Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Lady Emerges: Carmencristina Moreno - Mary Jane from HICKEY & BOGGS - speaks!

For the first five minutes, it’s her movie. 

The steely Chicano woman in the drab clothes and sunglasses stepping off the train at Union Station, greeted by a rare Los Angeles rain, sitting in a taxi while reverentially wiping the water off her battered suitcase and uttering one of the few lines of dialogue she will have, “Madre dios, protect us now.” A transition to the early ‘70s hazy L.A. skyline we know from dozens of depictions, complete with smog alarm. We will later learn that almost a year has passed since her arrival. A florist retrieves the preserved suitcase from an earthen hiding place, literally digging up the root of all the evil we will see in this movie. And there she is behind the florist, looking for all the world like just another workaday woman, placing uncirculated $1000 bills into envelopes. It is only when the setting shifts to a dive bar and two shabby men watching boxing on TV, that we learn the movie is named HICKEY & BOGGS, and these are our actual protagonists.

Then again, the manner in which Walter Hill’s screenplay and Robert Culp’s direction reveals information, anytime we see a particular group of characters, it’s almost as if we have entered a different movie from their point of view. There’s the movie about the mobsters trying to recover money from a robbery they sanctioned. There’s the movie about the scummy criminals eager to get the cash. There’s the near-silent movie about the “Torpedos,” the hit men on a single-minded pursuit to find and kill everyone depriving the mob of their cash. There’s the movie about the L.A. police trying to break this case, annoyed by these private detectives – one of them a disgraced former cop – who keep intruding in their investigation. And the movie of this woman, her husband, and their children, alternately one step ahead of all these pursuers yet still over their heads in how to resolve their situation. Even the closing credits represent this: aside from the main cast of Culp, his partner, and the characters of immediate significance to them, all the other parties are grouped in their own headings - “The Chicanos,” “The Organization,” “The Contract Soldiers,” “The Law, “The Fences.”

But throughout all these intersecting stories, it is always this woman of multiple aliases who is steering the narrative. It is her that will commit the first murder we see. It is her all these competing forces are seeking, almost all underestimating her intelligence; she may be derided as “Mary Jane,” “the girl,” “the woman,” “that bitch,” by these men, but she’s the one that’s outfoxed them all. It is her that will play the mob against the fences and set up Hickey and Boggs to either be killed or take the fall. We will never learn the full story of how and why she does everything, how she learned to do it, but we get enough hints to know it’s as grim a tale as the hard look in her face. She didn’t want to be a femme fatale and a master manipulator, but there’s family to protect and a deal to make and jobs to do, and she’s going to finish this matter because she has to. Eventually Boggs, whose toll from pursuing this case has included the murder of his partner’s wife, tells her husband his grudging respect:

You still have Mary Jane. She must be a heck of a woman. Killed Farrow for you ‘cause he wanted a bigger bite. Ran the whole show until you got out. She’s one hell of a woman. Of course you’ll both be indicted, but it’s too shaky, they won’t make it stick. So...maybe you still get home.

The woman has a proper name: it’s Mary Florida Quemando. And the woman who played her, billed only as “Carmen” in the credits, generating as much mystery about the real performer as the character, is Carmencristina Moreno.

Photo courtesy Carmencristina Moreno

Carmencristina Moreno comes from an entertainment dynasty. She was born to Luis M. and Carmen A. Moreno, who performed ranchera music on radio and records from the ‘30s onward as El Dueto de Los Moreno; Luis is credited with composing hundreds of songs that have been covered into the present. Carmencristina would write and record music in English and Spanish for major record labels, and went on to found her own when she balked at working in an environment hostile to her rich heritage. She was named a NEA National Heritage Fellow in 2003, the pinnacle of honors a folk artist can receive. In the present day she still performs her original music, is a published author, and teaches Mexican-American history through song-and-lecture presentations in California schools.

There have been a good number of articles about HICKEY & BOGGS, and a good number of articles about Ms. Moreno, but Moreno has never previously spoken at length or detail about her experience until now, when she graciously agreed to answer my emailed questions about her history and relationship to the film.

To provide context, the production of HICKEY & BOGGS was an extremely stressful affair.

In 1971, when Walter Hill’s script was optioned by Warner Bros., Robert Culp had been humiliated by the production shutdown and foreclosure of Bernard Girard’s thriller A NAME FOR EVIL the year before. EVIL had been a pet project he previously told the press was, “the kind of picture you wait for all your life,” and during which, his third marriage to actress France Nuyen broke up, and led to his fourth marriage with supporting player Susan Sullivan. He and co-star Samantha Eggar were suing the producers and investors to obtain compensation for their previously deferred salaries. (The footage was ultimately bought by Penthouse magazine, re-edited, and dumped into theatres in 1973.) While he never stopped working in the interim, the high-profile collapse affected him deeply; as he remembered it in 2007, “After BOB AND CAROL, I was hot as a pistol…by the time it was done, I wasn’t hot as a pistol anymore.” When WB courted Culp to reunite with his former “I SPY” co-star for this project, it was an opportunity to regain his momentum as a bankable movie star.

However, his friend’s participation in the film was obtained on the actor's insistence that Culp be allowed to direct it. Culp had previously helmed an “I SPY” episode and a documentary for TV, but never a feature. When WB would not approve Culp as director, the duo offered to buy out WB’s investment and take the script elsewhere, and a preliminary deal was made with their series’ location cinematographer-turned producer Fouad Said to find independent money. A bad bluff by Said with WB resulted in a higher-than-planned buyout price, and funding ran out three times, leaving Culp with a tight budget and only 35 days to shoot. Impediments that Culp withheld from all parties were that immediately after the planned 35 days, his marquee co-star was due to commence filming “THE ELECTRIC COMPANY” for PBS in New York, meaning there was no flexibility for lost days on his scenes, and two weeks before shooting was to start, Culp had undergone a double hernia operation from which he had not fully recovered, but did not disclose for fear the insurance company would shut down the production. In short, it is very likely Culp feared a repeat of what befell A NAME FOR EVIL.

While Culp presented a sanguine demeanor about recalling this state of affairs in a 2007 Q&A at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, from the account offered here by Ms. Moreno, he was clearly under enormous pressure, and unfortunately, the negativity had a direct effect on the production, and its lynchpin actress...

How did you become involved in HICKEY & BOGGS?

I really don't recall how [Robert Culp] knew about me, except that my career as a singer/guitarist was "in demand" in those days in L.A. Mexican-Americanism seemed to be "in" in those days and I seemed to be the "go to" musical grass-roots Chicana around town. I couldn't help it. I carried my parents’ Mexican traditional folk music, as well as my modern American music in English. I was what I considered a true...musical Mexican-American, and I demonstrated it in many performances. But then, in those days, I also had friends and acquaintances in the film industry there in L.A.
So who knows how Culp found me. But he called ME!

Did you have any previous interest in movies in particular before you appeared in the film? Did you have a favorite film or TV show back then?

What little girl doesn't dream of becoming a "movie star"?
Yes. I loved "movies" and films and I had a lot of interest in acting in them since I had been a little girl. Plus, I always had stories that I made up rolling around in my head. It must have been because ever since I can remember, I had seen many Mexican musical movies with my parents as in L.A., they scouted for the latest songs coming from Mexico to perform in the USA.
Later, as I was growing up in Fresno, I saw many American movies with my favorite actresses: Susan Hayward, Deborah Kerr, Doris Day and others. I wanted to "act" in movies just like they did! Ah, the unrealistic dreams of a naive poor young Mexican teenager living in the farmlands of Fresno,  California! My parents always encouraged me to "go to Mexico" to continue my career, but Mexico seemed "foreign" to me. I was born, raised and educated in the United States. I didn't want to go to anywhere else USA, was home!
Anyway, I would see these actresses on TV and in movies and thought I could "act" like them.
On television, I had a lot of favorite TV shows: "I LOVE LUCY," "THE TWILIGHT ZONE," "THE LORETTA YOUNG SHOW," [and] including "I SPY," to name just a few shows that I liked to see. Each show presented different dramas every week with different actors and actresses. And the stories were compelling and well-written.
As I grew up, our high school library offered some books about the different "methods" or styles of drama and of drama classes and drama coaches in New York and Hollywood. Even certain movie magazines had articles about "acting". So I wasn't totally unfamiliar with the process. In fact, when I got into Hollywood, I studied for a while with different acting coaches in their classes, but after a few unpleasant experiences, I became disenchanted with studying with "Hollywood drama coaches." Besides, the whole process seemed elementary to me. I was so naive!
But nothing had prepared me for the reality, and I do mean REALITY, of working as a film actress, which encompasses a myriad of requirements for working in front of a camera. Height, dress size, skin color and etc.

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

I was impressed, at first. But the "luster" began to wear off after the script began to be changed, Plus every time I was called into Culp's production office, I would overhear the problems they were having. So much so, that I became "confused" and lost my focus. Not only did I not know WHAT was happening, I even began to get worried the movie would never be made.
And to boot, Culp one day complained to ME that they could not find another actor tall enough to play my husband! Fearing I would lose the part or that the project would fall through, I tried to help. I said to Culp, "I have an older brother who is taller than I am!" But in wanting to help, not only the movie, myself and help my brother "break into the business," I forgot that this "male actor's" part, was to play MY HUSBAND! This was terrible!!!! Incest? E-e-e-e-ek! What would my parents, friends and relatives say? But, I didn't mention my concerns to anyone that this bothered me. Perhaps it was because I thought myself "drama knowledgeable" enough and strong enough in my acting ability to not let that fact that he was my brother worry me. After all, it would only be "acting".
So, they called my brother in. And then I worried they wouldn't like him. And I worried if he was rejected, he would be humiliated and get his feelings hurt! But I had nothing to worry about. Culp and Cosby LOVED him, Louis Moreno. His demeanor (very macho) and his handsome stoic Mexican good looks, made a great impression on them both. Indeed, my brother, after HICKEY & BOGGS, went on to play other small parts on other TV shows. Had he lived long enough, he might have been a more successful actor.

Unfortunately, he died in 1989 of lung cancer. The "macho" guy, whose day job was as a painter for CSUN, drank too much tequila, smoked too many cigarettes, and even when a doctor told him early on that he had lung cancer, I guess he didn't believe it and he did not seek treatment until it was way too late. I think I'm still "angry" at my only brother for not trying to live longer.

Had you ever seen any of the main cast in any of their previous TV/movie work before you acted with them?

No, except for Bill Cosby and Robert Culp because of their work in the TV series "I SPY".

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

No, I did not speak to him about it. He never seemed to be available to me in order to have "that type" of conversation. And Culp never facilitated any meetings with Hill and I either. Besides, the script was being changed many times. I know this because I would overhear bits of conversation to this regard during the times I was in Culp's office. And I would be there only after being called in. I would catch glimpses of Mr. Hill and feel sorry for him. He always looked so beleaguered and worried. I thought it was probably because he was trying to keep up with the changes to his script.

What was your impression of Robert Culp and his directing style? How did he counsel you for your scenes?

Let me share something with you here, Marc. I grew up mainly in Mexican "show business" and began singing on stage and in many Mexican cafes and nightclubs; places some people would consider "dangerous." So early on, I learned to "read people," as a defensive mechanism in order to survive and stay out of trouble.
My impression of Robert Culp? Unfortunately, as a director, I found he definitely lacked "people skills." Or maybe Culp should have replaced me with another much more experienced actress. Or maybe another actress would have been much more expensive? Or maybe....who knows? But he was a "hard-headed, stubborn man"! And I found him unapproachable. He didn't need or ask for any input, LEAST of all, mine! For instance, he could have made Mary Jane a sister to the male character. But they had hired a little boy to play the part of "our" child. [The boy was Robert’s son, Jason Culp]
On top of all the hassles Culp was having, I felt it was too late to suggest anything. He didn't need THIS. But it would have freed me up a lot. Yet, in retrospect, he couldn't have made them sister and brother! It would have changed the "thrust" of the story. So, I did not feel free to suggest any changes or anything like that.

Then, as filming began, I started to feel his hostility towards me. I think now he must have hated my inexperience, or perhaps...I don't know. (Sexism? Racism?) Anyway, I stayed out of his way.
I ask myself now that perhaps his attitude was was hard because he was feeling "overwhelmed" by what he'd taken on? He was the "star" of the film. And he had to protect that! Plus, he had to protect his "vision" of the story he was trying to tell on film. And there I was...!
Did he "counsel" me on my part? Only ONCE, during filming and in a brief and private moment when out of the blue, he asked me to join him for lunch. We got in his car and drove almost in silence. Then he said something about "method acting." After which, he remarked with a smirk, "There! I've given you your first acting lesson!" Out of respect, I didn't reply. But my first thought was, "What a jerk!"
It was there that I felt he and I were beginning to hate each other! And his cold and hostile attitude towards me began to erode any confidence I might have felt for the part. I ended up not "acting", but rather, "reacting" to the instructions he would give me before each scene! That's the only way it could have been done because by that time, there was no script (that I knew of), to follow or digest. And unfortunately, my "wooden performance" on film shows it. I hate it and am STILL VERY embarrassed by it. I could have done better. But like Culp, I too, felt overwhelmed by circumstances.

Was it always intended by Hill and/or Culp that she would be near-mute throughout the film?

I don't know what their real intentions were. As I state before, there was a script at first, but then even during filming, Culp was giving everyone updates of changes. He had set up a storyboard there on the set. Being inexperienced in film work, I suppose that is done on other films too. But to me, it seemed strange and strained to do that at the last minute.

How did the single-name "Carmen" billing come about in the credits?

There are many places and instances in American show business where having a Hispanic surname was, and sometimes still is, not commercially viable. So I didn't use it then. But I sure use it now!

What sorts of things did you do in creating your performance? Did you study other actors, other movies? Did you lean on personal experience?

What was there to do or study? What was to prepare?
From what I recall, when I first read the script, I felt I knew who the character was and what a negative character she was supposed to be. I felt I knew how to play "her". But as the script changed and Culp's "forceful" instructions prevailed, I think I became personally intimidated. Intimidated!!! I lost my personal voice and thinking ability. Nothing I did in my performance seemed to please him. In the end, as I write above: I didn't "act," I ended up [reacting] his instructions!!! Or maybe Culp hated me because I was just a tender inexperienced "wanna-be" actress." Or perhaps, after thinking about it, it leads me to believe the Director was just using my "off-camera" professional show-business persona (my Chicanismo) to tell HIS vision of the story, his negative personal racial feelings.
As it turned out, according to ending credits, perhaps my feelings about his hostility was correct. Check out the closing credits: Blacks - listed separately, Chicanos - listed separately, Whites - separately. We're all segregated. There's no room for respect or acknowledgment of individual artistic abilities there! But oh well...that's show biz...!

What was your impression of the stunt men playing "The Torpedoes" - Fatboy (Matt Bennett), Monte (Bill Hickman), and Nick (Tom Signorelli)?

I did not fraternize with them. It has been and still is, my experience that many times, a man mistakes my "friendliness" for a "come on." So I stay away from a lot of people I don't have to interact with.

When some of the lesser-known supporting cast became marquee names later, were you surprised or did you anticipate they had that potential back then?

I don't recall. The only name or person I recognized on set was Bill Cosby. And even then, I was not on close personal terms with him.

There have been stories about much more footage being shot but not used. Is this true? Were you featured in any of those scenes, and if so, what sorts of things would have happened in them?

I don't know about additional footage that was shot and not used.
But I do know that at one point, the Director (Culp) wanted to shoot a silhouette of a hooker putting on her bra, and he told ME [to] take off my blouse and bra so they could film my silhouette putting on my bra. But I wasn't about to expose my large breasts to the cast and crew! I am not that type of actress. Besides, it was not in the script that I had agreed to do. So I refused to do it. Of course he wasn't happy about that either! Nudity or partial nudity was never mentioned in my contract. That is a "line" I definitely would not have crossed! Part or no film part. Besides, asking to do that, seemed to me like he was trying to "punish" me.
So after I refused, they shot him throwing money on top of a ratty mink coat, and it's my hand that takes the money and the coat.

What was it like on the set? Did you get along particularly well with anyone on the cast or crew?

I kept largely to myself with my "nose in a book" most of the time. I was feeling like an inept fool by then and wasn't feeling "friendly" towards anyone by that point...and no one was friendly with me either!

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

Sadly, I don't recall "having fun" with anyone there. I was totally miserable. Perhaps I "over thought" everything!

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

Early on in the filming, I found I had to watch out for my own safety. There was a gun where my character shoots someone through a screen door, a gun that did operate properly and the "bullet" kept getting stuck between the gun barrel and the chamber. A gun explosion could have blown my hand off!
During filming on the beach the scene called for me to be flying an airplane, which they shot with the plane on the ground or with the plane's door as a backdrop while I was flown in a helicopter. But in this one shot, while in the airplane was on the ground, the propeller was rotating and while I was in the plane's cabin, Culp whispered loudly to me to "gun it" so that the plane would take off! I don't know the first thing about flying a plane, so I didn't! Shortly afterwards, it turned out that the wing nuts were not tightened down on the wings, and the wings were being held to the fuselage loosely only by the bolts! That was upsetting to me! What the heck was this guy thinking? That scared the heck outta me. I had to watch out "for this guy," I thought! And of course, I didn't say anything to anyone about it then either.

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

This filming experience was catastrophic for me as an aspiring actress. But it taught me a good lesson, which I now choose to keep to myself. But I was glad when filming was over.

What was the reaction of you and your friends when HICKEY & BOGGS was released?

To paraphrase Janis Ian's song: "[In] debentures of quality and dubious integrity, their small-town eyes will gape at you in dull surprise when payment due, exceeds accounts received."

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

The pleasant or unpleasantness part depended on what type of attention was being paid to me, and by whom. You must know what I mean.

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

Shortly after doing HICKEY & BOGGS, I fell into a deep depression that I couldn't overcome. It took me YEARS to emerge from it!
But thinking back, on one memorable evening, as I and my 3 sons toured the Griffith Park Observatory, there was another Mexican-American lady with her own 3 children, who recognized me and approached me, wanting to shake my hand and proudly telling her sons that "[She] was the lady who was in 'that' movie!"
In view of the fact that my movie part was that of a "lying murderous thief whore" (though one never heard the "lying" dialogue), and though I wasn't exactly proud of having played that part, what I was REALLY ashamed of was feeling that I had done such a bad job of it. And to me, it shows!!! OMG! I was so stiff and wooden! No wonder they all hated me. I hated me too!!! Since then, I had auditioned for other parts, and gotten a few. But my heart is just not in acting anymore. What do I know?

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

No, and didn't want to either!

Have you watched the film recently?

Not recently, no. I think I watched a DVD of it again about 5 or 7 years ago.

Do you think the film plays differently now years after its release than when it first came out?

I have found that one has to watch it several times in order to find its basic story-line or "appreciate" the story Culp was trying to convey, though I still don't know why...anyone...would be interested in the story.

What will you remember most positively and/or most negatively from being in this movie?

The positive is that it made me aware of my lack of drama training and thereby my limitations as an "actress" or "actor". Being an "actor" really requires devotion and dedication. If I ever try to "act" in a film again, I will definitely study and research a lot more, so that I will be able to feel free to explore the character and be quick enough to "own" the part. The negative side, is that during this filming process, I allowed myself to be BULLIED and INTIMIDATED out of believing in myself or feeling so oppressed. I had felt intimidated to the point that I lost my nerve! That's disastrous for a performer, whether on film or wherever.

So there you are, Marc. I still feel I failed them all in this film and they ended up hating me. And for a long time, I hated me too! Last year, I was trying to find snippets or photos of myself in this film to construct some promo stuff I was working on, and I couldn't find anything of my image, save one photo of a woman (me) with dark glasses and a hood over her hair. No one else would have recognized that woman as being me. But maybe it's a good thing!

Thank you again for your interest in my "performance" in this film, Marc. I wish you the best of good luck.

Yours sincerely,

Carmencristina Moreno

Photo courtesy of Howard Watkins and KQED

My deepest thanks to Ms. Moreno for revisiting a less-than-pleasant memory with such strength and candor. Her testimony has only intensified my respect for her performance, and I hope it does the same for you. May it inspire all of you to seek out her larger legacy of creative activity as well.

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.