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From MLK to Bob Kennedy: Harry Belafonte’s historic week as ‘Tonight Show’ host

In the midst of the 1968 Civil Rights protests, activist and singer Harry Belafonte took over ‘The Tonight Show’ for a week, becoming the first Black person to host a late-night TV show. His guests included Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, months before they were assassinated. Director Yoruba Richen and producer Joan Walsh revisit that historic week in a new documentary “The Sit-In.”

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  • Michael Hill:

    In 1968, America was embroiled in protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War. In that tumultuous time, "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson turned over hosting duties for an entire week to actor and activist Harry Belafonte. Belafonte's cast of guests, mostly African-American, included Martin Luther King Jr., Lena Horne and Bobby Kennedy. It was a week almost lost in history but now revisited in a documentary called "The Sit-In," airing Thursday on NBC's streaming platform "Peacock."

    I recently spoke with "The Sit-In's" director, Youruba Richen and producer Joan Walsh.

    Thank you so much for talking to us about this documentary. I'm just curious, how did this all come to pass in 1968 with Harry Belafonte actually sitting in for Johnny Carson and we're talking about during a period of great civil unrest. There were anti-war demonstrations. How was it that Harry Belafonte got to do this for a whole week on the Johnny Carson's Tonight Show?

  • Joan Walsh:

    Well, from what we know, Michael, Johnny Carson really cared about these issues. We don't think of him as a political person. But he had a lot of concern about race relations. He was a little bit ahead of his time, partly because he was in the entertainment business. You know, he was close to Harry. And he wanted to turn the show over so that Harry could showcase his view of the world for a full week. And he got backup from from NBC executives also, which was pretty amazing, as you said, given the time.

  • Yoruba Richen:

    I also think Harry was set at a huge star at that time, and we sometimes don't remember. You know, he was multi-platform, TV, film, movies.

    And I think that Johnny thought he was the guy and literally he was the guy who could do it, who could speak to a national audience about these issues and be entertaining.

  • Michael Hill:

    Because of what Harry was already doing, I mean, some of the film goes into what Harry was doing in the 1950s and onstage with a diverse cast members and so forth. So I guess to a certain extent that made it, quote, more acceptable to America's audience.

  • Yoruba Richen:

    Yeah, I mean, I think Harry was a huge superstar for everyone, Black, white, you know, we say in the film it's pretty amazing for him to be appealing to white audiences during these times of segregation. There are only a few, very few who did that. I think of Sammy Davis, Jr. and Harry.

  • Michael Hill:

    I would imagine that the network executives still, though, were nervous about the content and what he was going to talk about, because after all, Belafonte was not a comedian.

  • Joan Walsh:

    Part of his negotiation, he was very very humble. In our documentary as well, he says, I didn't think I was ready to take Johnny Carson's chair. And I don't tell jokes. And, you know, I'm just not that guy.

    So he also negotiated that he would sing a song each night instead of doing a standup kind of monologue. And that was the accommodation they made with his type of stardom.

  • Michael Hill:

    It was astounding to see the caliber of people who were on the show, just the two that were recorded as far as we can tell, and it was astounding. You had Dr. King sitting next to Paul Newman, sitting next to Leon Bibb, sitting next to Nipsey Russell. I mean, that's just, it's amazing.

  • Joan Walsh:

    You'd never see it anywhere else.

  • Yoruba Richen:

    I think it shows his reach, right? His reach into the political world and into the entertainment world. You know, it's one of those people. It's like, you know, the one for the ages where people want to be around him. People, his intelligence, his talent, his commitment, his loyalty is, I think is what got all those people together to have that kind of lineup that week.

  • Michael Hill:

    When you started on this on this journey with this documentary, I'm just curious for both of you, what astounded you about this week of hosting "The Johnny Carson Tonight Show" for Harry Belafonte? What astounded you?

  • Joan Walsh:

    The diversity of his guests, the quality of his guests, the way that he handled himself as an interviewer, which as you know, it's not that easy. You know, if it looks easy, you're doing a good job because it's really not easy.

    And so he stepped into that role so seamlessly and also brought both humor and commitment. So those were some of the main things.

  • Yoruba Richen:

    Yeah. I mean, the fact that I didn't know about it. I mean, when Joan and the producers approached me about directing the film, I was immediately interested because I didn't know about it.

    But also the fact that it wasn't until many years later, till Arsenio Hall that we have not had another host. I mean, Harry was host for just that week. He's the first African-American host of that week. And then, you know, a long, dry period until we had another African-American host of late night. And we still have a problem there around diversity in late night. So that's also astounding.

  • Michael Hill:

    I want to play a clip and the clip has to do with Harry Belafonte going back to "The Tonight Show" within a month or so of him hosting the show.

  • Johnny Carson:

    Did you have a ball with it? I caught you a couple of nights, it looked like you were having a great time.

  • Harry Belafonte:

    I had a marvelous time, the grooviest time in the world even, the week that I spent here.

  • Harry Belafonte:

    We ended with ratings that were larger than the ones we opened with and we opened with the largest numbers in the history of the show.

  • Michael Hill:

    And he also talks about, I think the documentary shows, the list of guests that he had on. Phenomenal.

    And then he talks about, "thank you for the sit-in," which is just, I mean, unless, you know history, there's so many people who may not catch that. I mean, this was – Harry Belafonte then, now, whenever – awfully clever entertainment.

  • Joan Walsh:

    Very clever. I mean, we found out about that he called it "The Sit-In" semi-late in the process, someone reached out to me, who happened to be Johnny Carson's secretary in that time period and she was so excited that, you know, that the week was being written about. And she sent me a copy. He took out a full page ad in Variety thanking, not only all of his guests, but also the staffers on "The Tonight Show" who helped.

    But at the top, he says, you know, thanks to all of you who joined me at this sit-in, you know, and sit-in is not a neutral term at that point, you know, the Civil Rights Movement, the modern Civil Rights Movement, in some ways it started with, well, Rosa Parks sitting in, but also the students sitting in at lunch counters, you know, college students sitting in around the Vietnam War.

    So it wasn't just, you know, like a funny throw-off line. It just showed that he saw what he did in a friendly way as a political act, not just a you know, well, we had a great week and we got great ratings.

  • Yoruba Richen:

    Yeah. It's a brilliant move to call it a sit-in. Which, of course, is our title of our film.

    And not that we were the brilliant ones, Harry was the brilliant one to do it, and to bring that kind of politics again to Main Street in Variety, on "The Tonight Show." You know, that's sort of the history, you know, so much of his work that he was doing bringing those politics, for some radical, into the mainstream.

  • Michael Hill:

    It's a terrific film. I hope a lot of people get a chance to see it. It's called "The Sit-In", just as Harry Belafonte penned it way back in 1968. And we're talking to the director, Yoruba Richen and we're talking to producer, of course, Joan Walsh. Thank you very much for joining us.

  • Yoruba Richen:

    Thank you

  • Joan Walsh:

    Thank you so much for having us.

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