Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Lady Emerges: Cynthia Davis - Brenda from COOLEY HIGH - speaks!

If you were to approach one of the devoted fans of Michael Schultz and Eric Monte's enduring 1975 coming-of-age comedy/drama COOLEY HIGH, and ask them what are the Top Five things they remember and love most about the film, you'll likely hear about Preach and Cochise, the relatable moments of juvenile hijinks, the parade of Motown hits, the poignant finale...and Brenda.

Brenda was the smart girl with plans, and discipline to make them happen. Brenda didn't have time for your foolishness. Brenda was naturally pretty but never played that card or called attention to it because that wasn't a matter of substance. Brenda probably never saw Fellini's I VITELLONI, but she instinctively knew that of her peer group at school, there were the goofs that were never leaving the neighborhood, and she was not going to be in that group. Brenda had her eyes on the prize.

That's why it was special when Preach dropped the cornball jokes, got real with her about his love of art and poetry, and earned her attention. That's why it was romantic when they became a real couple. That's why it hurt harder when he got stupid with her. That's why the tea tasted so good when she got back at him. And for as much as we would have loved to see what could have been, why it was better that at the end of it all, Brenda went her own way.

Cynthia Davis made one film before she was old enough to vote, and never made another. She went back into private life and the quiet milestones of career, marriage, and family, with what appear to be few regrets. But in the 40+ years since the release of COOLEY HIGH, her performance as Brenda has continued to melt the hearts of millions, baffle them as to why she didn't do more films, and to leave them wishing for more.

To date, Davis has never been interviewed at length about her experience on the film. She has never participated in the multiple anniversary reunion shows or retrospective articles that have taken place as it has ascended into the cultural canon. As such, her absence, along with lazy googling from other would-be researchers, have fed an erroneous rumor that she had passed on long ago. Despite the efforts of family and friends posting on message boards, social media, and blogs to assure fans she is alive and healthy, this error has been perpetuated, including in a major TV documentary about the film.

Thanks to the help of one of those proud family members, I was able to make contact with Ms. Davis, who graciously agreed to answer my questions about her history and relationship to COOLEY HIGH. To demonstrate how generous she was in this interaction, allow me a brief sidebar...

I work with limited technological abilities. I do not own a smartphone, I do not have a webcam or Skype capability, even my attempts at using an old-fashioned landline phone-tap and a tape recorder have failed. So when I am doing interviews on my own without the backing of a podcast or other deeper-pocketed client, my preferred method is to send questions via email, receive the answers, and if merited, do a second round from there. (And if you're about to put a comment below that begins with "Why don't you..." or "Have you tried...", don't. Just don't.)

After our initial introductions and decision to proceed, Ms. Davis' computer expired, leaving her unable to engage in long-form email exchanges.

Undeterred, she took the time to hand-write, in lovely penmanship, her replies to my questions, and send them to me via the U.S. Mail.

I took the liberty of making some spelling corrections, but preserved her emoticons and lol's.

After our initial exchange, I had wanted to do some follow-up questions, to expand upon some of her replies and also delve into observations we discussed in private exchanges. Unfortunately, a combination of both technical and health issues did not allow this to happen, and she encouraged me to go forward with what we already had.

Thus, this is hardly a complete portrait of her and her short window of stardom, but it is a warmly felt and honest one, and I feel lucky to share it.

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Davis and Lisa James

How did you become involved in COOLEY HIGH?

I was friends with man who told me he knew Michael Schultz. We went to a place on the North side of Chicago. I walked into a room that was filled with actresses waiting to audition. I was escorted past the young women and asked to sit and read a line from the movie. The line was, “A bet. A bet. I’m nothing but a lousy dollar bet!” I asked if I could say “cheap” instead of “lousy.” I was told yes. I red the line. They filmed it.

One week later I got a phone call and I as told that I got the part. :)

Did you have any previous interest in the arts in general, or movies in particular, before you appeared in the film? 

I was a student at Dunbar Vocational High School. My major was commercial art. I loved to draw and paint. I still do.

Did you have a favorite film or TV show back then?

Back then the [movies] I would watch would be the old movies. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, “The Rat Pack.” TV: "DICK VAN DYKE," "BEWITCHED," "I DREAM OF JEANNIE," "COMBAT," "HOGAN'S HEROES," etc.

What were your feelings about getting cast in such a significant role in the film?

I was happy that I was chosen. However, I really didn’t realize what that meant. I didn’t understand that magnitude and that it would one day be a classic and people would tout and love it so. I didn’t have access to the internet for a long time. I started hearing from my friends and family, “Oh, they’re playing your movie on channel such-and-such,” “Oh, Sinbad wants to find you,” “Oh, look at what the regular fans are saying about you (good and bad).”

Had you ever seen any of the main stars (Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Garrett Morris) in any of their previous TV/movie work before you acted with them?

No, I didn’t know about their other work and I had no clue.

Did you ever talk to writer Eric Monte about your character, did he give you any guidance on how to embody her?

I don’t remember if and when I met with Monte.

No one guided me on embodying Brenda. I do remember being told what line to say, where to stand, stuff like that.

What sorts of things did you do in creating your performance? 

There was no method to my madness. 

Did you study other actors, other movies? Did you lean on personal experience?

No, I didn’t study any actors. As I’ve said, I wasn’t an actress. I was just a girl who lived and went to school in Chicago. I know I heard I was typecast:
- light skin
- shorter than Glynn
- a 17 year old student (I’m not sure how old Glynn was at the time) [He was 28]
- They could get me for SAG minimum
- They didn’t have to pay me per diem because I was from Chicago
- Back then I remember saying that I was ornery and that’s what the character called for I suppose.

My dad said I was just a pretty face, nothing more, nothing less.
I hope I wasn’t just another pretty face. I am my own person. I pray I wasn’t just a face. :(

What was your impression of Michael Schultz and his directing style?

I thought Michael was a very nice man. I thought his wife Gloria was absolutely stunning. She was a breathtaking beauty. She was definitely not just another pretty face. She was a striking beauty.

What was it like on the set? Did you get along with the leads and the other players? 

My memory of the set was, one, that I was fascinated with how organized [it was] in the midst of chaos. It just seemed so planned. They didn’t waste, not one moment. And then the next thing I remember was someone saying that I didn’t need to return to set. My part was done. I kinda felt sad as I walked away. I went to a bus stop and took a bus home.

I’d say I got along well with everyone. I never had any problems.

Were there any fun moments during shooting or off the set?

Fun moments:

1 – I remember while waiting in the trailer for my hair, make-up, and wardrobe to be done. There were 2 young women waiting for make-up. I asked if they would let me do their make-up for them and I did. :)

2 – I enjoyed the school hallway scene when I slammed the locker door in Glynn’s face. That was his idea. I just remember saying I didn’t want to hurt him but he insisted I do it. That was such a funny scene.

3 – In the cafe scene where I was first was introduced into the movie. I loved in watching the movie the scene where I want to get to the washroom. I spoke to [Lawrence]. I thought he was such a nice person. The part when I went to tell Martha they were gambling in back, what I really said to her in a whisper was, “They don’t know I can’t see a thing without my glasses.”
True story. I really can only see a blur of anything outside of 3” in front of my face. I’m nearsighted. You think I’m joking, lol. No, it’s true.

Cast photo: Cynthia, top left, wearing her glasses.

4 – It puts me in mind of the scene on the train tracks and I don’t think they used the scene in the movie. I think it might have ended up on the cutting room floor. Glynn and I were arm and arm walking down the rails and tracks. I know we were not miked. I said to him that he would have to help me because I said I can’t see a thing without my glasses. So yes, the whole film I couldn’t see. Is that funny or what, lol!

Photo courtesy of Chicago Screenshots tumblr

5 – The funeral scene, glancing right and left. One blur to the next looking for Preach. They even wanted me to drive the car I got into at the funeral ‘til I told them I don’t have a license and I can’t see, lol. They actually wanted me to drive.

Did you learn anything from the experience that helped you later in life, in any kind of field or moment that is not necessarily artistic?

Not to be so naive. However, there were a lot of mistakes I made in trusting people; I’d rather not elaborate. You give power away when you let people rent space in your brain. Especially people who don’t have your best interests in mind.

Did this make you interested in pursuing further creative activity, and if so, what sorts of things did you do?

I wouldn’t have turned any work down as far as acting goes. I was offered a part in MANDINGO but it didn’t work out.

What was the reaction of you and your friends when COOLEY HIGH became a hit?

I was proud that I was a part of the movie. Mom and dad, my brother Eric, my sisters Lisa and Norma would tell me that people would refer to them as the mother of the girl who starred in COOLEY HIGH; the brother of...etc. They no longer referred to them by their names for a long time, lol. People would call, excited when it would be aired on TV.

1980 photo credit Mike Tuggle., image courtesy of Cinema Treasures

What kind of attention, if any, did you experience from the film, and did you find it pleasant or unpleasant?

The night of the premiere at the State movie theatre (I think that was the name) [The film premiered at Chicago's State-Lake Theatre on State St., now the ABC/WLS Building], I remember being asked for my autograph. I would write, “To you and yours, Brenda, Cooley High.” Lots of lights and people.
Remarks on the internet, some good, some bad, everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

What is the most unusual encounter, conversation, or life event that has taken place when someone found out you were in COOLEY HIGH?

Some people get excited. Some don’t believe that it’s me.

Did you maintain any further contact with anyone else involved in the film?

No one said anything about keeping in touch, and so I wasn’t able to maintain or further friendships.

Photo courtesy of Chicago Screenshots tumblr

Why do you think COOLEY HIGH has remained popular for 40 years after its release?

I know there were stereotypes in the movie, but for me I saw beyond the label “blaxploitation”. I saw the innocence of a group of young people making their way in life. The projects were a battle ground. People identified with the experience. A real story. Eric Monte’s true life experience. I grew up on the south side of Chicago, so a lot of what Mr. Monte experienced I was exposed to and more. I admire his truth. Truth, that’s what makes it a classic, it’s real.

Would you ever like to work on another film again?

That’s a hard question. One part of me wants the fans to remember me as eternally 17 and pretty. Now I’m 60 soon, grey hair, wrinkled, and unattractive. I doubt there is a market for an old lady, lol.

What will you remember most fondly from being in this movie?

My youth, and meeting all the wonderful actors.

Just want to add a couple of things that people don’t know.

In the opening scene when the boys jump on the back of the bus. If you look into the glass, you’ll see me sitting on the bus.

On my way up the stairs to do the love scene, a black lady asked me if I knew I could ask for a “closed set.” That means only the essential people could be in the room when it was being filmed. I wish I could thank her for that.

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Davis and Lisa James

My deepest thanks to Ms. Davis for being willing to tell me her story, above and beyond the normal process of what is accepted today as regular engagement. Go watch COOLEY HIGH again.


  1. I just want to say that this was worded very nice.. I'm honestly shocked... I've never wanted to share her with the world, after I was old enough to understand she was in a movie.. Lbvs She was my little secret!!(even though it wasn't a secret from close friends) this is a very big thing for her(lol to me) an I'm so proud to call her my Aunt. Just mad the cats out the bag.. Lol I'm very over protective!! #onelove

    1. Aww, I know auntie loves you...unknown.

  2. I just want to say that this was worded very nice.. I'm honestly shocked... I've never wanted to share her with the world, after I was old enough to understand she was in a movie.. Lbvs She was my little secret!!(even though it wasn't a secret from close friends) this is a very big thing for her(lol to me) an I'm so proud to call her my Aunt. Just mad the cats out the bag.. Lol I'm very over protective!! #onelove

    1. Thank you. Your aunt was inspirational to a lot of people for decades, so I think they will be very happy to know what a close and proud family she has looking out for her as well.

  3. Was just watching the Unsung episode. It's a shame people think she passed. Thank you for hunting her down! :) great interview.

  4. I can't believe no one amongst all those people thought it was not okay to let a 17 yr do a nude love scene... That's the one thing I'd ask her about. Wow!!

  5. I just got through watching Unsung Hollywood and I can't believe someone would say she was no longer living. Thanks for finding out about her whereabouts. Even at the age of 60 years old, I'm sure Cynthia Davis can still find herself back into the limelight.

  6. To: Ms Cynthia Davis..Thank You for your Participation in "Cooley High" & For your Contribution to our African American History..! Be Blessed...

  7. Thank you for being such an inspiration!

  8. Watching Cooley High with my hubby and he asked...I wonder who passed away so far and I googled the cast. I told him Unsung reported Cynthia a.k.a Brenda (Everybody Loves Brenda)! And we both learned she's still alive, and weLl! Thank You for clearing that mess up!

  9. I myself, am very glad to know that Brenda is alive and well. From the photo it seems that she's aged very well! Hollywood could use an "old school" actress with some morals and character that actors and actresses are very much lacking today. She can add authenticity to any role! Be Blessed Brenda! And may God Bless you and your family!

  10. Tonight on TMC COOLEY HIGH is on this one of my Favorite Movies. When it came out. That was the first movie I saw By myself. I laughed, I cried,and got very angry.Most of all really Enjoyed it. Love reading your interview.Glad you are doing well and being happy with your life.God Bless you .

    1. No doubt she's aged well but that "recent" photo you refer to is easily 30 years old!

    2. This is indeed a Classic, if Ms. Davis ever Grace us with Her Presence here (Detroit)....Give us The Bill💝

  11. So glad to know Ms. Davis is alive. I’ve always wondered what happened with her career. I have to admit as a 14 year old in 1975 I always had a serious crush on Brenda like many at the time. Thanks for the memories Ms. Davis

  12. I'm so proud of my sister Cynthia Davis and her work in the movie Cooley High. Watching her back then I thought "that's my sister, she's so beautiful and so amazing". At the Premier I remember hearing how upset our father was when he witnessed the 'love scene', even though my sister said there was a sheet in between them during this he was still upset. After reading Jay's comment reminded me of the very thoughts I had then, and like my sister who was only 17, I too would like to thank the lady who told her she can ask for a "closed set" which is what she did. I was 15 then and people would say "it's just a movie!" Reading my sisters recall was heart touching and the way they treated her after they were done with her gripped my heart so, how could they be so ruthless, showing no concern for her as a young girl. God, I forgive them all! It warms my heart to read how so many wondered where she's now and how she's doing. As her sister I've told her know many people liked her in the movie and ask about her too. This email interview has blessed her and has given her a little hope in mankind. Thanks Marc and thanks everyone for caring enough to comment.

  13. Cynthia Davis
    My Sista
    Time To Grace Your Fans
    Your Presence
    You should reach out
    Tyler Perry
    Tracy Reed
    Needs To Get Back
    I would love to see
    Cooley High Two

  14. Just reading her story I feel a calm quiet spirit in her. Glad she still humble. May God continue to bless her

  15. Thank you for this interview. Warms my heart , glad she is doing well.

  16. Cynthia we miss you at school but we were all proud of you playing Brenda in a movie that most of us saw daily living in Chicago. Glad to know you are well. Yes we all at that 60 mark. Lol You are still a Mightyman alumni.

  17. I was nine when the movie premiered. Brenda was simply gorgeous. I thought about her often in life as I just finished watching Cooley High again for the 45th time. It still doesn't get old. Thank you Mrs. Cynthia Davis for some very fond memories. God bless you.

  18. I find your reporting on Cynthia very refreshing. I have on a number times over the years , trying to reach out to her, you see I was her teach at Dunbar. I still hope to see and hear from her. Thanks for such a wonderful writing. I do feel better that she’s in a good place.

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. If Ms. Davis would do just one, "Where are they now," on YouTube, and monetize it - it would BLOW UP! Inquiring minds want to know and have had a crush on her for over 40 years! LOL

  21. Wow! So nice to finally read she is alive! I was nine when it came out and have watched the movie a few times throughout the years. It is one of my favorites!I completely understand why she has remained obscured as well as many of the others that played small parts. We must remember, at that time they just got a few kids to play but parts in the area around the main characters, who were also just trying to get on the actor train. I'm sure they really didn't get paid much either at that time. Everyone was just excited to be in a movie! I don't think any of them expected it to be a bit as it did. Black folks liked it as it showed many of their lives at that time. Relatable.

  22. Thank you for doing this, I wish us all blessings from the God of my understanding Jesus, may peace abound, good stuff man! By the way some of us love the gray hair.

  23. Just watched Cooley high I believe it was for the 10th time I was born in the 50s so the music the scenery was so familiar Ms Davis did stand out, the good girl who fell for preach! So glad she didn’t get caught up in Hollywood scene you were that pretty girl I would look in the mirror & tell my friends I’m Brenda from Cooley High😉Blessings
    Ms Davis

  24. May God continue to bless you Cynthia.

  25. This woman was talented and 💥💦💦

  26. Watching Cooley High - again - right now! As a native Chicagoan - this movie brings back fond memories. Thank YOU for this kind article on Ms Davis!

  27. Glad to know her story....just watched Cooley High tonight....

  28. My Heart goes out to Brenda, she is such a wonderful woman! I too searched high and Low just to know if you were still alive. I kept saying too myself: "Such an Angel can not be Gone!
    I feel I Love With You over 40 years ago, and now married, I still Love You respectfully! Please make it possible for your fans to send contributions because the Love & Care about You! I would send it in a heartbeat for a link to just see your face Now! Agape Love Reggie Newark N.J

  29. My Heart goes out to you Brenda. You are a wonderful woman & a gorgeous Soul! I searched high and low to find you to see if you were still alive. I kept saying to myself: Such an Angel cannot be gone!" I fell in love with you almost 45 years ago, and now even as a married man, I still love you respectfully. Please make it possible for your true fans to be able to send you contributions. I would in a heartbeat, just for a link to some current pictures of you and a few more of you words in thought! Agape Love to you forever! Reggie Reg

  30. One of my favorite movie of all times.

  31. Thanks A Million

  32. I love the movie and had since wondered about you. It's one of our faves because of the realness. Thanks Ms Davis ♡♡

  33. Reading this article was uplifting and endearing. I've often wondered why this very beautiful and talented young 'actress' was not in more films. Life could've been kinder for her but she will always be a part of our lives during a time where we can have fonder memories. Ms. Davis, thank you

  34. On February 19, 2020, I watched Cooley High for the first time and Brenda is one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen!!!

  35. Cynthia is alive!! Cooley High is a movie that stays with you a lifetime once it’s been seen. Cynthia you are a HUGE reason for that in your inspirational portrayal of the beautiful Brenda. Thank you for doing this interview and providing some insight to our favorite actress. Please...PLEASE don’t disappear from us. Twitter & Facebook can be our mutual friend lol. You are truly loved by millions of fans who miss you dearly. Talk to ya later. : )

  36. I always wondered what happened to Ms. Davis. I even searched the internet to see if I could find something. It's a remarkable picture and without Ms. Davis a/k/a Brenda, it would not have been the same. A tremendous talent and eternal memories. Thank you Ms. Davis!

  37. Today is March 8, 2020... and how delighted I was 2C that Cooley High was coming on in 1hr, after my normal wake-up from troublesome rest.

    So I set the tymer, then text an acquaintance, to let them know that two of the 3 favorite Black 70's movies I spoke about, approximately 48hrs early, have been randomly placed into existence... Carwash, now Cooley High... Mahogany was the 3rd discussed.

    It never sat right that "Brenda" was now cast as the deceased member. Forgetting the details on how; so for the umpteenth tyme I look-it-up, and lucked-up, FINALLY, my guts truth was confirmed.

    Also, whenever, I need to know that my deceased M❤M is with me in tymes of great hopelessness, like during the era that we went as a family jus down the rode to see all 3 aforementioned movies... ever since then, they always throw me a lifeline.

    These movies, usually appear somewhere in late night/AM programming, like a Big Hug and Reassurance, from my M��M, that this too shall pass.

    Thanks for this update, in the process, you helped to give life back to two indivduals... one a beloved star, the other... jus a humble fan ❣