Yes, you read that correctly. The Tony and Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington, got his professional Broadway start from Michael Harris, a now convicted Drug Kingpin.
Washington was starting to make a name for himself in film and television with roles on “St. Elsewhere” and earning a nomination for an Academy Award as Best Actor for the film “Cry Freedom.” However, he still hadn’t tackled the beast that was Broadway.
At the time, Harris wanted a change of pace and found himself thrust into the fabulous world of Hollywood where he first met Denzel Washington. After that meeting, the two stayed in contact and Washington was eventually cast in the Broadway production of Checkmates.
Soon after the cast was settled, Harris was brought on as a co-producer after having invested money in the Los Angeles run of the show. When it was set to transfer to Broadway, Harris was to match the contributions of the Nederlanders until the show reached it’s $750,000 benchmark. Because of this Michael Harris was the first African-American to produce a Broadway show.
The play by Ron Milner, which opened Aug. 4 at the 46th Street Theater (Now known as The Richard Rodgers where Hamilton plays!) , starred Paul Winfield, Ruby Dee, Denzel Washington and Marsha Jackson and was directed by Woodie King Jr. The original producers included James M. Nederlander, James L. Nederlander, Philip Rose, Michael Harris and Hayward Collins.
Right before the opening of the show news broke about Harris’ arrest and conviction. Harris was charged with narcotics distribution and attempted murder and was sentenced to serve 28 years in San Quinton maximum security prison. This news was a shock to most of the people involved in the show, and Harris’ name was immediately removed as producer.
The arrest surely didn’t help Checkmates ticket sales as the show only ran for six months, and after 177 performance it closed January 1, 1989.
We all know how Denzel fared in all of this – since Checkmates he’s gone on to have roles in Fences and A Raisin In The Sun. Perhaps if Harris was never convicted, he might have had a bigger impact on the Broadway world having been the first African-American to produce a show on Broadway. As of 2011, Mr. Harris has received parole and is currently awaiting release.
Now how’s that for your big break!