Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
In 1981, local public-relations impresario Ofield Dukes asked Lurma Rackley, a freelance writer and D.C. government employee, to profile Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene Jr. for the newspaper he had just started, the Washington North Star. As he’s depicted in the new film Talk to Me, Greene was a popular and often outrageous local personality: In addition to emceeing a few radio programs, he also hosted Petey Greene’s Washington, which aired on WDCA-TV and later on the newly formed Black Entertainment Television network. (His satirical commentary, “How to Eat Watermelon,” aired on the show and recently became a hit on YouTube.) He was also a community organizer with the United Planning Organization, where he’d worked for nearly 20 years on anti-poverty issues. Given all that, Rackley jumped at the chance to write about him.
When their interview was over, she says, Greene asked her if she’d ever written a book. He was looking to write his autobiography, but his two or three attempts with different collaborators hadn’t worked out. Rackley hadn’t written a book, but Greene made a deal with her: If he liked how the article turned out, he would hire her to write the autobiography.
Greene was pleased enough with Rackley’s profile that he began meeting with her at his home in Fort Washington, Md. For two Saturdays every month, they would camp out for hours in the sunken basement of his split-level house, sprawled out on the floor with Rackley’s tape recorder between them. Greene talked about growing up in Georgetown with the grandmother who raised him, his failed marriage, his two kids, his time in the Army, his stints in jail for public drunkenness, and the robbery that led to a stay in Lorton prison. “Everybody knew that I was working with Petey on his autobiography,” Rackley says. Later, the makers of Talk to Me would learn about the book, too. But it didn’t become the source for the story the film tells.
A year into their interviews, Greene fell ill: Years of drinking finally caught up with him, and liver cancer had spread to the rest of his organs. By the time Rackley knew how serious his condition was, he was on his deathbed. “When he was in the hospital on his final days, he really couldn’t talk anymore—he could just listen; a relative put the phone to his ear so he could hear,” Rackley says. “I told him I promised I would get the story out.”
That hasn’t been easy. After Greene died in 1984, Rackley says, his attorney and agent, Ron Goldfarb, lost steam for the book. “He didn’t think it was as salable a project without Petey to market and publicize it,” she says. “I was kind of on my own with all of this fantastic material.”
By 1991, Rackley had been a press secretary for Mayor Marion Barry and was working on the book in fits and starts when her friend Dewey Hughes, Greene’s former manager, contacted her from California. The conversation drifted toward her book. Hughes was just as interested in getting the story out as she was, and he had contacts in film and television.
“He says, ‘Send me what you’ve got, and I’ll try to shop it around so you can stay at home and work on finishing the book,’” Rackley says. She sent him what she had—an outline, prologue, and five chapters—for him to drum up interest in California.
At first, Hughes didn’t get much of a response for a movie about a somewhat obscure Washington celebrity. But about seven years later, he lucked out with Joe Fries, a producer who was running a TV postproduction company in Southern California. Fries grew up in Bethesda watching Greene’s shows and was intrigued by the prospect of making a movie about him. “I was completely the cultural opposite of Petey,” Fries says. “Yet I was drawn to this character on television.”
After meeting with Hughes, Fries says he was sold. “When Dewey told me the story, I knew right there,” Fries says. “I knew it was a movie.”
Fries says he told Hughes he wanted to proceed, but he was flying blind in terms of biographical details about his main character. So he turned to Rackley to discuss using the book as a basis for whatever developed from there.
Fries contacted Rackley and then sent her a contract in 1998. (She moved away from D.C. that year and now lives outside Atlanta.) Rackley had one problem with the legal paperwork: Fries, Rackley says, wanted to purchase all rights to her unpublished manuscript as well as all rights to the 30 or so audio tapes she amassed while interviewing Greene. She was OK with selling the rights to the manuscript but says she felt uneasy handing over the cassettes, which contained intimate conversations between her and Greene.
“I didn’t want to give up those audiotapes,” Rackley says. “Sometimes when [Greene and I] were talking, he would say something that was really racy about an experience he’d had with somebody.” At other times, she says he would fall into his signature stream-of-consciousness style of talking, mention something, then instruct her not to include that tidbit in the book.
“Sometimes he would say stuff that would be completely unacceptable—politically incorrect to the max,” Rackley says. “I didn’t keep him on track; I just let him talk.” That sometimes meant hearing about a love affair or other details about someone still living that Greene didn’t want shared with the public. And she was adamant that his wishes be respected.
“Ultimately that [contract] could have meant that any of my audiotapes could have been packaged to be used,” she says, or slipped onto the Internet much like the “How to Eat Watermelon” segment. “I was hoping that some other agreement could be arranged.” Rackley wanted to be able to stay on as a consultant to the movie project so she could supervise the tapes and ensure they would be used in a context Greene would have found agreeable.
But when she attempted to negotiate the terms of the deal, she says Fries and Hughes lost interest. “Joe [Fries] and his people didn’t want to negotiate,” Rackley says. “They wanted me to sign that contract or they didn’t want to work with me at all….It was one of those all-or-nothing things.”
Fries calls Rackley’s recollection of the events “revisionist.” He says he entered into talks with her because she was working on the only account of Greene’s life at the time. “I had a long conversation with her to see where the book was,” he says. “But her book was about Petey’s early life, and it just didn’t interest me. As I began to peel away the layers, I began to see how integral Dewey’s role was [in Greene’s life].”
Fries says that Rackley’s lawyer, whom she’d hired to help renegotiate the terms of the contract, told him he was wasting his time. “[She] got a lawyer, and the lawyer told me that Lurma doesn’t really want to make a deal,” he says. So he began to build the story for the movie around the friendship between Hughes and Greene—the relationship that sold him on the project in the first place. To him that’s what ultimately made the story work. “If this had just been a movie about Petey Greene, it wouldn’t have been made,” Fries says. “After all, this is Hollywood—you have to make entertainment. Otherwise, it would just be on the biography channel.”
Meanwhile, Rackley was perplexed. After almost a year of back and forth, sometimes with months going by without any contact or mention of the project, Rackley thought a deal was still possible. “I was still waiting around hoping that we could work something out when they said: ‘Never mind. We’ll just do the DeweynPetey story,’” she says.
Rackley eventually self-published Laugh If You Like, Ain’t a Damn Thing Funny: The Life Story of Ralph “Petey” Greene as Told to Lurma Rackley in 2004. And after pitching it to a number of studios, Fries persevered and got his movie made: Talk to Me opened nationally July 13. Rackley’s take on the film is that it is, at times, inaccurate. Greene is portrayed by Don Cheadle as a loud-talking, womanizing, ex-con turned radio-show host who depended on Hughes (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) for his professional lifeline. In truth, Rackley says, Greene had an enormous community following and was a professional asset to Hughes, not the other way around.
“They have him in the movie begging for his job,” Rackley says, referring to the scenes in Talk to Me when Greene’s character marches into the radio station where Hughes’ character works, asking to be put on the air. “Petey never in a thousand years would have had to beg for a job.”
Herman Washington agrees. Washington was working as a reporter for WOL (later Radio One) in 1972 when he got to know Greene. “There were some glimpses [in the movie] into the Petey that I knew, but not many,” he says.
In the film, Greene vomits out of nervousness when he’s called on to perform—the first day of his radio gig, the night he was supposed to go on Johnny Carson. (The film depicts a nervous Greene walking onto the Tonight Show stage and refusing to tell jokes; in reality, Rackley says, Greene just blew off the appearance entirely.) “He wouldn’t have been vomiting because of nervousness or anything like that—he relished the limelight,” Washington says. “Some people think maybe radio made him or TV made him, and that’s not necessarily the case. Petey Greene was Petey Greene. He just broadened his audience [with television and radio]. He was an influential person no matter what type of life he was leading.”
Fries grants that Talk to Me is a dramatized interpretation of Greene’s life—what he calls a “nonsexual love story” between Greene and Hughes. He notes that the movie has sparked a renewed interest in Greene and says he’s been working on a less entertainment-oriented life story: Signify, a documentary about Greene for which he’s hoping to find a broadcaster this fall.
“So many people are running to the Internet searching for more information about him,” he says. “Short of Lurma’s book, there isn’t a great deal. We’re just trying to fill in the blanks.”
Rackley was not consulted for the documentary either, though a few of her friends who also know Greene were. She finds that odd.
“I’m not quite sure why [I wasn’t contacted],” she says. “I think it’s unusual that someone would do a life story about a man and not contact the person whom he entrusted to get that life story out.”