Just meeting the legendary Bette Davis to an actor was a blessing let alone being asked to work with her on film. This is how it happen. My best friend fellow actor Dorian Harewood (who's now the voice of NBC) first set up the meeting with me and Ms. Davis. Ms. Davis worked with him in a play and wanted him to play the lead role in movie for CBS. The producers and the network thought that he looked to old for the part at the time. They wanted someone who looked more like a young teenager. So he recommend me. Even though I had graduated Michigan State University a couple of years before, I guess I still had a young look. At the time I was on the very popular hit television show " The Jeffersons", as Marcus Henderson, produced by Norman Lear. The meeting with Ms. Davis was set up at her home in West Hollywood, in an apartment building called the Colonial House. When I got there I was trying my best to keep a cool front but all the while my insides were screaming, this can't be happening. The first thing that I noticed were all the little silver cigarette holders around the apartment with the letters BD inscribed on them. She smoked a lot of cigarettes yet still lived a long life. That's how tough she was. We talked about the script, my Detroit background and about the business in general, she made the interview very easy and relaxed. It turned out to be a wonderful conversation and I felt like we had really hit it off. She then said I really like you Ernest, who should we get to direct us ? Said to myself us, oh yes of course yes us. Ahhh you pick em Bette, You see I gotten to relaxed thinking we were on first name bases by then. That's just how she made you feel. She was so down to earth. She later picked her long time friend and another Hollywood legend, Mr. Jackie Cooper to direct the picture. When the meeting over all I could remember thinking was how good GOD is and how miracles do happen.
The movie was untitled for much of the shoot but eventually was called "White Mama" written by Robert C.S. Downs and a wonderful cast including Broadway star Virginia Capers and Oscar winner Eileen Heckart.
I have so many wonderful stories while making that film that I could share but we would be here all night. So here is just a few. On the set is where I first met Ms. Kathryn Sermak. She was Ms. Davis's assistant. Her beauty distracted me for a moment and Ms. Davis picked up on that right away saying "stay focused young man." But actually I was focused. I tried to soak up everything I could like a sponge. It was amazing to see her preparation up close and how she went about creating her character, even down to figuring out what wardrobe she was going to ware for each scene of the movie. I did all I could do as a young actor to keep up. Learning as much as I could as fast as I could. I had to learn three scripts before we even started working on the actual shooting script. I wanted to be line ready no matter what script we ended up using. She knew playing my mother that we had to really become close to make our roles as mother and son believable and that we did. We became very close and talked all the time, even on the phone before and after shooting. She wrote me letters sent me holiday cards and stayed in contact with me until she died.
She could also be tough. She would watch the dailies and the camera operators would sit there biting their nails because if they had filmed her not to her liking, they were gone. One day I saw her, the producers and the director who were all in disagreement about something, go into a room and later come out with some of them having tears in their eyes. I don't know what happen in there but right afterwards she walked out last, came up to me and said that's over now lets get to work! She could be tough!
Yet on the other hand she was so giving as an actor. In her contract she had a clause where they couldn't work her but so many hours unlike me where I could be worked until I dropped. So I was doing a big scene that I had a lot of dialog where I was the one mostly on camera. I was reading it with the script girl as she was just saying the lines with no feeling. Ms. Davis was walking by where we were shooting leaving the set to go home because her day was done. She saw what was happening and said "oh no" pulled off her coat and did the scene with me. She didn't have to do that she wasn't even on camera but she knew her doing it with me was going to bring out my best performance. She was always about the work first. A very giving actress.
Her actor friends like Roddy McDowall and Robert Wagner would come to the set to see her for lunch and she at times would allow me to hang and listen to the amazing stories that they shared about old Hollywood. She talked about how she use to call Ronald Reagan little Ronnie and how she felt that Errol Flynn was a terrible actor. She told me how she used to arrange for her black friends to sit in the balcony of the theatre when she performed because they weren't allowed in at all. It was fascinating to hear those inside stories about old Hollywood. Yet it was such a contrast being around such Hollywood royalty while working downtown around such extreme poverty in the middle of the homeless community there. Both were a real education but seeing how the homelessness lived down there everyday was heartbreaking for me to see.
I remember one evening Ms. Davis said to me as we were all riding home from a days work on the set " Ernest do you want to hear this? " She and Jackie Cooper were reading fan mail on the way home. She said "I ask you first because I want you to know that the letters are bad" they are hate mail". I said "sure why not, I'm from the streets of Detroit", I felt that I had seen and heard pretty much everything already. So when Jackie Cooper starting reading them out loud to be honest I was shocked, amazed and a little hurt to know that there were still people out there with such hate and could write such hateful mail, especially to a legend like Bette Davis. One said " I use to be your biggest fan but I will never watch another one of your movies again Ms. Davis now that I hear that you are doing a movie with a ni**er !" And me being naïve at the time, thought the majority of that kind of racism had been over when Martin Luther King died in 1968, here this was 1979. I felt so stupid but unfortunately even today racism is alive and well. Anyway we took all of that in stride, did our best and the movie was later nominated for an Emmy.
White Mama wasn't the original title of the book but she insisted on that being the title of the movie, which I believe she wanted to make sure she defied all those racist people and let them know without a doubt that she was starring in a movie opposite a black man. In fact I am the only black person to ever star opposite her in a film and I know that film helped pave the way for the many others like it afterwards. She said that she loved my work. We talked about doing 3 more films together and I'm quite sure if she stayed healthy and lived long enough we would have. That's who Bette Davis really was. She had a wonderful heart. She was my leading lady, an honor that I will proudly take with me to my grave. She was a great woman ahead of her time in so many ways, one of our finest talents ever and a great friend. She loved all people, I know this for a fact.
Bette you will always be missed, by me and your millions of loving fans around the world. I truly love you with all my heart. You were and will always be my White Mama.
Ernest Harden, Jr.