What Becomes a Legend Lately? the Jazz Age: Harry Belafonte Talks about Life and 'Kansas City.'(Interview)

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Harry Belafonte talks about life and `Kansas City'

HARRY BELAFONTE DOES A BLAZING turn as the mob godfather Seldom Seen in Robert Altman's new film "Kansas City." The singer and activist, who recently recovered from surgery for prostate cancer, spoke to NEWSWEEK'S Jack Kroll in his Manhattan apartment. It's a cozy (and huge) dominion full of Afro-Caribbean paintings and sculptures. Because he's black, Belafonte, 69, was once barred from renting an apartment here. So he bought the building.

You helped Robert Altman develop the character of Seldom Seen before you knew you'd play him.

We sat right in this room at that bar and talked and talked into the wee hours. And we got into an analysis of the period and the style and the jazz. And then he said to me--after we designed the debased, immoral, cruel, venomous, rotten son of a bitch--he asked me, Did I want to play him? I thought he really had been touched by some insanity. I said, How in the world am I going to play this character? I don't know if I can do it, number one. Number two, if I could do it, how do I overcome my public persona? I mean, the baggage I'm going to be carrying. "Belafonte! Who started the rumor that you're an actor?"

You've talked about white writers dealing with black subjects. Were you able to trust Altman's vision?

No question about that. He looked at the musicians and he said, "I don't want you to play notes that somebody's given you. I want your sense of the time. I want the truth you understand." And that's what he did with me, and it was liberating. No black director ever did that to me. Certainly not Sidney Poitier.

No kidding.

Oh, Sidney Poitier is too busy making sure that nobody violates the rules.

You think he's been a victim of catering to white expectations?

One of the few who succeeded at it. I'm not too sure that Sidney had much choice, in a way. I could go off and sing. But if he didn't act, he didn't live, he didn't eat.

Did you have to put on the mask and cater to whites? Or did you escape that fate?

I think that I escaped it to a larger degree than most. But if you go back to the earliest of black history in this country, we have always had to deal in subtext. "Go Down, Moses" was sung about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. And I had to live a life in America that had its own double meaning. I don't think I really became accommodating of that fact until my experience with Martin Luther King. …