PASADENA, CALIF. — Black History Month has begun, and for the rest of February, both cable and network television are heavy with meaningful and worthwhile projects.
A good example is A Storm in Summer (Sunday, Feb. 6, Showtime, 8-10 p.m.), starring Peter Falk, directed by film veteran Robert Wise, and written decades ago by Rod Serling ("The Twilight Zone"). It's a gem that the whole family can easily share.
"I loved the story that it told of this elderly Jewish delicatessen owner who finds himself, through certain circumstances, in charge of a little boy who turns out to be an African-American," says Mr. Wise, whose credits include the films "The Sound of Music" and "West Side Story."
The director says the relationship that develops between the two as they weather both physical and emotional storms is what drew him to the project, a remake of Serling's 1970 TV movie starring Peter Ustinov.
"The growing relationship and love that develops between the two of them I thought was just marvelous," he adds.
The story examines the emotional fallout from a mistake in a well-intentioned program to bring inner-city children on a two-week vacation in the country. A boy from Harlem ends up with an impoverished elderly man when his initial sponsor leaves town on a job search. The child is the only African-American in a wealthy, white upstate New York town.
"This story is about prejudice and it is about bigotry," says star Falk, who is quick to point out that despite being positioned at the heart of Showtime's month-long celebration of Black History Month, a great story is the core of "A Storm in Summer," not a heavy-handed lesson. "I think it's about being alone."
What touched the veteran actor, known around the world for his contemporary detective character, Columbo, is the simple journey this hardened man must make toward acknowledging his solitude and opening up to another human being.
"If you're alone in the world, and you're surrounded by a lot of people, but there's no one person that you have an emotional connection [with], everybody understands how dreadful that is."
The networks have their share of Black History Month fare. The following week, NBC will air Little Richard (Feb. 20, 9-11 p.m.), a biopic of the black rock 'n' roll pioneer.
"I wanted to see the reaction of the public while I'm still alive," says the legendary performer, who served as executive producer of the project.
"I think that any black man's movie should be on television so everybody can see it, because they don't push those black-guy movies in the theaters. They push Buddy Holly and Elvis."
"This is a movie that has a real story to tell," says fellow executive producer John Davis. "It's not just about the music. Richard's lived a very phenomenal life." In more ways than one, he says, "Little Richard is the Jackie Robinson of music."
Richard, the real-life musician, faced many personal tragedies, most significantly the death of his father at the hand of his best friend.
"[We] deal with that tragedy that propels him into becoming Little Richard," says director Robert Townsend, who points out that Little Richard came from a family of 12 children. "He became the one who provided for his family, and that was a turning point in his career."
Despite the tremendous impact he had on blacks in rock music, the man who says even now he can still "scream like a white woman," points out that he did it all for his mother.
"I wanted to be famous to help my mama, to let my mother know that I would become something, that I would make her a part of me."
At the height of his career, he gave music up to pursue what he calls his higher calling. "I've always been very, very religious all my life," he says. "I'm still that way."
The movie begins in 1962, when all his dreams of success have been realized and he gives up professional singing to become a preacher.
"The man has had a full life, a couple of lifetimes in terms of show business," says director Townsend. The Richard story, he says, is appropriate for any historical celebration, not just Black History Month. "The bottom line is that it's history, and it's American history," Townsend says. "He's an American icon."
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