Blazing a trail in 'Liberty Heights'

CATCHING UP WITH ...ORLANDO JONES

Orlando Jones diversifies Barry Levinson's Baltimore.

November 21, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

Orlando Jones walked onto the set knowing he was blazing something of a trail. Until he was cast as would-be numbers magnate Little Melvin in "Liberty Heights," the roster of African-American actors in Barry Levinson's Baltimore films was thin to the point of being practically nonexistent.

Jones was glad to change all that.

"I very much entered into this film knowing that was the case," the 31-year-old actor says over a vegetarian lunch back in Charm City, where he's just finished filming "The Replacements," his second shoot here in just over a year. "When I saw the character, I was like, 'Wow, how did that happen?' "

Jones smiles as he tells the story. A fan of Levinson's Baltimore trilogy ("Diner," "Tin Men" and "Avalon"), he says he was thrilled to be working for the Oscar-winning director regardless. His role as trailblazer was only a happy coincidence.

"Oh yeah, I'd tease him about it," he explains. "I'd tease him about everything. I was like, yeah, there's finally a black man living in Baltimore in the '50s. I was afraid [Levinson] was going to be Woody Allen. You know, there's 12 million people in New York, 11.9 million are black, and I ain't seen one in his films."

As Little Melvin, a character based on local legend and convicted drug trafficker "Little Melvin" Williams, Jones gets to play one of the most complex characters in "Liberty Heights." He enters the film after winning big in the numbers game run by Nate Kurtzman (Joe Mantegna) -- winning so big, in fact, that there's not enough money to pay him off. Through some fancy sleight of hand and fast talking, Kurtzman tries to buy time, first by persuading Melvin to assume a portion of the numbers racket that proves worthless, then by insisting he'll be paid off in stages.

But Melvin isn't interested in the installment plan; he wants his money now. A chance meeting between him and Kurtzman's son leads to a kidnapping (though never to violence) and a demand -- not for ransom, but simply for the money that's rightfully his.

Old-fashioned criminal

"I liked the fact that he had some integrity," Jones says. "He only wants his money, that's what he won. I also like the fact that they keep offering him this Cadillac, which is very much a black stereotype, and he keeps turning it down all through the movie. He keeps saying, 'I don't want that, that's your car. I want what's mine; I want my money.' "

As an actor, he says, the key thing he had to keep in mind while playing Little Melvin was the time period. "Liberty Heights," after all, is set in the 1950s, and the actor had to resist the urge to play him as a '90s criminal.

"Their level of intimidation was different," says Jones. "They were negotiators. Their idea of negotiation wasn't to put a gun to someone's head and say, 'Give me what I want.' In the '90s, we would have been spewing the N word and the K word and all this stuff back and forth, at a rapid rate of fire. Little Melvin may have had those discussions with his best friend, Scribbles, but he found no real need to disrespect the people he was dealing with, even though he would have felt justified.

"I think that's probably the biggest difference," he continues. "In the '90s, you throw the respect card out the window and act like you're Superman, you've got a bulletproof vest, you can say whatever you want to the guy you're having an altercation with. Had this been a '90s film, I really do think the plot would have played out quite differently. I think they would have been quick to fisticuffs or some other version of trying to intimidate somebody."

Jones says he never met the real Little Melvin, although he's read and heard plenty about him (Melvin's tailor, who worked on "Liberty Heights," told him they wore practically the same size suit).

"He seemed to me to be sort of a Baltimore fixture," the actor says. "The most important thing about him was, he was a really intelligent guy. I was surprised to find he spoke four languages. I was shocked to discover his involvement in the criminal world was equal to his involvement in the entrepreneurial, middle-class world.

"It gave me a sense of who he was. He wasn't just this cold-blooded killer, that sort of thing. He was an interesting guy for his time. Even for this time."

A native Alabaman who grew up in South Carolina, Jones got his start in Hollywood as a writer for such TV shows as "A Different World" and "Roc," starring Baltimore's Charles S. Dutton. He then went to work as a producer on Fox's "The Sinbad Show," but soon decided he'd rather be in front of the camera than behind it.

His first chance to put a face to his name came when Fox's newly launched cable network, FX, was looking for someone to serve as host for a nightly music video show.

"Unlike [MTV's] veejays, we were allowed to have an opinion about the music," Jones remembers. "I would say things like, 'If you've got Frank Sinatra, why are you buying Harry Connick Jr? Seems to me you're wasting a lot of money.'

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