A Christmas Ballad

FILMED September 1969

The script for A CHRISTMAS BALLAD, my fourth and final commitment to THE BILL COSBY SHOW, started out as the most typical formulaic situation comedy of any of the shows I directed for the series. But things were about to change.

Change arrived in the in the 6’2” torso of Rex Ingram. A CHRISTMAS BALLAD was not the first time I worked with Rex Ingram. Five and a half years earlier on the series BREAKING POINT I was doing another of the no-no subjects that producer George Lefferts had insisted he be permitted to do. It was the story of a black boxer, and for the role of the father of the boxer’s fiancée I wanted Rex Ingram. I had remembered him for his performance as De Lawd in THE GREEN PASTURES, for his role as the Devil in CABIN IN THE SKY and for his Jim, the runaway slave with Mickey Rooney’s Huck in THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. So our casting director had Rex come into our office. We had a nice chat, after which I handed him a script. “You mean, I got the job?” he said. I responded, “You had the job when you came in. We just wanted to meet you.”

The script for trimming of the tree:

When it came time to film the trimming of the tree, Bill suggested that rather than staging the scenes as scripted, we improvise. I loved it. I had two cameras (one for a wide shot and the second camera for a closer angle), we set up activities for Bill to interact with the kids, and Bill just played off the kids. Note how intent the children are on what Bill is doing and saying, and because of charismatic Bill how unaware they are of the camera,

I’m willing to bet (but not $10,000.00) that most readers of this post have never heard of Rex Ingram (our George), in spite of the fact that in 1936 after he played the role of De Lawd in the film THE GREEN PASTURES, Rex Ingram was the most prominent black leading man in Hollywood. But acting had not been his goal. Rex was born on a riverboat on the Mississippi River, where his father was a steamer fireman. He attended Northwestern University studying medicine and graduated from Northwestern University Medical School. He was the first African American man to receive a Phi Beta Kappa key from the University. He came out to California, where he was literally discovered on a street corner by a Hollywood casting director and was persuaded that he was just what was needed to play a native of the jungles in the first Tarzan picture, TARZAN OF THE APES starring Elmo Lincoln. He made his screen debut playing (uncredited) the role of a native in the film. He liked California and earning money working in films proved preferable to practicing medicine, so he stayed on.

I could identify with Chet’s playing Santa Claus. Many years earlier when I was the artistic director for the Mason City Little Theatre, Maggie Egloff asked me to be Santa Claus at her annual Christmas party for Andy, her eleven-year old mentally retarded son. (I write about Andy in my post of JOHNNY TEMPLE on DR. KILDARE.) I agreed to do it, but I didn’t get to arrive walking down a corridor like George does; I had to traipse through deep snow in the Egloff backyard with a sack over my shoulder. Directing a Santa Claus was easier than being a Santa Claus.

Rex continued to work in silent films playing a succession of typical roles available to black actors: butlers, porters and native Africans. Lacking any formal acting training he never considered working on the stage until someone suggested it. With help from English actor Alan Mowbray he studied, auditioned and began performing in theatrical productions, all the time continuing to perform also in film. The advent of sound proved no problem for Rex. His resonant voice readily adapted to the new medium. As I wrote above, when he played De Lawd in THE GREEN PASTURES (although there was some hesitation in casting him because he was twenty years too young for the role), he was at the top of the list of Black actors in Hollywood. He was the Sidney Poitier of that time, but that time in early Hollywood was racist to the core and offered virtually no opportunities for black actors or actresses. His employment problem was further affected when he decided not to work in roles that he considered demeaning to African Americans.

The final scene had Chet answering a young boy’s question.

But nobody could write a monolog for Cosby was well as Bill.

We completed photography on September 5, 1969. Two weeks later on September 19, 1969, Rex Ingram died. He was truly one of the great actors of American film and theatre, but another, forgotten today whose recognition time has allowed to slip through the cracks.

The Journey Continues

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4 Responses to A Christmas Ballad

  1. Daniel Rudolf says:

    First of all, you were right. This is my favorite of the Bill Cosby Show episodes I’ve seen. So, you won the first bet.

    Secondly, I am possibly the youngest of your readers (being born in the year you directed your last episodic television film), but I won the second bet. Of course I know Rex Ingram, and I think he was a great great unsung talent. For me, his most memorable performance is his (literally) larger than life role as the colossal genie in Alexander Korda’s spectacular The Thief of Baghdad. So sad, he passed away exactly two weeks after he filmed this episode.

    I think this show (as well as others) suffered from the 25-minute format. Both this episode and Blind Date could’ve been much more developed if allowed to run for 50 minutes. It would’ve allowed time for Ingram’s character to scope with the loss of his daughter, instead of a seemingly sudden transformation from grumpy old man to Santa Claus. Too bad, this series was sold as a “sitcom” instead of being allowed to be what it truly were – a great “dramedy” with great talents who could perform it believably and magnificently.

  2. Phil says:

    You would have cleaned me out on that bet. I was clueless about Rex Ingram before reviewing this post.

    Regarding the gift distribution scene, it caught me totally by surprise and I almost became a hanky case.

    FYI – I noticed your ’74 TV movie ‘Death Cruise’ was uploaded to youtube about three months ago.

  3. Jim says:

    Mr Senensky,

    Really enjoyed your posts on all four Cosby Show episodes – I remember this series when it first aired but wasn’t old or mature enough to appreciate how fresh and innovative it was. It amazing how the lack of a laugh track just allows the comedy to come out more “purely”, rather than “forcing” it.

    The four episodes your directed were all very enjoyable but I have to say my favorite was an episode titled “Lovers Quarrel” that guest starred the great Mantan Moreland and Moms Mabley as Chet’s aunt and uncle – true comic legends….

    And I believe from reading some other comments that you may have a birthday coming up – please accept our best wishes…..

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