Authors: Irving Wallace
Irving Wallace was born in Chicago, Illinois, raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and educated in Berkeley, California. After writing political articles, biographical profiles, human-interest stories, and fiction for the leading national magazines, he turned his attention to the creation of books. Wallace’s 16 novels and 17 non-fiction works have sold tens of millions of copies around the world. His first major success was with
The Chapman Report,
in 1960, which was made into a film in 1962. His bestselling 1962 Cold War novel
was made into a film in 1963, starring Paul Newman.
was made into a film in 1972 starring James Earl Jones.
Sylvia, David, and Amy
is a prophetic novel, although not all the prophecies in his absorbing work of fiction have come true. The novel dramatizes the extraordinary events transpiring after the sudden death of a fictitious American president. Ironically Wallace’s book, published in 1964, was completed in 1963 just nine weeks before the death of President John F. Kennedy.
also depicts a president’s impeachment trial, 35 years before the impeachment of President William Jefferson Clinton.
The new president who stands center stage in Wallace’s drama is Douglass Dilman, a reserved former college professor with no “fire in his belly” for presidential politics. Tragedy thrusts him into the nation’s highest office, and fate inaugurates him as the first black President of the United States of America.
In 1972, it was my privilege to play Douglass Dilman in what was initially intended to be an ABC Television Movie of the Week, based on Irving Wallace’s best selling novel. Whether he was writing fiction or nonfiction, Wallace had a passion for research. In 1963, as background for
, he accepted an invitation from President John F. Kennedy to spend several days observing life in the White House, from the Oval Office to the Cabinet Room to the private family quarters. As a result, his novel is grounded in authentic details, and even the Congressional newspaper,
The Roll Call
, praised the book for its understanding of government in all its “importance, its pettiness, its complexities, vagaries, shortcomings and its greatness.”
As I prepared to play
, I noted key elements in the novel that might be kept for the film, elements that might not be kept, and even elements that were not in the story at all, but might be added. This would be my first major film role since
The Great White Hope
in 1970. It gave me the chance to play a black man who was not a stereotype of a militant.
In those volatile days of the seventies, there was a general public insistence that a black man be militant. This seemed to be expected of black men by other black men, by white men, by liberals, and even by conservatives. There was the attitude, often liberal, that said, “If I were a black man, I would sure as hell be screaming or angry.” At the other end of the spectrum, there were those people, often conservative, who seemed to prefer stereotypes, saying, “Give me a black man who is yelling and screaming and I’ll know what to do with
Douglass Dilman, to the contrary, is a quiet, rational man trying his best to do a difficult job in daunting circumstances. Thrown into the center of a political earthquake, he is an apolitical creature, and something of a Milquetoast. He is an intellectual, and a good man with a commitment to principles but no appetite for political battles. His adversaries in the administration try to isolate Dilman, shutting him off in a corner so that they can run the government and leave him out of the loop.
I am not an intellectual and I don’t think of myself as a Milquetoast, but Dilman is not unlike me. I am not saying that I was ideal casting, but a truly remarkable cast and crew were assembled around me to try to bring Wallace’s novel to life on the television screen—Burgess Meredith, Martin Balsam, Barbara Rush, Anne Seymour, William Windom, and Lew Ayres, among others. Comedian Jack Benny opened the film in a cameo role.
Rod Serling, who enjoyed a huge success with
The Twilight Zone
, wrote the television screenplay, and Joe Sargent was our able, dynamic director. The script, the setting, the shooting schedule and the budget were all geared to television, and a television movie in those days, far more than today, was streamlined for the small screen—very low budget, modest salaries, and a quick production pace.
Certain creative decisions were made to compress Wallace’s complex novel for the small screen, to take
and his friends and foes into American living rooms. As is often the case when a novel is the basis for a screenplay, liberties were taken with exterior details in the original story. Serling, exercising dramatic license, gave Dilman one child instead of two; emphasized racial conflict in South Africa rather than in the United States; and set up the climax of the drama at a political convention rather than an impeachment trial.
This was a time when television shows had to be very careful about the treatment of racial issues and themes. Otherwise some Southern states, including my native state of Mississippi, would refuse to air them. For the television script, the decision was made to eliminate the sensational issue of the impeachment of the first black President of the United States. His enemies had fought dirty and tried hard to get rid of him. In the novel, Dilman is charged with violating his oath of office, committing treason against the United States, obstructing justice, and demonstrating “loose morals, intoxication, partisanship, and maladministration.” He is even accused of raping his social secretary. At that time, I did not protest when this material was cut from the script.
In the film, a South African official is assassinated by a young African American, and a huge public outcry ensues when Dilman considers extraditing the young man. I went to Rod Serling and said, “I find it a weakening factor in our drama that President Dilman does not meet one-on-one, face-to-face with representatives of the South African apartheid regime” Irving Wallace seriously explored issues of African unity in the novel, and Dilman’s meetings with President “Kwame Amboko” of the independent African democracy of “Baraza” form a very important facet of the story. When I urged Rod to consider this encounter, he said, “No, Jimmy, that would be another story.”
He didn’t have the space or the time for that story for television, and that was a disappointment for me. From that point on, even though I enjoyed the story, the character I was playing, and the actors I was working with, I did not feel that we were achieving the full dramatic potential of
. I contended that if we were going to do justice to the story about the first black President of the United States, as Wallace did in his novel, we had to produce a far more powerful drama.
Additional decisions were made, however, to reflect the political climate of the early seventies We added an allusion to the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. In the novel, Dilman’s daughter is passing for white, and his son is involved in a militant group. In the film, the new President has one child, a black militant daughter, and for that role, the producers hired a very dark, beautiful young actress who symbolized all the glamour of an American girl not passing for white. Halfway through the shooting, however, it was decided that she was not politically indicative enough. The producers replaced the first actress with Janet MacLachlan, a very accomplished stage actress, who resembled activist Angela Davis, Afro hair style and all—solidly indicative of the prototype they wanted in the movie.
For all the changes in the story, I think we stayed true to Wallace’s vision of Douglass Dilman, and, therefore, to the crux of the novel. Dilman is a man who has no ambition to be president, yet when fate brings him into the presidency, he does the best he can, despite everything. His intention is to be president of all the people. He has no axes to grind, even racial axes. He simply cares for the national good. Wallace seems to be saying that the fire in the belly is not all that drives an important statesman. Rationality, integrity, and a balanced psyche are more important.
I met Irving Wallace at a press event to promote the film, but I did not hear him say how he felt about the translation of his novel into the entirely different medium of television film. And
was to undergo one more metamorphosis before our project was done.
I think we had just finished production for our television movie of the week when Robert Redford’s
appeared, to much success. It seems the people in charge of
decided that the time was right for political films. All of a sudden, they opted to release our movie in cinema houses as a feature film.
Those of us in the cast and the crew questioned that decision vigorously, and our director led our protest. Wallace’s novel had been pared down to fit television, and even for TV, I thought.
deserved a more complex script. I did not see how our film could work on the wider, deeper screen and bigger stage of the movie theater. I think our film came up short, only skimming the surface of Irving Wallace’s richly detailed novel. Still, television always had more daring to tackle controversial subjects, in part because television films, with their time constraints, could only dig skin deep anyway.
I enjoyed playing Douglass Dilman immensely, even though I knew that the film, unlike the novel, lacked bite and fire. It was not until after I saw the show on television many years later that I realized that despite my complaints, and despite Rod Serling’s really quick work, our film version of
was actually quite eloquent for its time, as well as for the present, and it certainly did work better on the TV screen.
Soon after the film opened, I was in a play, and we took questions from the audience after the performance. One young man questioned me about
“Why did you cry the first night you became President?” he wanted to know. “The name of the story is
, and if you are
Man, you don’t cry, you kick ass.”
I explained that I wanted to leave the impression that, at some point, this man who was suddenly cast in the role of President of the United States had to realize what an awesome journey lay before him, and that I expressed this simply by having him look at himself in the mirror, alone in a room, and say to himself, “Mr. President.” Then I let myself cry.
The young man had a problem with those tears, but I believe that Wallace was suggesting that all leaders serve better, and all the people are better served, when they acknowledge the awesome responsibility of the office.
The spelling of Douglass Dilman’s first name evokes the name of Frederick Douglass, whose words serve as the epigraph for Irving Wallace’s novel:
“In a composite Nation like ours, made up of almost every variety of the human family, there should be, as before the Law, no rich, no poor, no high, no low, no black, no white, but one country, one citizenship, equal rights and a common destiny for all.”
That, in essence, is the key to
I predict that this new edition of the novel will find an appreciative contemporary audience. And that comes down, in the end, to the enduring power of Irving Wallace’s story, his characters and his themes.
speaks eloquently to the present and to the future, just as it did to the past.
James Earl Jones
June 21, 1999
One of the author’s prized possessions is an original autographed manuscript, written firmly with pen on cheap ruled paper, signed by a former Negro slave who became a great reformer, lecturer, writer, adviser to President Abraham Lincoln, United States Minister to Haiti, and candidate for Vice-President of the United States on the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872. The manuscript reads as follows:
In a composite Nation like ours, made up of almost every variety of the human family, there should be, as before the Law, no rich, no poor, no high, no low, no black, no white, but one country, one citizenship, equal rights and a common destiny for all.
A Government that cannot or does not protect the humblest citizen in his right to life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness, should be reformed or overthrown, without delay.
Washington D.C. Oct. 20. 1883
tanding there in the cold office, at this ungodly hour, no longer night, not yet day, she felt apprehensive and nervous. She wondered why, but instantly her memory had traced the source of worry, and she knew its answer was right.