for Black filmmakers and yet another genius. He broke the glass ceiling and succeeded in getting into a filmmakers club that few Blacks have been welcomed into. I also consider him a friend. Most people don’t know how funny he is. I think it’s important to note that Spike is also a rare breed of Black filmmaker; by that I mean, he is not driven by or particularly interested in the typical “family-church-goers” fare that seems to dominate the Black film industry at the moment. I’ve given much thought to this and feel that we as filmmakers-of-color should have the same artistic freedom as any other filmmakers to make edgier films and tell stories not dictated by “Christian” aesthetics.

Q: As you mentioned earlier, you starred in the original 1976 film version of Sparkle. What are your feelings regarding the remake that was recently released starring Jordin Sparks and the late Whitney Houston?

Lonette: I’m absolutely thrilled about the Sparkle remake and am a huge fan of its cast, especially, the great Whitney Houston. I also love Jordin Sparks and Carmen Ejogo, who plays the role I originated. I hope the new film is a huge success!

Q: Please tell us a little about your love of nature and all creatures.

I think I’m most proud that I am an animal and nature lover and an “understander” of them. I speak the language of nature and it speaks mine. I rescue birds, dogs and anything else that needs help. I am a strong advocate of taking care of the earth and nature. I do not subscribe to the belief that “humans are the superior beings.” We are all on this planet together and we were entrusted to care and provide for the animals, nature and the earth. We have largely misused and abused this privilege but I do see glimmers of hope every day, especially within the younger generations. We are living in a time of a spiritual paradigm-consciousness shift. And if we are to reach our full spiritual potential as human beings, we would be wise to begin to respect all life on this planet and make some changes in the way we treat the animals as well as one another.

Q: What else has Lonette McKee been up to more recently? Both acting and otherwise? Hobbies? What can we expect in the future? Any remaining ambitions or regrets?

Lonette: I compose and produce music, play keyboards, paint, am an avid gardener, love to cook and love writing. I love animals and children. I do not have children because I feel the world is overpopulated and many children already born into this world desperately need parents. I teach my actor’s workshop ongoing at The City College of New York. I am also developing and writing screenplays and concepts for television. I hope to have a film I’ve written entitled Dream Street funded soon and it will mark my directorial debut in film. I have music concerts and performances lined up and have finally begun to truly enjoy performing. In terms of “what do I regret?” I regret the cruelty I have witnessed towards animals and those less fortunate or strong. I regret being too shy for many years to speak up about the things I believe in.

I am also very excited about my upcoming concert with music legend, Michael Henderson on November 2, 2012 at Harlem’s Aaron Davis Hall. Michael will perform his hits from his years performing with and co-writing with the legendary Miles Davis and other iconic artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Detroit’s Funk Brothers and… I could on and on about the greatness of Michael. I’ll be doing the songs from my movies and Broadway shows as well as some original material.

I am very honored that Lonette was able to take some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. You can find out a lot more and keep up with everything she is doing on her official Lonette McKee website. You can learn more about her music and find out how to purchase it on iTunes, Amazon and more. You can even find out about studying acting with Lonette herself and her courses at CCNY.

I want to take this opportunity to again thank Lonette McKee for her contributions to '80s pop culture, and even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.

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