Alfred Palca and the Blacklist

New York Times

August 20, 1997

40 Years After He Was Blacklisted, Writer-Producer Finally Gets Credit


NEW YORK -- On a morning in 1953, Alfred Palca's doorman called up to his Manhattan apartment and told him that two men were waiting. Palca, a writer and movie producer, was heading to his set when he stopped in the lobby to meet the men. They turned out to be agents with the FBI, and they accused him of being a Communist.

That sealed Palca's fate in the movie business. The film, "Go, Man, Go!" which was about the rise of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, became a classic among die-hard basketball fans. But Palca fell victim to the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist. To find a distributor and pay back investors, including his father-in-law, Palca, who had been stained by the FBI accusation, had to take his name off the film. Palca has neither written nor produced a film since.

Now 77, he is a pixieish, winsome man who speaks in a pleasantly resigned tone.

"The movie got out, but my career was phhhttt," he recalled recently in the apartment he moved into with his wife in 1957. "I was never that good. Others did better than I, working with fronts."

But this fall, more than 40 years later, and just in time for the 50th anniversary of the notorious "Hollywood 10" hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Palca is expected to have his credit restored by the Writers Guild of America.

Furthermore, as if to repay Palca for four decades of anonymity, a stage version of "Go, Man, Go!" may well be headed for Broadway. John Scher, a producer whose credits include "Victor/Victoria" and "Damn Yankees," has bought the rights and is seeking a book writer and a director. He has already hired Marques Haynes, the former Globetrotter and one of the film's stars, as a consultant.

"I would say you'll see it on Broadway in two years," said Scher, who counts himself among the cult of "Go, Man, Go!" fans. Since childhood, he said, "I've carried it around with me in my mind, as positive psychological baggage."

"Go, Man, Go!" was actually Palca's second film about the Globetrotters. He'd made a short version, simply called "The Harlem Globetrotters," which was made under the aegis of Columbia Pictures in 1951. (Dorothy Dandridge was in the cast.) But he was unsatisfied with it. So he wrote another script and decided to make it independently, and raised $175,000.

"I'm an old lefty, and I thought I could do something to help the blacks," he recalled. "That mattered to me importantly. I could never write anything violent, I'm a softy in that regard, but politically I would do anything I could to help society, and as a Jewish fellow, I was for the underdog. I didn't have to do that story, but I liked that story. And I thought it had a basic commercial nut."

The film, which is not available in video stores, tells the story of Abe Saperstein, a driven entrepreneur and basketball nut from Chicago, who, in the winter of 1927, piled five black basketball players into a Model T Ford and began touring the country, challenging local teams on their own turf.

Eventually, the Harlem Globetrotters, as he called them, became the best-known basketball team in the world, famous for their on-court hijinks as well as virtuosic passing, dribbling and shooting skills. In 1948, the Globetrotters challenged the National Bassketball Association's Minneapolis Lakers, the world champions -- and won.

"Go, Man, Go!" concerns the period just before that triumph. It is about the early barnstorming years, ending in the early 1940s, with the Globetrotters defeating several professional teams -- all of them white -- in a tournament. The film starred Dane Clark as Saperstein and, as his partner Inman Jackson, a young Sidney Poitier.

"Basically the whole thing was true," said Marques Haynes, who is now in his 70s and lives in Dallas. Haynes vouched for the scene in which he showed up unannounced at Saperstein's door in Chicago at 2:30 a.m., having hitchhiked there from Sand Springs, Okla., to try out for the team. In the film, he persuades Saperstein to hire him by showing off his dribbling in the hallway of the building.

"The dribbling part of it, that happened," Haynes said. "But I think Abe was doing it just to get rid of me."

Truth be told, no one -- not even Palca -- will defend the film as great art. It is highly episodic, with a linear plot that tiptoes very delicately over the issue of race, and without much character development or artful camera work. (The director was James Wong Howe, who would go on to be an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, but Palca said Howe was so nervous that he got terrible hives and wasn't much help.)

"I look at it now and I kind of wince," Palca said. But it nonetheless remains alive for some people, including Mannie Jackson, who became the first black owner of the Globetrotters five years ago -- and who remembers watching "Go, Man, Go!" over and over again as a boy in Edwardsville, Ill.

"It wasn't so much the basketball that intrigued me, but the story line," he said. "It was the first of the 'Rocky' films, the achievement films, that I had seen that involved people of color."

As it happens, Jackson had never heard of Alfred Palca, and did not know about his blacklisting. And although Marques Haynes remembers Palca fondly, he had not known about the blacklist either.

Palca said that as a young man living in New York and Los Angeles, writing for television shows and comedians, "I joined all kinds of organizations, signed all kinds of things." He said he had been attracted by the Soviet Union's socialist ideals -- "I was naive; I thought of it as sharing society," he said, "and I'm embarrassed by it now." But he was never a Communist.

"Maybe we gave money to Russian war relief or something," said his wife of 49 years, Doris Palca, who is the former director of publications for the Whitney Museum. They have a son and a daughter.

In any case, the FBI agents said the evidence against him included his hiring of Poitier.

"The one guy couldn't even say his name, he said 'Sidney Popeeyay"' Palca recalled, adding that Poitier, who had appeared in only three previous films, did "Go, Man, Go!" for $1,500.

"He was nobody," Palca said. "He owned a ribs place in Harlem."

The agents came around every morning, Palca said. "Every day, they said, 'Mr. Palca, you should clear your name,' and they gave me this offer. They said if I would name names everything would be fine. One day in the taxi I said to them, 'Would you fellas like to invest in this movie?' It was my way of saying, 'I'm not interested in your offer any more than you're interested in mine."'

When it was time to find a distributor, Palca said, several studios were interested.

"A Columbia executive took me to lunch, " he said. "And he said, 'I can arrange everything. You'll go to Washington, tell people you were wrong, what you did, and tell them who you knew and name them, and we at Columbia will take your movie.' I remember Fox was also interested at that time." United Artists eventually bought it.

"But nobody would take it with my name on it," Palca said. Disheartened, he removed his name. The producing credit went to his brother-in-law and assistant on the film, Anton M. Leader. The screen-writing credit went to Arnold Becker, his cousin, a Connecticut pediatrician.

Unlike others who resorted to pseudonyms, Palca turned his back on the movie business.

Today, Palca calls the restoration of his credit "a small vindication," then allows himself a moment of regret. "It should have been 40 years ago," he said, "and my life obviously would have been different."

In the meantime he has written magazine articles, a play or two, some television shows, and a non-fiction book about sex called "The Couple."

"We've managed somehow," he said.

But he has had the sort of career that has been undone by bad luck, ill timing. In the early '60s, he wrote the book for a musical about Israel.

"I sent the first 17 pages to Oscar Hammerstein, and he called me the next morning and said, 'This is terrific,"' Palca said. "Unfortunately, he was dying."

Later, he said, a falling out with the director Elaine May during the making of her 1971 film, "A New Leaf," led to his being left out of the credits for that film.

"I thought my film career would become awakened with Elaine, but it didn't," he said.


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