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‘The Sit-In’ flashes back to a momentous week on ‘The Tonight Show’

When Harry Belafonte filled in for Johnny Carson in 1968, he gave a platform to important voices of the day, from Aretha Franklin to the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte was handpicked by Johnny Carson to guest host a week of “Tonight Show” episodes spotlighting politicians and entertainers of color.
Sun-Times file

It’s February of 1968. Harry Belafonte is seated behind a desk, the Rev. Martin Luther King is in the chair next to Belafonte, and Paul Newman is on the sofa, to Dr. King’s right.

“Dr. King,” says Belafonte, “how old are you?”

“I’m 39 years old,” comes the reply. “In fact, I was 39 just three weeks ago.”

Newman: “What’s the date?”

Dr. King: “The 15th of January.”

“You’re a young fella …, ” says Newman.

Polite small talk among three legends — but it’s a goosebump moment, because we know what’s coming. We know Dr. King will never see his 40th birthday. We know he will be assassinated just two months after that conversation, and Jan. 15 will be a date when the nation remembers this great American.

The above exchange took place on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” on Feb. 8, 1968, during one of the most extraordinary weeks of late-night talk shows in television history. As we learn in the Peacock documentary “The Sit-In,” as America was in the midst in one of the most tumultuous periods in its history, at the height of the Tet Offensive and with social protests dominating the newscasts, Johnny Carson wanted to give a platform to politicians and entertainers of color — but he also thought his middle-of-the-road, largely apolitical style wouldn’t be the right fit. So, Carson approached the great entertainer-activist Harry Belafonte about hosting a week’s worth of shows out of the NBC Studios in New York City, with Belafonte choosing the guests.

Fifteen of the 25 guests that week were persons of color. Belafonte would open with a song and then welcome guests ranging from comedians (Bill Cosby, Nipsey Russell, the Smothers Brothers) to musical performers (Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick) to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King — neither of whom would survive the year.

Even the now 93-year-old Belafonte seems taken aback when he’s handed a list of guests that week. “Oh my God, I had all these people?” he says with a smile.

Sadly, only two of the episodes still exist on video. (Until the early 1970s, NBC regularly reused the cumbersome tapes used to record programs.) There’s audio of two other episodes — but with only a limited amount of video footage available, director Yoruba Richen expands the scope to include scene-setting news footage of the protests of the time; background information on the “Banana Boat Song” singer’s career, and interviews with Dionne Warwick, Buffy St. Marie and Petula Clark, as well as Whoopi Goldberg and Questlove, who talk about how cool it was that for one week in 1968, “The Tonight Show” became a “sit-in,” as Belafonte described it in a full-page ad he took out to thank his guests and the “Tonight Show” staffers.

We learn all kinds of illuminating factoids, e.g., Paul Newman had never done a TV talk show until the invitation came from Belafonte, and when an NBC executive heard Dr. King had been booked, he said, “He’s not going to get into that civil rights stuff, is he?”

Actually, there’s a great moment when King tells an anecdote about his flight from Washington, D.C., to New York experiencing mechanical difficulties. He gets a big laugh with the punchline.

But there’s also this. After Dr. King talks about the next great movement being about helping the poor in America regardless of race, Belafonte asks, “Do you fear for your life?”

Dr. King: “We have lived with this, a number of years now, since Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956. If we moved around worrying about it, it would immobilize me, so I’ve come to … [take] the whole matter philosophically. I’m more concerned about doing something for humanity and what I consider the will of God than longevity. It isn’t how long you live; the important thing is how well you live.”