Arsenio Hall's success surpasses early predictions

October 31, 1993|By Luaine Lee | Luaine Lee,Knight-Ridder News Service

A guidance counselor once told Arsenio Hall that he was not college material. Another teacher cautioned: "There are two kinds of people in this world, the star and the audience. You'd better get used to being the audience."

Experience told the Cleveland-raised kid that it was the people on the dark side of the law who had the good-looking women and sleek cars.

"I was a discipline problem," he recalls. "I wasn't an A-student, I made B-minuses and Cs. If you're not applying yourself and vTC getting suspended for sneaking out to McDonald's when you should be in history, you're not gonna look like college material."

But Mr. Hall had something important. He had a mother who raised him with solid values. "I remember my grandmother saying, 'You're in the ghetto, but don't let the ghetto get into you.' "

And he had a girlfriend. "She believed in me," he says of Joyclyn Bates, whom he dated for six years and who kept assuring him that he had something special.

"I didn't want to go to college," he says. "It's hard to see producing a movie and screening it for Nelson Mandela when you're in Cleveland talking to pimps, numbers runners and players."

Not only is Mr. Hall one of Hollywood's most successful talk-show hosts, he has realized another dream, of producing his first motion picture.

The guiding hand behind "Bopha!," Mr. Hall has proven once again that his determination overcomes the most dour advice.

Part of his contract with Paramount permits him to produce projects for television and movies, but he'd never found anything he really cared about.

When he read the script for "Bopha!," a tale about a black militia man in South Africa who collides with the uprising of his township, Mr. Hall knew this was a story he wanted to tell.

Of course, everyone in Hollywood told him it wouldn't sell. "As many complications as I find about being black in this town," says Mr. Hall, "there are many more complications with the color green. Green is what's important. They'll let you sell yourself out; they'll sell themselves out if they can make money. It's a very scary thing."

Scary or not, Mr. Hall went ahead, producing the picture (which was filmed in Zimbabwe) for a mere $8 million. He admits that he kicked in "a small amount of money," though it seems likely he could not produce such a film with stars like Alfre Woodard and Danny Glover without sweetening the pot considerably.

"Bopha!" marks the directorial debut of Morgan Freeman ("Driving Miss Daisy"), another limb which Mr. Hall was eager to climb out on.

Even though it was risky business with a new director and an unpopular theme, Mr. Hall didn't even visit the set in Zimbabwe to check on Mr. Freeman. "If they'd made the movie in Encino I wouldn't have gone," he says. "I was scared, but you know what, you hired him, trust him. And that's the way I had to deal with it. Because if you don't trust him you're just going to have two cooks in the kitchen messing up the soup."

Mr. Hall finds himself in the messy soup of late-night talk shows. The hardest thing for him, he says, is maintaining a balance when everyone around him is throwing darts.

"You feel like the Wallenda of late-night," he says. "You're walking a tightrope and can't please anybody. Nobody writes to say, 'I love what you're doing here.' They always write to complain. Sometimes you feel you're not pleasing anybody."

When Mr. Hall started his show, a member of the NAACP groused that he didn't have enough African Americans involved. "And a white guy was saying I was hiring blacks because they were blacks. So I had them both on me."

The solution is having people around you who keep you grounded, he says. "You have to figure a fair barometer to see whether you're doing good things. I had no idea my life would be riddled with criticism from both sides."

At 36, the super-successful performer feels there is something missing in his life. "I realize that the other stuff is not so fulfilling without a complete life. It's like having success and no one to share it with. It's going downstairs and having your housekeeper showing you your face on the cover of something and having no one to celebrate with. I realize that I've been giving 110 percent to my career and nothing to Arsenio."

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