The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Gregory Hines

The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Gregory Hines

By Mother Brain

Actor, singer, dancer, and choreographer. Each of these talents were presented to the world within the lifetime of the late Gregory Hines. Nearly 10 years after his passing, his legacy continues to survive through not only his acting roles in cinema and television but also through his unforgettable tap dancing routine which was passed on to his young apprentice, Savion Glover. Few actors of African-American descent have matched his combination of charm, energy, and charisma in recent memory.

Born to parents Maurice Hines, Sr., Alma Hines in 1946, Gregory Hines would be thrusted into entertainment almost immediately. At age 3, Hines began to practice the art of tapping and would dance semiprofessionally by 5. Along side his brother Maurice Jr., their father, the trio formed “Hines, Hines, and Dad” and they performed everywhere from the world famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem to venues in Japan and Monte Carlo. Although he would continue to perform throughout his life, Hines by age 25 would also take an interest in writing and performing rock music. In 1975, Hines formed the short-lived Venice, CA band Severance and they played regularly at Honky Hoagies Handy Hangout. Following a divorce, however, Hines returned to the East coast where he would be cast in a production of “The Last Minstrel Show.” This would lead to an aggressive period in Hines’ life where he pursued a number of successful plays, most notably 1979’s “Eubie!” which not only reunited him with brother Maurice but also won critical praise and attention from Hollywood casting directors.

By unfortunate luck, Hines made his film debut in 1981 as Josephus in Mel Brooks historic satire, History of the World: Part 1. Hines was a last minute replacement for the legendary Richard Pryor who was hospitalized following the freebasing accident that nearly ended his life. Despite the tough shoes to fill, Hines brought his own sense of charm and sly humor to the role, helping to make History a big critical and commercial success. He was then offered to appear in the debut feature film of his hippie friend Michael Wadleigh called Wolfen. Wadleigh cast Hines as the comic relief role of a morgue attendant who assists a cop played by Albert Finney investigating a series of murders in New York committed by werewolves. Although his part was limited in screen time, Hines was perfect in breaking the tension in an otherwise dark and violent thriller.

The critical praise of History of the World: Part I and Wolfen made Hines one of the most sought after black actors in Hollywood. He was considered for a number of 80s hits including 48 HRS. and Ghostbusters and even made a hilarious cameo as a Central Park jogger breaking up a dispute between Kermit and Miss Piggy in The Muppets Take Manhattan. Yet, he chose to take on roles that appealed to his talents as a performer. After the disastrous Chevy Chase flop Deal of the Century, Hines and brother Maurice were cast as tap dancing brothers Sandman and Clay Williams in Frances Ford Coppola’s overambitious crime epic, The Cotton Club. Of all the members of its all-star cast including Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Nicholas Cage, and Bob Hoskins to name a few, the film would be most important for Hines due to his grandmother’s history as a black entertainer for the white-only audience. The Hines Brothers’ relationship in the film was art imitating life insofar as one of their performances would be based on their emotional reunion from the “Eubie!” production. While more infamous for its box office failure and the murder case related to the film years later, The Cotton Club would be Hines’ most important film and would catapult him to headliner status.

Hines showed off his dramatic and tap dancing talents again in Taylor Hackford’s drama, White Nights. The film paired Hines with Russian ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov as a pair of dancers trying to defect from the Soviet Union. The film was groundbreaking on an artistic front with Hackford creating dazzling dance sequences between the pair and combining their respective styles of dance. It would also be a much bigger challenge for Hines as an actor, portraying a Vietnam veteran haunted by the war and the backlash from his own country. It would be Baryshnikov’s character who helps Hines break away from his trouble past to realize there’s a much brighter future waiting back at home for him and his pregnant spouse.

The success of White Nights turned Hines to action movies. First up would be the buddy comedy Running Scared opposite Billy Crystal. The pair play Chicago detectives on the verge of retirement with 30 days to capture a vicious drug lord (Jimmy Smits). Critics loved the chemistry between Hines and Crystal as well as Hines’ physicality as a tough but funny and sexy action hero. The bold choice of casting Hines was made by director Peter Hyams after fighting with the MGM executives who wanted a white actor in the role. Nonetheless, the gamble paid off and Running Scared was a hit and earned Hines an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actor. The same could not be said, however, for the Saigon-based action thriller Off Limits with Williem Dafoe. While ambitious in its very dark tone, the film did not make a dent at the box office.

By the late 80s, Hines was one of the most prolific celebrities in show business. Outside of his film and stage efforts, he would be caught up in the movie star “golden throat” craze of the time when stars like Eddie Murphy and Don Johnson recorded albums. Hines had some success when he duetted with Luther Vandross on the track “There’s Nothing Better Than Love” which made #1 on the Billboard R&B Charts in 1986. A year later, Hines recorded his one and only self-titled album produced by Vandross and featured the hit single “That Girl Wants to Dance With Me.” By 1988, Hines decided to combine all his talents into one single film as Tap.

Tap was a 1989 musical drama starring Hines as an ex-burglar being lured back into the tap dancing scene by his ex-girlfriend and former mentor played by his real life inspiration, the legendary Sammy Davis, Jr. The film was also notable for introducing young Savion Glover to the public and featured dance legends such as Arthur Duncan, Bunny Briggs, and Howard Sims to name a few. Tap did so-so box office but still remains one of the major highlights in Hines’ career.

By the 1990s, Hines’ film career was losing steam. The Terminator knockoff, Eve of Destruction, and the period dark comedy, A Rage in Harlem, both failed to find an audience. Even a proposed sequel failed to Running Scared failed to develop due to poor drafts as well as the resistance that he and Billy Crystal had towards it. He would find himself getting knocked down to supporting player in films like Renaissance Man, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife which was his villainous turn as a greedy real estate mogul looking to tear down a Baptist church. His high points during this period remained on the stage as Hines performed a successful year long run as Jelly Roll Morton in Jelly’s Last Jam which earned him his one and only Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.

When the movie roles stopped, Hines turned to television. He had a short lived sitcom on CBS in 1997 but had a long run as the voice of Big Bill on Nick Jr’s Little Bill. He won new audiences over on NBC’s Will & Grace where he played Debra Messing’s boss who fires her only to strike up a romance with her. It was a recurring character that revived Hines’ sexy charm to female audiences of the time. He also appeared in a number of made-for-cable flicks such as The Cherokee Kid, Who Killed Atlanta’s Children, and The Red Sneakers.

Around the time he learned that he was diagnosed with liver cancer, Hines was determined to portray one last iconic role. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was not only one of the first highest paid African-American entertainers but he also helped to nationalize tap dancing through cinema. Hines starred and produced the Bojangles biopic for Showtime in 2001 which follows the dancer from his humble beginnings to his rise as a headliner on Broadway. Like Cotton Club and White Nights, Bojangles was a new challenge for Hines who had to learn tap dancing with his left foot lead like the real dancer as opposed to his traditional right foot. He portrayed Bojangles’ dark side with gambling and womanizing just as well as his famous dance routines. For his last great effort, Hines was nominated for an Emmy but would win another NAACP Image Award.

Hines kept working in television until his untimely passing at age 57. Although he came up on the big screen around the same time as Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington, there’s no denying his broad appeal with audiences of all races had helped pave the way for other multitalented performers of color such as Will Smith and Jamie Foxx. I feel that Hines was underrated because he never hit their box office heights; however, he left a mark in show business that’s rare to find in today’s young performers. Even to the day he died, Hines aggressively advocated for tap dance to live on and had unprecedented success in petitioning for a National Tap Dance Day which is not only celebrated in 40 cities but also 8 nations abroad. Like the art of tap dancing itself, Gregory Hines left behind a legacy that should also never be forgotten.


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