Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making Of “Claudine”
If you were seeing a movie in the ’70’s, chances are you were going to be watching a blaxploitation film. That was until Claudine came along in 1974. The movie used unique vehicles to tell a story that had largely been ignored in cinema. Hopefully, you’ve seen this classic. If so, it’s certainly a story you won’t forget. And though you know the story and remembered all the outrageous moments from the movie, we bet you don’t know the behind these scenes secrets.
What did Ossie Davis have to do with it?
Though Davis didn’t star in the film himself, in 1971, he and a group of other minority individuals in the industry collaborated to create the Third World Cinema Corporation. The organization was one of the few minority controlled motion picture production companies. The group sought to produce films starring blacks and other minority groups. The group also sought to train other minority actors. Claudine was the corporation’s first film.
Watts or the Bronx
Originally, the couple who wrote the script, Lester and Tine Pine, envisioned the movie taking place in Watts, Los Angeles. But when Third World Cinema, a New York based company, came on board they changed the location to the Bronx. It ended up working out a little bit better because Diahann Carroll was born there.
Diana or Diahann?
Originally, the role was not going to go to Diahann Carroll. Instead, it was created with veteran actress Diana Sands in mind. Sands who had starred in A Raisin in the Sun was a two time Emmy and Tony award nominee. But after filming had started, Sands found herself battling cancer. James Earl Jones, who plays Claudine’s love interest in the film, realized she was sick when she winced in a pain during one of their love scenes. Once she admitted that she couldn’t proceed with the film, she insisted that Diahann Carroll step in and take over.
The leading man
James Earl Jones also wasn’t the first person considered for the role. The part of “Roop” was going to go to Starsky and Hutch actor, Bernie Hamilton. But Jones was an old friend of Diana Sands, who had a huge hand in the development of the movie.
The country had fallen in love with Diahann Carroll for her groundbreaking role as “Julia.” But Claudine was not supposed to be a glamorous woman. She was an overworked, stressed out mother, trying to raise a tribe full of kids. She was supposed to look a bit ordinary. So, in order to do that Diahann Carroll highlighted her least flattering feature, her forehead. In nearly every scene, her hair was pushed back to expose it. Nice try Diahann, but you’re still gorgeous.
Maybe the forehead trick convinced critics that Diahann really was a woman on welfare. Her performance was so well received that in 1975, Carroll was nominated for best actress. Unfortunately, she didn’t win and the award went to Ellen Burstyn for her role in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
The extremely talented, musical genius Curtis Mayfield scored and produced all the songs for the Claudine soundtrack. The song he’d written for Gladys Knight and The Pips, “On & On” went on to chart at number 5 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart in 1974.
A first for Lawrence
Remember Lawrence Hilton Jacobs? He played the role of “Charles,” Claudine’s eldest son. This was Lawrence’s big screen debut. After that he went on to star in films like Cooley High, Roots and perhaps most heinous, the role of Joe Jackson in The Jacksons: An American Dream got his start with Claudine. It was his first major movie role. In this interview with Kam Williams, Hilton-Jacpbs explained how having three projects airing simultaneously made him something like a household name.
KW: Would you say that Cooley High was your breakout role?
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: Oh, big time! Yet, it’s funny how these things can overlap. Back in those days, when a movie came out, it might stay in theaters for a year or even longer. So, I had done Claudine and Cooley High, and then “Welcome Back, Kotter.” And they were all out at the same time. So, I was all over the place.
KW: What was it like to have that degree of fame all of a sudden?
Lawrence Hilton Jacobs: It was like an explosion. You just don’t get ready for it. I don’t even know how you can, because you just don’t expect it. For me, up until that point, you would do a gig, and then you’d go out and try to find the next job. So, I had no idea what effect something blockbustering would have. To me, it was just a job that I was trying to do the best I could. We had shot the first five shows before it went on the air. Then, it was this firecracker hit, and people were recognizing me, so it was just nuts. It was overwhelming, insane, wonderful and scary all at the same time. It’s really peculiar that people see you on television and then think they have a personal relationship with you. So, they want to touch you, and grab you, and sit down and have lunch with you. It’s strange, and you never get used to that.
Not only did critics enjoy the film, it was also a commercial success judging by the standards of 1974. The movie cost $3 million to make and ended up grossing $6 million the year of its release.
James Earl Jones has had immense success in Hollywood, voicing memorable characters like Star Wars’ Darth Vader and The Lion King’s “Mufasa.” Yet, Turner Classic Movies reports that Jones considers Claudine one of his favorite films, adding that playing “Roop” the noble garbage man gave him “more satisfaction than any of my other films.”