Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making of “Lean On Me”

June 23, 2014  |  
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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Lawrence Young covering “Fair Eastside,” the school song in the now classic movie, Lean On Me. And then I wondered, have I done a “Bet You Didn’t Know” article for this fan favorite? I had not. So it’s about time. And as luck would have it, 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the film. You know the plot, you love the soundtrack and Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Joe Clark is something iconic. But we bet you didn’t know these behind the scenes secrets. Check them out on the following pages.

The Idea

Norman Twain, the producer of the film said he saw a 10 minute segment about Joe Clark on the NBC back in 1986. He said, “And I immediately thought this was a movie. I called Joe up the next day and came out here the day after that. He was all for it, even though he didn’t know whether I was talking about a made-for-TV movie, a home movie, or what. I paid him a fee for a 120-day.”

Warner Brothers, the studio with which Twain was working, wasn’t the first group to show interest. Universal purchased the rights for the film five years before but nothing ever came of it.

Having already been a part of this process, Clark didn’t know  if it was really going to happen this time around.

In a 1989 interview with LA Times, Clark said: “I’d become accustomed to promises being made and declarations declared and ultimately nothing emanating from it,” said Clark. “So I said to myself pessimistically that nothing will ever come of this new attempt either…Only when I saw the cameras in the building with (director) John Avildsen, Morgan Freeman and everybody else, did I say, ‘yes a movie is really being made.’ “


Close Casting Calls 

Though Morgan Freeman is Hollywood gold these days, one of the most successful actors regardless of race, that wasn’t quite the case back in the late eighties and Warner Brothers wasn’t too convinced about him taking on the lead role.

And so they approached Sidney Poitier. But he turned it down. He was familiar with Clark and told the studio he didn’t believe in his politics. In fact, he went so far as to call him a fascist.

Then they thought about Bill Cosby but decided his energy might be too low, plus he was doing I Spy. 

They even considered Eddie Murphy. And he was interested but the way his contract with Paramount was set up, he wasn’t able to work with other studios.

Even Danny Glover was in the running but he was on track to do the sequel for Lethal Weapon.  

So Morgan Freeman got the job, just like producer Norman Twain wanted all along.

Morgan Freeman and the producers on Joe Clark

Unlike Poitier, Freeman didn’t seem to have a problem with Joe Clark’s philosophies. Having come from an inner city school himself in Chicago, he tended to agree with them. “…You have to have discipline at school. Once you lose it, you’ve lost the whole ballgame. And that’s why, on the job, Joe’s a tyrant.”

Producer Norman Twain took it a step further. “Joe Clark in person is a pain in the ass, a very difficult and erratic guy. He’s got a huge temper. But there’s a method to his madness that far outweighs his problems.”

But associate producer Michael Schiffer says when the school systems are in shambles, like they still are today, you need a Joe Clark type character. “Sometimes you need a radical shift to accomplish change. Joe Clark is almost what has to be done when the government has abandoned education. Then you need somebody to go crazy.”


The Truth vs. The Movie

When the movie finally hit theaters, people who knew the real story were disappointed to see that the film took several liberties with the impact Joe Clark actually had at the school. In the film, a significant amount of time is dedicated to showing how Clark helped improve test scores at Fair Eastside. But in reality, that was completely fictitious. Clark never improved test scores during his tenure. In fact the school was never even in jeopardy of being taken over by the state because of the district in which it’s located. And while a liberty that grand might have bothered a lot of people, Joe Clark didn’t seem to mind.

“It’s an industry. It’s a business. It’s entertainment. And the design of entertainment is to make people happy. There’s enough sadness in one’s life. Once in a while you must extract a reasonable facsimile of glee, as factitious as it may be.” 

More Falsehoods

In the film, I guess, in an effort to show that people who affect the most change can also be the most difficult, they showed Joe’s personal relationship with his wife crumbling. In the movie, Schiffer, who also served as screenwriter, has Clark’s wife leave him. In real life the Clarks were still married with three children, two from his first marriage. Here’s what Clark said about the inclusion.

“That was something they felt they had to put in,” Clark said. “I didn’t understand why but I didn’t even question that because it wasn’t important. Knowing the media, it could have been worse.”


The scene in the movie where Joe Clark tells his student to jump off the roof and do it expeditiously is really true. Joe said, “Now I know that if that kid had jumped, my black butt would have been in jail for the rest of my life.” And he really did fire the music teacher. He said, “She was the best teacher I had in the school, but that to me was irrelevant.”


When Lean On Me was released it spent two weeks as the number one movie in America. During it’s third week it slipped to number 4. By the end of its run, it had earned over $31 million.

His Exit 

After the release of the movie and the cover of Time magazine, Joe Clark was hot stuff and he was capitalizing on all of that newfound fame by traveling the country. Right around the time the film dropped, he was suspended, or he suspended himself (it depends on who you ask), after a school convocation went left when a group of performers were practically naked on stage. According to People,

The striptease happened last month when he was away, on the West Coast, doing the Arsenic Hall show. Before he left, Clark had scheduled an assembly for 11th and 12th graders: a variety show to be produced by Eric Floyd, a young graduate of TV’s Fame And an aspiring “Las Vegas-Atlantic City showstopper.” Floyd’s show had played Eastside once before without incident. But then it had not included an act called “The Goddess of Rap,” in which Floyd’s fiancée, Wanda-Dee, performs with four muscular male dancers. In that number, as the dancers stood with their backs to the audience, Wanda ripped their pants off, revealing (clotheswise) only silver G-strings. The crowd of 16-and 17-year-olds screamed delightedly; the assistant principal on duty rang down the curtain.” 

Naturally, as the face of the school, the administration let this fall on Clark’s shoulders. The man who suspended him, Dr. Frank Napier, was his good friend in the film, played by Robert Guillaume.

And while the parents didn’t think it was all that great, the students rallied behind Mr. Clark, during his suspension protesting on his behalf, holding signs and singing “Lean On Me.”

But Sakara Fritts, an 11th grader at the time, said Mr. Clark’s attention to other endeavors was distracting him from the school. She said, “I like him as a principal but his public speaking all the time is not good. We [should] come first.”

The students may have still believed in him but the school board and superintendent did not. They voted to terminate Clark.

Moving On

After Fair Eastside, Clark went on to run a juvenile detention center in Newark, New Jersey. Clark stayed from 1995 until 2002 when he resigned. But just because he’d left the school system, doesn’t mean he kept his nose clean. He came under fire again for his unique and aggressive way of operating.

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