Sam Greenlee, author of ‘Spook Who Sat By the Door,’ dead at 83
By Nina Metz
Even into his so-called golden years, the writer Sam Greenlee was outspoken about the curious fate of his 1973 film “The Spook Who Sat by the Door.” A Chicago native, Greenlee, 83, died from natural causes early Monday morning at his home.
“The Spook Who Sat by the Door” was Greenlee’s one feature film (he was writer and producer), adapted from his 1969 novel of the same name, which was an underground classic inspired, in part, by Greenlee’s own experience as the rare black man working for the Foreign Service from the late 1950s through the mid-‘60s, stationed in Iraq, Pakistan and Greece before returning to Chicago.
Both the book and the film center on a black activist and intelligence man named Dan Freeman (played by Lawrence Cook) who quits the agency, moves back to Chicago and kickstarts an armed revolution steeped in black nationalism and groovy dialogue.
“It is such a mixture of passion, humor, hindsight, prophecy, prejudice and reaction,” New York Times film critic Vincent Canby wrote upon its release, “that the fact that it’s not a very well-made movie, and is seldom convincing as melodrama, is almost beside the point.” (The film was directed by Ivan Dixon, best known for his role on “Hogan’s Heroes.”)
But something strange happened shortly after the film opened in theaters. It disappeared for reasons that remain unclear. The prints literally vanished. Greenlee himself believed movie theater owners were visited by members of the FBI and were pressured to pull the film from their screens. It’s not an implausible theory, considering the story’s militant content, but one that has never been proven. That didn’t stop Greenlee from speaking out, anyway.
Charming and graced with a wily, indefatigable intellect, Greenlee sat for many interviews in his later years, including one for the documentary “Infiltrating Hollywood: The Rise and Fall of the Spook Who Sat By the Door,” which chronicled the story of the film’s making and subsequent disappearance. The film screened in Chicago in 2010 as part of the Black Harvest film festival at the Siskel Film Center.
“He was hard-nosed and didn’t take anything from anybody,” said Lowell Thompson, the Chicago-based artist and writer who spent many nights socializing with Greenlee in recent years. “We used to have arty parties and he’d come and hang out and argue.” Greenlee, who was also poet, was an integral member of his circle of writer and artist friends. According to Thompson, Greenlee’s health began to deteriorate about two years ago, though he was private about these matters.
He was less tight-lipped on just about everything else. Numerous video interviews of Greenlee abound on YouTube, including one in which he is unsparing in his opinion of contemporary black cinema: “If we’re gonna be outsiders, man, (let’s) take advantage of being outsiders, OK? If you want to be a rich ‘ho, then go to Hollywood. If you want to say something true about black people, then do what we did: Raise the money from the black community and shoot what you want.”
Said Thompson when he heard of Greenlee’s death on Monday, “The first thing I wrote was: ‘Sam was no sham.’ He was right there in your face, but usually he had really good reasons and facts to back up his opinions.”
Greenlee, he said, “spoke in this informal but authoritative way. He was not putting on airs. But he also knew how to communicate with people so they didn’t feel uncomfortable or intimidated.”
Raised in Woodlawn (the same neighborhood where he lived in recent years), his mother was a Regalette, according to Thompson, referring to the chorus dancers at the Regal Theater in Bronzeville. Greenlee attended Englewood High School in the same time period as “A Raisin in the Sun” playwright Lorraine Hansberry; both were born in 1930. Greenlee attended the University of Wisconsin, where he ran track, and the University of Chicago. “I went to two white, brainwashing institutions,” he later told the Chicago Reader. “But I’m the black dog that didn’t fall for Pavlov’s scam.”
“He often said and did some outrageous things,” said Stan West, a writer and filmmaker who teaches on culture, race and media at Columbia College, “sometimes for shock value, sometimes because he believed them, and sometimes because of his various illnesses. Sam was one of the first African-Americans I met who was in the U.S. foreign service. He actually was a ‘a spook who sat by the door.’”
Pemon Rami, who is director of educational services and public programs at the DuSable Museum of African American History, met Greenlee in the early 1970s and helped cast “The Spook Who Sat by the Door” with Chicago actors. Most of the film was shot in Gary, Ind., however — due to pushback from Mayor Richard J. Daley. (The production did manage to grab a few shots, sans permit, near the “L” at 63rd and Cottage Grove.)
David (pronounced “Daveed”) Lemieux was among the Chicagoans cast in the film, based on a chance encounter. “When I was 16 years old I was a busboy at Chances R in Hyde Park,” he said. “I was already an activist and I had read ‘The Spook Who Sat by the Door,’ so of course I recognized him when he came in.
“I told him there was a character in the book that I related to, a very light-skinned character who was portrayed not as the tragic mulatto but as one of the brothers. And I said I really appreciated him writing that. And he told me if he ever made a movie out of the book, he would put me in it.”
Lemieux was 19 by the time the film was made. Though not an actor (by his own admission) his performance makes an impact. He plays Pretty Willie, a man who might be mistaken for white or Latino based on looks alone, and Greenlee gave him searing dialogue on this very topic.
“I am not passing,” he says. “I am black, do you hear me, man? Do you understand? … I was born black, I live black and I’m gonna die probably because I’m black.”
Greenlee, Lemieux said, “was the real deal.”
Rami echoed these sentiments, calling Greenlee “tough, committed, creative and revolutionary.” Greenlee had apparently finished work on his autobiography, which Rami hopes will be published.
“One of Sam’s statements,” Rami said, “and it was the (outgoing) message on his voicemail, was that a free black mind is a weapon of mass destruction. I always found that to be interesting.”
A memorial for Greenlee will be held at the Dusable Museum June 6.