The Entertainer

Activist and reality-show host Al Sharpton.Photo: Lyle Ashton Harris

The Reverend Al Sharpton ordered Dover sole. He also ordered a Caesar salad and a Diet Coke. He was happily seated inside The Four Seasons Grill Room, home to a certain sort of New York power nexus, a crowd he’d been mixing with miraculously often these days; but, really, today his task here was of a rather low order. He wasn’t here to talk about why people should vote for John Kerry, nor to discuss police brutality or racial profiling. Instead, he’d come to boost a new reality-TV show called I Hate My Job, from the Spike TV cable network, in which eight guys compete for a career makeover, with him as host, providing instruction and inspiration as apparently only he can. As well, he wanted to explain why he, a recent candidate for the presidency of the United States, would stoop to the level of, say, Donald Trump.

“One of the things that drives me to do this kind of thing is, more young people are influenced by Comedy Central than by 60 Minutes, so if you understand that, you understand why Al Sharpton would do a reality show,” he said firmly. “Also, I happen to agree with the concept of people looking to discover what they’re really on the planet for, because I had to go through that. And it gives you an eight-week series—and I don’t know many people who’d turn down an eight-week series on TV!”

He patted at his famous gray-flecked coif, shot his cuffs crisply, and went on to say that ever since his highly successful mid-presidential-campaign appearance on Saturday Night Live, he’s received tons of proposals. He’s turned down most of them—for instance, he’s not sure he’s cut out to be a song-and-dance man on Broadway, in the play Chicago, high-paying offer though it was—but others have met with his approval, including recent cameos on such TV shows as Girlfriends, My Wife and Kids, and Boston Legal. He’s also in talks to maybe get his own talk show. To him, this is all pretty significant and suggests change of an elevated magnitude.

“I don’t think that everyone who stops me on the street or in airports necessarily agrees with my politics,” Rev said. “What I think SNL in particular did, it showed that I do more than just get angry and protest. The right wing would love to project me as a hater and all of that. But I think America that night said, ‘This guy ain’t no hater!’ That show got the highest ratings of their season, so it put a human face on me in front of a maximum amount of American people, and now I have people of all races coming up to me.”

He stopped for a moment, picked at his Dover sole, and said, “I have people that I think have a view that I represent this kind of cultural thing that I don’t know exactly what they see.”

Clearly, the reverend was boggled almost to the point of insensibility by the kind of cultural thing he’d recently become. Just a few years ago, he was viewed mainly as a pariah, based on the strife he so often seemed to promote as he swaggered around New York’s streets in his jumpsuits, gaudy medallions bouncing off his barrel chest to the beat of racial conflicts in Bensonhurst and Howard Beach, arson fires in Harlem, and most infamously the Tawana Brawley nightmare. And yet here he is, still on the scene, chowing down at The Four Seasons, the star of his own show.

If the SNL gig was what put a new face on Rev and maybe for the first time in his life made him agreeable to a larger audience, it almost didn’t happen. Almost all of his advisers were against it—they thought it was too risky—but Rev, as is so often the case, listened only to his gut. He went in, met with Lorne Michaels, found out that he could veto any skits he didn’t like, vetoed a skit that seemed to mock Jesse Jackson, refused to utter words like “bastard” and “S.O.B.,” and on December 6, 2003, stepped out onto the stage, going live in a dark, somber suit with an electric-blue hanky shoved into his breast pocket. He opened his monologue by making his goal for the appearance explicit: “Maybe tonight people can get to know the real Al Sharpton.” Then comic Tracy Morgan showed up, dressed as the reverend of old, in an eye-popping purple-velour jogging outfit, his hair much bigger than Rev’s, his gut much bigger, too. “I never looked that bad,” new Rev said. “Think again,” old Rev said.

And yet even while these things were being said, with laughter the result, Rev was still secretly unsure of himself. He still didn’t know if doing SNL was going to work in his favor. He was filled with doubt. But then Tracy Morgan mentioned that Rev had once been James Brown’s road manager, after which the two began trading verses of Brown’s signature song, “I Got You (I Feel Good).” It was at this moment that inspiration struck Rev, and his feet began to move in a very slick, funky-self, James Brown sort of way.

“No one, including Lorne Michaels, knew I was going to do the James Brown,” he said. “Just instinctively I decided to add that dance, but after that I was convinced in my soul that I’d done the right thing.”

Following that triumph, Bruce Charet, Rev’s entertainment manager in Los Angeles, went to lots of meetings on Rev’s behalf, as did his recently hired agents at the William Morris Agency, led by executive vice-president and worldwide head of television Sam Haskell, as did Rev himself. (Said Charet, “He has boundless energy. There’s never a problem getting him on a plane; he’ll come out here for lunch, if it’s appropriate.”) Spike TV first pitched Rev in early June and in an e-mail described I Hate My Job as a reality show in which the contestants “quit their job and are given three months to pursue and obtain their dream job. Think ‘You’re Hired’ instead of ‘You’re Fired.’ The contestants include the following: attorney who dreams of being a stand-up comic, cow-manure plant operator who dreams of being a model, [and] preschool teacher who dreams of being a nightclub entrepreneur.”

Rev wouldn’t say how much he was being paid for all this—“enough to get me to do it,” he said—but it’s clear that his days of claiming he didn’t even own his own suits, as he did in the Tawana Brawley case, are over.

The show has also paved the way for a number of other big entertainment-related plans; in mid-October, for example, he’s slated to head out to the Coast to meet with NBC, ABC, CBS, UPN, and the WB about shows that he might executive-produce, “everything from sitcoms to hourlong dramas, as long as they continue to serve the African-American cause,” Charet said.

After lunch, Sharpton stepped out onto 52nd Street and began returning phone calls before getting into his limo. He was, of course, widely recognized by passersby black, white, and other, who said things like, “What’s up, Rev?” and “How you doin’, Rev?” and “Holy shit, there’s the reverend!”

He’d be turning 50 in a week or two, and that seemed to put him into quite a contemplative mood. While riding around in the limo, Sharpton was uncharacteristically quiet. Then, out of the blue, he said to his driver, “You know what I never figured out? If I ride in the front all the time, why did we tint the windows in the back? We went through this whole thing. ‘We need tinted windows!’ And I never ride in the back. I mean, it doesn’t bother me. I like seeing people.”

Gospel music filled the air around Rev, but soon it was replaced by a recording of James Brown himself, singing a hard-driving song about payback.

“Revenge!” James Brown basically shouted. “I’m mad! The big payback! Got to get back! Need some payback! Payback! The big payback! That’s it!! Payback!! Revenge!! I’m mad!!”

Indeed, James Brown was much on Rev’s mind today, and when it came time for him to once again tell the truly miraculous story of his life, in abbreviated form, as a soliloquy, with considerable but understandable sanitizing, the legendary singer loomed large.

“I started preaching when I was 4,” he said. “My first job was youth director of Project Bread Basket under Jesse Jackson, nationally. By the time I was 16 or 17, I was leading my own organization, the National Youth Movement, when a guy named Teddy Brown joined. He got killed several months later in a car accident. His father was James Brown, and Mr. Brown kind of adopted me, and for about a year I went on the road with him. One morning, though, I woke up and said, ‘You know, this is nice—money, the glare, the lights, Vegas, Hollywood, London. But this is not what I want to do. I want to do what I was doing, preaching, the civil-rights movement,’ and I got up and went back to Brooklyn. I’ll be 50 years old soon. I remember when I never thought I’d make 40. I mean, ducking watermelons at Howard Beach will give you that kind of complex. Me, I’m just happy to get here.”

Rev went silent again, staring out one of the limo’s untinted front windows. Parts of Harlem went by. The Van Wyck Expressway went by. Brooklyn went by. Queens went by. He was thinking about another one of his mentors, Jesse Jackson.

He said that he has never publicly spoken about this before, but he recently met with Jackson, to apologize for the way he’s treated him in the press. “I realized that personal ambition had a lot to do with motivating my disagreements with him. Somewhere along the way, the student gets the misconception that your rise is dependent on the moving on of the teacher, and it has nothing to do with that. He’d invested a lot in me, and believed in me before anyone thought I’d be viable, and it was wrong for me to feel that my ambition was more important than our relationship.”

More silence followed, and it was hard to get a fix on what might have been going on inside that chameleonic, gut-and-instinct brain of Rev’s, but over time he did manage to say a few more things about himself. For one thing, he said, he’d lost 30 pounds due to dietary changes and many hours on a treadmill. He said that his favorite cussword is bullshit. “I use that all the time, because I can’t stand any kind of duplicity and always want to hear the straight-up, whatever it is. So, I say, ‘I don’t want to hear that b.s.’ I say ‘b.s.’ or ‘bullshit,’ though I’ve got to be very angry to use the whole term.”

At night, he said, he sleeps on one pillow (white), usually wears briefs and a T-shirt, and grinds his teeth only two or three times a week.

“Stereotyping” is what he thinks of the poll, taken during the primaries, in which 46 percent of the respondents figured he was probably the most well-endowed candidate, “and anyway, what’s ‘well endowed’ got to do with what you’re really trying to do in life?”

He said that he’s not a drinking man, that he no longer chews his fingernails, and that one thing that really freaks him out are ripped seats—“Like, I’ve actually not gotten in a cab because the seats were ripped.”

He said that he knows he has a few personality flaws—vanity, tardiness, and his quick temper among them—but that he’s working hard on becoming a better man. He said that he has never been to a shrink.

Finally, he said that the one thing that he’s never really changed is how he wears his hair: slicked-back, lacquered, and spackled. It may no longer reach to his shoulders, but the current look, a granitic bob that could probably withstand atomic fire, is just as arresting, and he’s come to think of how it arrived on his scalp as having a large element of symbolic importance. And once again, it involves James Brown.

“It’s 1981,” he said, “and Mr. Brown and I are going to the White House to visit with Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. to lobby them on the Martin Luther King holiday. Two weeks before the trip, Mr. Brown picks me up and brings me to this hairstylist named Mary, and he said, ‘Mary, I want you to fix Rev’s hair like mine, because I want every time people see him, they see me, because he’s like my son.’ So she styles my hair like his, and then he says to me, ‘I want you to wear it like that until I die, promise me that.’ And I said, ‘All right, I promise.’ Of course, some of the hard-core nationalists later said, ‘Why aren’t you wearing a natural?’ But that was my bond with James Brown, and it’s one of those freak things in life that work, that you didn’t plan for that work.”

It then occurred to Rev that much of his life had been like that—a matter of serendipity.

“I’ll give you another example,” he went on. “Saturday Night Live, Spike TV, CNBC, and these sitcoms, they all came to me. I never consciously sought to expand my core audience. I’d probably love to say I sat down in the back room somewhere and figured all this out, but that’s not what happened. I’ve always felt that I was blessed like that. I had a traumatic childhood, no father there, but Jesse Jackson and James Brown adopted me. That’s why I can preach what I do to the kids on the Spike show. You can’t let things be a stumbling block. You’ve got to make them a stepping-stone. Even when it seems ridiculous, some kind of way it can work out, if you keep committed and keep going.”

Late in the day, he went to NY1’s studios on Ninth Avenue, and in the green room chatted with anchorman Dominic Carter about Bush’s recent performance at the Urban League, the one that led Rev to go impromptu to such great effect during his own performance at the Democratic National Convention.

“I was surprised at how relaxed he was and how he can play a crowd,” Rev said.Carter nodded. “He’s very good at that. Connecting. ‘I’m one of you.’ ”

“He comes out, and everyone there is black,” Rev went on. “And then he says to me, ‘You know, it’s hard to run for president, and I give you a lot of credit, Al.’ So, how you gonna get mad at a guy who says that to you? You know you’re on TV, so do you smile and act respectful or do you do the ghetto? I mean, what do you do?”

“Play it straight?”

“Yeah,” said Rev. “So, Jesse smiled at him and got in trouble when a picture of that went out—‘Jesse Jackson is smiling with the president!’ But what I did, when he came and worked the front row and got to me, I said, ‘I need to talk to you about … ’ and the picture is of me hitting him in the chest as I said that. They didn’t want that picture. Karl Rove—I don’t know if he was there, but I’m sure he orchestrated the spin—got the Jackson smile out, not that picture of me.”

Later that night, Rev took an elevator up to the top of 666 Fifth Avenue, to the private, cigar-friendly Grand Havana Room, where he plopped himself down in an overstuffed chair, ordered a $9.50 cigar, and looked out a plate-glass window at the City of New York. It was, in many regards, his city like never before. Momentarily, a tall, well-dressed gentleman drifted over and bent down to his ear. “If you’ve got a second,” the man said, and indicated that New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, sitting over there, would like the pleasure of a word with him.

Rev nodded. When the man left, he said, with some pride, “She’s the second most powerful person in New York.”

Then his cell phone rang, and Rev took a call from none other than his old father figure James Brown. He listened for a while. Apparently, Mr. Brown had been at Harvard, receiving a dubious award from the Lampoon, and had just now touched down at Teterboro airport; before going back home to Georgia, he was going to spend some time in the city, staying at the Trump International Hotel.

“I was just telling somebody how proud I was sitting with you when you got that award at the Kennedy Center,” Rev said to Mr. Brown. “Now you got Harvard. It’s amazing. No matter what they do, cream will rise to the top! Anyway, I’m going to come by, say hello.”

After he hung up, he said, “We’ll see him in half an hour. I got a feeling he’s going to pull me up to one of his private—I might not get out till five in the morning! You think I’ve got energy? I used to tell Mr. Brown, ‘Do me a favor, stick your hand in the socket over there, Con Edison needs some help.’ That’s how much energy he’s got.”

Rev was silent for a moment, thinking about James Brown and thinking about himself and how far he’d come.

“One thing Mr. Brown always told me was, ‘Don’t change your beat.’ He had a time when everybody in America was on the 2-4 beat. He says, ‘Everybody was on the 2-4, but then I put everyone on the 1-3, the half-beat.’ He says, ‘You know you’re successful when you get everybody on your beat.’ And that’s what I ended up doing in the debates. By about the tenth debate, I started hearing people like Joe Lieberman saying, ‘And as Al Sharpton was saying … ’ I said to James, ‘Got them on the 1-3 now!’ ”

Finally, it was time to leave the Havana club. On the way out, as requested, he graced Betsy Gotbaum with his presence, then in silence limo’d his way up to the Trump International. The Godfather of Soul had yet to arrive, so Rev slumped into a chair and said, “When Mr. Brown got in trouble that time and went to jail, he used to call me three or four times a week, collect. ‘Reverend, how you doing?’ ‘Fine,’ I’d say. And, ‘Reverend, how’s your hair?’ he’d say, which was his way of checking to make sure I kept my promise.”

At one point, Shaquille O’Neal got off an elevator and came into the lobby. Seeing Rev, he said, “How you doing?” and hugged him to his chest, with Rev’s nose just about pressed into Shaq’s bellybutton.

Momentarily, Mr. Brown arrived outside and Rev went to greet him.

A crowd had gathered.

“Shaq,” somebody said.

“Godfather,” someone said. “Godfather!”

Rev went back into the lobby, his cell phone ringing. “Hello?” he said brusquely. “Lemme call you back.”

And then there the two of them were, side by side, Rev next to Mr. Brown, who was wearing a shiny purple suit, with his shiny black hair looking very much like Rev’s own. Each told the other how great he looked. After that, Mr. Brown said a few words about Rev, but, of course, being James Brown, whatever words he said were unintelligible. They were more like a series of grunts and snorts, guttural squeaks and blips. But it was plain they were meant to be words of high praise. A second later, he and Rev got in an elevator. They were going up to Mr. Brown’s suite, and it seemed pretty clear that Rev could indeed be out till five.

The Entertainer