Manager-producer Franklin Lett lives with his actress-preacher wife Della Reese in a huge house located at the top of Bel Air. We sit outside under pine trees overlooking the Stone Canyon Reservoir on October 14, 2002. Franklin drinks coffee and I suck on a water bottle.
He's a light-skinned Christian black man and I'm a dark-skinned Jewish white man.
Luke: "Tell me about your childhood."
Franklin speaks without a hint of a ghetto accent: "I'm from Detroit, Michigan. My father worked for the Board of Education and my mother worked for the United States Army as a clerk. In high school, art was my favorite pastime. I also participated in a singing group called the Mark Five Quintet. We weren't quite Doo-Wops. We were more similar to the Four Freshmen. We sang at parties and the openings of different plays. We performed at the annual Beaux Arts of Detroit Theater. Tony Brown, who had a syndication television talkshow on PBS for many years dealing with black issues, is from Detroit. He started the Beaux Arts Ball.
"My public high school was 70/30 white to black. It was 50/50 when I graduated. There weren't private schools available for blacks then as Detroit was extremely segregated in the 1950s. The East side and West side were the territories for the black community. There was no black suburban life. As the blacks moved into the white neighborhoods, the whites moved out. It's the old exodus game that makes all the real estate people happy.
"I graduated from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, with a degree in art, minor in German. Fisk is one of the historically black universities. I started off premed because in Detroit you must aspire to be one of the holy six professions - doctor, dentist, undertaker, minister, lawyer, school teacher."
Luke: "Whites and blacks aspired to this?"
Franklin: "This is the Detroit black group I call the Strivers. They strove to get ahead. They were bootstrappers. If you got into one of the holy six professions, your folks felt secure about you."
Luke: "It sounds Jewish."
Franklin: "If you look at ghettoes, regardless of religion or skin color, the values are the same."
Luke: "It seems that almost everyone at my synagogue is a doctor or a lawyer or some type of professional.
"After college, I married a [black] girl from Nashville. She still had one year to go to get her bachelors and another year for her masters [degree in psychology], so I taught school for two years in Nashville. We were married from 1960-79. We had two kids. Both of them live in Los Angeles. My son, Frank Lett III, is a computer graphics artist. My daughter Dominique Lett Wirtschafter is a screenplay writer.
"We moved from Nashville to Chicago in 1963 so I could go into advertising. When I was getting my degree in fine art, I knew I'd never make any money from it, so I decided to go into commercial art. It was explained to me that I wouldn't get a job in Nashville [because it was so segregated]. They would take my money at the evening courses I took at the extension school. The gentleman who taught it told me that I needed to go to New York or Chicago. He said, 'I could give you the greatest recommendation in the world but they're not going to hire you here. As soon as you walk in the door, they're going to say no.'
"I went to Chicago and I couldn't get on with any advertising agency. So I started with a small Jewish chain of community newspapers, the Economist Group. Within a year, I became general manager of the Hyde Park Herald. I was with the Economist Chain from 1963-70, then I started my own advertising agency. It eventually became the number three black agency in Chicago.
"It began primarily as a consulting firm for some white agencies who needed to talk to black consumers. I worked behind the scenes. I was asked to come up with ideas and graphics and do creative shoots so the white agencies could make their pitches about how they planned to reach the black consumer in their general marketing campaigns. They would get the accounts worth millions and we would get thousands. It kept the kids in private school and the house together and kept gas in the car.
"In 1973, I stepped out of anonymity to found my own ad agency. In 1979, I lost the company. I was not the greatest manager. I was more into the creative. I got stung by the stinger of death. One of the major presidents at Bordens (huge food company) did not like me. I was not his kind of black man. He strung me along for six months before telling me he wasn't going to authorize my budget. By that time, Borden's was 70% of my business. That closed my agency."
Luke: "You've spent much of your life as a middleman between the black and white communities?"
Franklin: "That's right."
Luke: "Just like the Jews in the Middle Ages who acted as middlemen between the Christians and Muslims."
Franklin: "That's a good analogy. I don't think we had the life-threatening tightrope they had in those days. But it is two cultures that were living together, working in the same direction, but were afraid of each other."
Luke: "It's still the same way."
Franklin: "It is.
"I met Della [Reese] in 1978. I'd tried to hire her. Bordens had just bought Creamettes Macaroni and they needed a spokesperson who appealed to black and white. I interviewed Della and I found her to be one of the most natural women I've ever met, almost like a life force. We became good friends. As she was going through legal and recording problems, she'd call and ask for my advice. After my agency closed, I looked at different job offers. Della asked me to help her recording career. We were already close.
"I moved to Los Angeles in 1979 to help Della and to be with her. I realized that her biggest problem was that while she was still trying to position herself as an established singer, the industry had changed. She had the pipes and the experience and the core audience but the industry had changed. They wanted a younger demographic. I called on the recording industry for about nine months, then I told her that she needed to do something else. She needed to get more into TV.
"TV programming had a scarcity of blacks but that had to change because my advertising research told me that blacks were 20-30% of the viewing audience even though they only made up 12% of the population. With the help of the William Morris Agency, we got her guest appearances on almost every series. She got a series with Redd Fox. For the last nine years she's been locked into CBS's Touched By An Angel.
"We married in 1983."
Franklin began his movie-producing career with two highly regarded movies for television - 1998's The Secret Path and 1999's Anya's Bell. His next TV film, 2000's The Moving of Sophia Myles, was a disappointment.
Franklin: "Through her agent at William Morris, we've been pushing for her to get more into the movies. I realized that 35% of your movie-going audience is black and that Della crossed several age and race demographics. I was asked to produce a movie for television as part of a package deal. I said, 'Realize that I am not a person who will sit and watch. I'm going to be involved in everything from script choice to rewrites to casting to budget.'
"[Director-producer] Bob Greenwald called to say that he had a script [for The Secret Path] but CBS had passed on it for being too dark and heavy. I read it and said, this is good. It's a story that needs to be told. Usually it's black vs white when you're dealing with the old South, and this is one time where black nurtures white. Unlike the mamie who did the breast feeding while the white mother was in the parlor with her guests, this story was about a poor black woman helping a poor white child overcome a white trash family.
"We went to CBS to pitch. The young lady who was supposed to make the pitch got sick that morning. As we were walking up to the CBS office, Bob said I had to make the pitch. That was my first step as a producer. I showed CBS how we could take the darkness out [remove the incest and child prostitution] and focus more on the dynamic relationships between black and white, young and old. That would make it comfortable for television censors, the network, the viewers, and the advertisers, and still keep the guts of the story. CBS said yes. As we were leaving, I said, 'Bob, we're talking about [a higher credit] co-executive producer [credit instead of co-producer] because I just did your job.' And he said fine.
"I then worked with the writer and the executive producer from Bob's office and explained to them that the determining factors in selling the pitch had to be honored. I said to the writer Quinton Peeples, you may not understand this, but in representing historical elements of the black culture, I've got to see that they are correct for black people. And I've spent enough time within the white culture to know what is acceptable to them and what they're going to back away from. They listened to me and we came out with a good script.
"I wrote music as well. There was a scene where a black quartet sang in the black church. The producer Phil Kleinbart wanted a certain song but he found out that the worldwide rights were going to cost too much. They could only afford domestic rights. I volunteered to write a song for foreign distribution. As we were on location in Toronto, and the musical "Rent" was in town, we hired four guys from it. I wrote the song overnight and it worked."
Luke: "Do you speak a different way to white people than to black people? If I were doing this interview over the phone, I wouldn't know that you were black."
Franklin: "If I wanted you to know, you would know it. I'm in the process of optioning a play that I want to turn into a feature film. The black playwright did not know me but I knew of her. I knew she was suspicious of the film industry. I didn't want to say I'm black, instead, I wanted her to feel comfortable with me as a filmmaker. When we were talking, I could sense from her distance that she thought she was talking to a white man, so I had let her know I was black. From my giving certain inflections, she knew that I was black. Then the whole thing smoothed out and we could really deal."
Luke: "Tell me about Anya's Bell."
Franklin: "[Polygram executive] Karen Danaher-Dorr sent me over the script for Anya's Bell. I like Karen. She's feisty. She has a good mind. She works well with people, even though the industry has bruised her. I loved the script. It was delicious. I didn't want to position Della as the bridge between two cultures again but to show how afflictions can build bonds between opposites.
"There were four executive producers on Anya's Bell. It was done by committee. I didn't agree with some things. Being naive to the industry, I didn't always follow protocol. For instance, I'd speak to the director and say, 'For more dramatic impact, don't you think it would be better if you did a front and back of Della, blind, stumbling to the gate, rather than just a short snippet?' I will never forget the look on everyone's face when I did this in front of the crew. 'How dare he? What's he doing?' The director didn't agree with me. I talked to the other executive producers. They didn't all agree with me, and they thought it was the director's choice. I lost.
"I wanted an Emmy moment for Della. If I had gotten it through, it would've been just that, an Emmy moment for Della. That scene would've been the most memorable thing in that entire movie."
Luke: "The Moving of Sophia Myles."
Franklin: "I was going through ten scripts a week [looking for a good project for Della]. We needed to get another film made and we didn't see anything. William Morris sent over The Moving of Sophia Myles. Della's a minister in her own right. In this film, Della was playing a widow of a minster who becomes the force behind his ministry. We needed to talk to Della's audience and let them know what happens when the collar comes off.
"I'm now looking at several scripts and plays for us to produce. They would not necessarily star Della, but they will be star driven."
Luke: "What do you love and hate about producing?"
Franklin: "I like dealing with concepts for movies. I like taking a concept in my mind, visualizing an audience and its impact on them, and the road it has to travel to get the reaction you want from the audience. What I hate most is the waiting. I like making pitchs and working with writers. I like planning the budget and casting. The only problems I have on the set is the waiting.
"Bruce Pittman directed The Secret Path. I will work with him anytime. We didn't have any 14-hour days because he knew what he wanted."
Luke: "Do you have to do things just for appearances?"
Franklin: "Yes. We have to go the SAG Awards, the Golden Globes, the Emmys...and that's primarily for appearances. I thought Secret Path would win [an Emmy] for us. That's the one time I went with expectations."
Luke: "What would winning an award mean to you?"
Franklin: "I wanted that more so for Della. I don't think my producer's fee would rise much. If I had 12 movies of the week, and four were considered for Emmys, then maybe it would make a difference. I've only done three movies. I was asked to step in by the package deal [for actress Della Reese]. Only after the first package deal did I have a value. I wasn't just a manager who wanted to drop his name out there but someone who was going to put his hands on there. I've got another five or more films to make before any awards will have a financial effect."
Luke: "Do you have any producers who've mentored you?"
Franklin: "Bob Greenwald, Phil Kleinhart, and Karen Danaher-Dorr. I've had a presence on Touched By An Angel for eight years. I occasionally produced music for the show. I talk all the time to CO-executive producer Jon Andersen, either about the show or about some of the projects I'm doing. On a show I developed, I was considering using prosthetics and he said to stay away from it. You might get the look you want but you will lengthen your shooting time and go over budget and you can't do that on a $4 million TV movie."
Luke: "Do you regret going public in 1997 with your complaints about CBS's lack of pay increase for Della?"
Franklin: "No. If you believe you're right, you need to dare to do what's right."
From Variety 10/7/97: "Touched by an Angel" co-star Della Reese went on the offensive Monday against CBS, holding a news conference to call attention to her salary dispute with the Eye web (Daily Variety, Oct. 2). Reese, 66, said she is in a state of "wonderment" as to why costar Roma Downey received a 100% pay hike this season while she received only a 12.5% increase. Reese, who declined to reveal her salary, said she learned of Downey's sizable increase from her costar "I am very hurt," she said. "There's no reason for me to be treated this way."
Reese complained that CBS brass won't talk to her or her husband- manager, Franklin Lett, about salary matters, forcing all negotiations to be handled by her William Morris Agency reps. Reese questioned how strongly those reps would back her. "William Morris has a lot of clients that work for CBS, so they're not going to jump out of the window for me," she said.
Franklin: "If you're going to take a stance, damn the consequences. We both knew she could lose her job. I knew that my name would be mud, at CBS particularly. With the way the industry works, that would spread. 'Don't touch him, he's...'
"The strategy we used saved the day. I can not go into the strategy. It goes back to my marketing experience. If we didn't do anything, Della was going to be pigeonholed as a certain dollar-quality actress. She deserved better. From the audience poitn of view, Della carried Touched By An Angel for the first four years."
Luke: "Did you get a reputation as troublesome?"
Franklin: "No, just a few individuals, mid to upper-level management people had problems with me. They were concerned that they were blindsided and embarrassed. It worked in such a way that the embarrassment continued. It kept them off balance. There are a few who are polite but their eyes tell me exactly what they still feel. I had some delays in some things I wanted to do, and I understood why. This was the payback. But I don't regret anything we did and today I have a good relationship with the people at CBS with whom I need to work."
Luke: "Did anyone call you uppity?"
Franklin laughs: "Like the uppity negro? No. I don't think it had much to do with my being a Negro It was how dare we, as new people to the industry, attack. My personae usually goes past race. That makes it easy for me to work both sides of the street. Della has been without race for years."
Luke: "What would your peers say about you?"
Franklin: "New kid on the block. He's only going to hit this level. They don't understand - I'm going past that level. The entertainment industry is still stratified and insulated. But if you have something they need, the door will open a bit. If they need it a lot, the door opens wider and you'll find open arms on the other side. Simply put, prepare for your success."