When “Cooley High” was released in 1975, it put Cabrini-Green Homes on the map and showcased a portion of Americana rarely seen by the masses. It spun the tale of teens Preach and Cochise, and how they navigated Cooley High School, girls, neighborhood thugs and life. Often called the black community’s “American Graffiti,” the instant classic is the subject of TV One’s “Unsung Hollywood” documentary series at 8 p.m Wednesday, an episode that brought stars Glynn Turman and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs back to Chicago for filming.
Turman famously portrayed Preach and went on to a career-defining role as Col. Taylor on “A Different World.” He currently stars opposite Don Cheadle on Showtime’s “House of Lies.”
Q. Did you know “Cooley High” would be a classic when you were filming it?
A. It was a gig. I knew we had a great deal of fun doing it. I had no idea it was gonna be a landmark film. It was the first time I saw my name on the marquee on 42nd Street on the theater I used to cut school to go to. And then when I went in and I saw it and the reaction from everybody when we came out, it was like, “Oh my God, what is going on?” Everybody was just giving us so much love.
Q. The most memorable scene is the end, when Cochise dies.
A. I had no idea that it would turn out to be as powerful a scene as it turned out to be, thanks to the direction of Michael Schultz. It was a very telling moment with that young kid that I was playing, screaming for help and the train drowning out his yell.
Q. The main location, Cabrini-Green, is gone now.
A. That was amazing to see it wasn’t here. It was interesting to go back to [Preach’s friend] Stone’s neighborhood. Some of those guys are still there who remembered us from filming “Cooley High.” The love was beautiful. So genuine.
Q. The soundtrack wasn’t bad either.
A. We were just very fortunate that we had all the greatest hits of Motown. You couldn’t do a film like that these days. I saw Smokey Robinson just the other day, and I said “Smokey, we gotta do another film again.” He said, “Son, what did we do?” I said “Cooley High.” He laughed and said, “That’s right. that’s right.”
Q. Why do you seem to return to movies that highlight African-American life?
A. I don’t know. Some I pick and some [of it] picks me. I’ve been blessed to have been chosen to be a part of films and projects that reign with a sense of urgency and truth. Plus, having been in the orignal [Broadway] production of “A Raisin in the Sun.” I worked with such high-powered people at such a young age.