Shortly after coming to Los Angeles for pilot season in the late 90’s, I booked my first drama episodic on CBS-TV called “Chicago Hope”. My episode was directed by Michael Schultz – the same guy who directed the iconic film “Cooley High”.
This past weekend, I watched a documentary style show on TV One called “Unsung: Hollywood” where the featured story was about none other than “Cooley High”. When this film was released, I was in high school in St. Louis, Missouri and the theatre where we went to watch all the latest films was the Fox Theatre on North Grand. Back then, you could pay your admission and watch the film all day, over and over again. Not only that, but as all of us of “color” know the audience was notorious for talking back to the screen like we were at home watching television without any regard for the fact that some people are actually there to watch the film…LOL.
“Cooley High” was pivotal for me because it was the first time I saw people that looked like me on a 60 ft. screen in which the lead characters were not pimps, whores, vigilantes or vampires. Let remind you that this was in the 70′ and “blaxploitation” films were running rampant. These kids on screen were a bunch of high schoolers, doing high school stuff that was reminiscent of what we were experiencing in that moment in time.
Going into watching the “Unsung: Hollywood” episode., I was aware of screenwriter Eric Monte’s contributions to “All In The Family”, “Good Times”, “The Jeffersons” and “What’s Happening”. What I didn’t know was how he got there. After an unfortunate incident involving the accidental murder of his best friend, Monte left Chicago with clothes on his back and made his way to Hollywood. Once in LaLa land, he met actor/writer Mike Evans in class at a local Los Angeles community college, which led to his writing career on some of the most iconics sitcoms in the 70’s. BTW…Mike Evans was the “original” actor that portrayed “Lionel” the son of George Jefferson on “All In The Family” and “The Jeffersons”.
I was also surprised to know that most of the “actors” in the film were actually residents of the infamous Chicago project — Cabrini Green, where Eric Monte grew up. As a matter of fact, the two guys portraying gang bangers…literally were gang members in the Chicago area.
“Cooley High” solidified and kick-started the Hollywood careers of Garrett Morris, Lawrence Hilton Jacobs and Glynn Turman. Garrett Morris went on to be in the “original” cast of “Saturday Night Live” and is still a fixture on many television sitcoms today. Lawrence Hilton Jacobs co-starred in the hit 70’s sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter” with a then unknown John Travolta and Glynn Turman has starred on stage, screen and film numerous times, conducts a camp for “at-risk” youth and is a real life cowboy.
Eric Monte, now lives in Portland, Oregon where he continues to write and Michael Schultz is still directing film and episodic television with much frequency. He even showed up at a little show I have a recurring role on called “Hart of Dixie”. “Cooley High” is one of my favorite films EVER, because it shows the fun side of growing up black in America and shows that hope exists for everyone no matter what your environment may want to dictate for you future.
If you get a chance to check it out, please do. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Not to mention the fact that the soundtrack is all old Motown music…how can you go wrong with that. Like the closing title song says…”It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye To Yesterday”.