‘Cooley High’ stars look back at ‘glorious experience’ of making an enduring Chicago favorite
TCM Classic Film Festival brings together Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and other actors from the influential coming-of-age movie from 1975.
LOS ANGELES — Though the marquee attractions at the 2022 TCM Classic Film Festival were Hollywood luminaries such as Warren Beatty, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie and Steven Spielberg, a chapter and corner of Chicago history also shared a moment in the spotlight.
“Cooley High” (1975), the made-in-Chicago, coming-of-age comedy, often cited as a breakthrough title in Black-produced cinema, received a tribute at the 13th annual festival, held over the weekend at the historic TCL (Grauman’s) Chinese Theatre complex and other nearby venues. Director Michael Schultz and the “Cooley High” stars — Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Garrett Morris, Cynthia Davis and Steven Williams — appeared for a pre-screening talk, moderated by TCM host Jacqueline Stewart, on Friday night at the Hollywood Legion Theater.
“I grew up in Chicago, where ‘Cooley High’ was considered Black national cinema,” said Stewart, who’s also chief artistic and programming officer of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. “If you were from Chicago, you knew this film.”
Black filmmakers John Singleton, Spike Lee and Robert Townsend all singled out “Cooley High” as having an important impact on their own careers. “This film is so influential,” Schultz said. “Without ‘Cooley High,’ there would be no ‘Boyz N the Hood,’” referring to Singleton’s 1991 debut, for which he became the first Black filmmaker to earn a best director Oscar nomination. Townsend, who had a bit part in “Cooley High,” told the Los Angeles Times in 2019 that “Michael Schultz really changed the landscape for people of color. [The film] speaks to people that look like me and speaks to everybody.“
Last year, that influence was affirmed yet again when the film was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry “for being culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
Though often called “The Black American Graffiti,” the movie, set in 1964, takes a wider perspective, as high school seniors Preach (Turman), an aspiring writer, and Cochise (Hilton-Jacobs), a basketball champ, find their way in the world. “Cooley High” follows their teenage hijinks, delinquent misadventures (a joy ride on Navy Pier), dating skirmishes and a sudden life-altering event. The film’s raffish spirit was on display Friday when Williams took the stage, after Morris entered on a walker and Davis followed in a wheelchair. “I’m in the same condition that they are,” he said. “I’m just a much better f---ing actor.”
The film’s namesake was Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School, at Sedgwick and Division streets, alongside the Cabrini-Green public-housing complex. Operating from 1958 to 1979, Cooley High replaced Washburne Trade, which in turn succeeded the original Lane Tech, before it was relocated to its current home in Lakeview. Cooley High was demolished in 1981, and Seward Park now stands in the school’s footprint.
American International Pictures, an indie studio specializing in low-budget and exploitation films, recruited Schultz, then primarily known for his stage work, to direct “Cooley High” from a script by Eric Monte, a onetime resident of Cabrini-Green. “Eric Monte was funny, but his draft was not yet a movie,” Schultz said of the original script. “It didn’t have a strong throughline. He was a great storyteller, but Eric didn’t have the discipline” to produce a polished screenplay. To make that happen, Schultz hired a stenographer and had Monte dictate his notes. “A month later, we had a final script.”
Along with the usual indie-film struggles, Schultz had to fight AIP to cast Morris, because the studio thought he looked too young for the role of Mr. Mason, the teacher who believes in Preach and Cochise. “They wanted a Sidney Poitier type,” Schultz said, referencing that actor’s “To Sir, With Love” turn in 1967. “We had to remind them that not all high school teachers look like Poitier.” Ironically, in real life, Morris, before his “Saturday Night Live” days, worked as a teacher to supplement his acting career.
At 83, Schultz continues to direct; recent credits include episodes of the TV series “All-American,” “Black Lightning” and “black-ish.” Morris (now 85), Turman (75), Williams (73) and Hilton-Jacobs (69) all remain working actors. Five decades ago, they regarded “Cooley High” as another job. “I didn’t realize the significance of what I was doing,” Williams said. “It was just a gig, then it became what it is now.”
For Hilton-Jacobs, who followed “Cooley” with “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “It was great to have a regular paycheck.” Today he looks back at “Cooley High” as a “glorious experience” — one embraced by subsequent generations as “a coming-of-age story that everyone can relate to.”
To close the session, Schultz circled back to the film’s universal theme of young men pursuing their dreams. “We have so many more [Black-themed] classics like ‘Cooley High’ that need to be showcased.”