Yesterday, I noted the oddity that on the 1970 Tony Awards broadcast they not only presented two numbers from the musical Purlie -- but neither of them included the star of the show, Cleavon Little, who that evening won the Tony for best actor in a musical. I have no idea why he didn't perform that night, particularly because there were quite a few songs he could easily have done that would have fit in perfectly. Which leads us to today's video, and yet another oddity.
And that's -- four years later on the 1974 Tony broadcast...Cleavon Little was invited to re-create his starring role and do one of his big numbers!
I have no idea what brought this about. Whether it was remorse (unlikely), or another of the Tony themes of bringing back stars, or...perhaps "timing." That's because 1974 also just happens to be the year that Cleavon Little starred as Sheriff Bart in the Mel Brooks comedy, Blazing Saddles. For all I know, the Tony producers said, "Hey, this is going to be a breakout movie for Cleavon. We can get him in front of the public first." That too doesn't seem likely, but then none of this makes much sense, going back to him not appearing in 1970.
By the way, Little wasn't the first choice to play Sheriff Bart. It was supposed to be Richard Pryor, who is one of the screenwriters on the film. But Mel Brooks couldn't get studio backing for Pryor as the star, concerned about his unreliability. And so Cleavon Little got the role. One has to think that his Tony Award-winning role in Purlie helped raise his profile.
A TV production was made of Purlie in 1981, filmed onstage, with Melba Moore recreating her Tony-winning role as Lutibelle. So, too, did Sherman Hensley. But Cleavon Little wasn't in it -- Robert Guilliaume (who was then starring on TV in Benson). This was part of a limited re-staging of the show, I believe, and the taped performance is from Canada. It would seem likely that Cleavon Little was asked. Whether he wasn't available, or not interested in doing the part again, no idea. But it's a shame not to have his performance on tape. Robert Guiliaume is a very talented actor, but he's sort of reserved in the part. Cleavon Little, as you can especially see in this selection below, and hear on the cast album, is exuberant.
This then is the only footage of Cleavon Little in his star-marking, Tony-winning performance as Purlie Victorious Judson, singing "New Fangled Preacher Man," from Purlie.
Four years after you'd think it should have been done...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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