People are even bold enough to say the disparaging line to the real Otis Williams, who, at 77 years old, is the last surviving, original member of the Temptations.
“It doesn’t bother me,” says Williams, who isn’t defensive, but doesn’t laugh, either. “I’m tougher than that because I know the real deal.”
That the quote wasn’t even in the script, but ad-libbed by Leon in rehearsal, is evidence of the movie’s superb casting. Rounding out the classic Temps lineup were Charles Malik Whitfield (Otis Williams), Terron Brooks (Eddie Kendricks), D.B. Woodside (Melvin Franklin) and Christian Payton (Paul Williams). All the men learned the intricate choreography of the original group, and some sang in the film.
“It’s nerve-wracking when you’re doing the iconic song,” says Brooks, who was tasked with re-recording Eddie Kendricks’ lead vocal on the group’s 1971 Hot 100 No. 1 hit “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).” “Most times, people think it was him. … so that’s a big compliment.”
Access to the Motown catalog — the movie featured more than 40 songs — meant viewers could sing along to classic ‘60s and ‘70s hits like “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” Based on Otis Williams’ book, Temptations, the script gave fans a look into the largely unknown story behind the music. Airing on NBC on November 1 and 2, 1998, the two-part miniseries covered the highs and lows of the group from its origins in the 1950s to the mid-1990s.
Before getting the gig, director Allan Arkush was a seasoned veteran of musical projects, including the cult classic Rock 'n' Roll High School with the Ramones, and episodes of the TV series Fame. Directing The Temptations was especially meaningful because he grew up on the music of Motown.
“The first time I heard Smokey Robinson sing ‘Shop Around,’ it was like, ‘Wow, what is this?’” Arkush says.
Arkush was thrilled to get an opportunity to have lunch with Robinson early into the production. The legendary Motown songwriter described summoning the Temptations to his piano to teach them a new song he’d written, called “My Girl.”. Arkush relayed the story to the cast, who acted the scene without a script.
Robinson was impressed with early footage. In another surreal moment, he called Arkush on set and asked to be in the film (he makes a cameo as himself at the end) and to contribute music. “He says, ‘Allan, can I sing you a theme song?’” Arkush recalls, excitedly. “I sat on the curb listening to Smokey Robinson over the phone sing the theme song. … He didn’t have the words yet. He just had a melody.”
Robinson was just one of several Motown veterans involved in the film. Otis Williams and the Temptations’ longtime manager, Shelly Berger, held producer titles. And Suzanne de Passe, who once worked as Motown founder Berry Gordy’s creative assistant, served as executive producer.
Staying true to the story’s setting proved difficult; the production was forced to shoot in Pittsburgh and rebuild Motown’s “Hitsville U.S.A.” headquarters.
“Detroit was in such bad shape as a city, we couldn’t find the kind of middle-class housing of the ‘50s,” Arkush says. “And there was no film community in Detroit because no one filmed there.”
In casting the movie, the team looked for actors who were not only talented, but embodied the spirit of the individual Temptations. “I auditioned for Paul [Williams] first, and then Suzanne de Passe said, ‘No, you’re Eddie Kendricks,’” says Brooks, who was a 23-year-old singer without film experience at the time. “I applaud the casting because you could’ve gotten stars to play all the roles, and I think that would’ve diminished the story… You would have to get through looking at these famous people.”
The exception was Leon, who had already had memorable roles in Cool Runnings and The Five Heartbeats. Otis Williams had originally requested that Leon portray him, but Leon told de Passe and other executives that he had other aspirations.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m very flattered and honored that Otis wants me to play him, but if you ask me, honestly, I think I’d best serve this film if I play the role of David Ruffin,’” Leon says. “And all of them were like, ‘Oh my god, we’re so happy you said that.’”
Casting Otis Williams was a challenge. De Passe knew she wanted Charles Malik Whitfield, but the actor was hesitant. “I just knew that, overall, it wasn’t for me because I felt like a real powerful singer should really be in that role,” he says. After some back-and-forth dealings with the studio -- former Grey’s Anatomy actor Isaiah Washington was reportedly considered -- Whitfield signed on about a week before shooting. “I really had to learn everything on the fly,” he says. “But [actor] Christian Payton is the reason I learned all my dance steps. He’d stay up with me late at night.”
A controversial character, the late David Ruffin’s reported arrogance, drug use and volatile relationships with women are a focal point in the movie. (His family disputed some details of his portrayal, but their lawsuit against the production was unsuccessful.) According to cast and crew, some of the tension between Ruffin and the rest of the Temptations mirrored the dynamic on set.
“Leon never took off his sunglasses,” Arkush says, laughing. “[He’s] got a real strong personality. And he’s an instigator. And he started playing David all the time.”
“When I get a hold of a role like that, especially a person who actually walked and talked on this earth … you have to go to great lengths to bring their spirit to life,” Leon says. “Even the mother of my child had to call me David during that period. And I don’t think my co-stars particularly cared for me. … [But] at the end of the day, I think it worked out.”
Otis Williams saw Leon in action as David Ruffin on the first and only day he visited the set. The experience brought back visceral memories of turmoil the group faced, which included in-fighting, lineup changes and premature deaths of original members.
“I thought it would probably be all right, because it was so long [ago], but I still had that feeling of, ‘Oh, I can’t watch this,’” Williams says. “It was almost like the wound was still open.”
Though he’s seen a clip here and there over the years — and says he can handle the Temptations musical heading to Broadway next year — he has never watched the entire film, which also incorporates the deaths of his mother and son.
“I’m not ready for it just yet,” he says.
Despite Leon’s tactics, the actors became “brothers,” who made a commitment to do the Temptations justice, Brooks says. They spent a lot of time talking about the film and getting to know each other, and even endured racism at a hotel in Pittsburgh. “We were going to go get some food … and we got bottles thrown at us,” Brooks recalls.
They would later re-enact a real-life moment of the Temptations getting shot at in the South in the 1960s. It put into perspective how much racial progress still needed to be made.
“Unfortunately, I think every black man has that struggle,” Brooks says. “That’s another wonderful thing about this movie. It’s African-American men and their stories, and also what they did wrong. They got all that money and all that success, and they were young with no one to guide them.”
The challenge for Arkush was capturing 40 years in four hours. “I wanted to make sure that the story moved forward with the songs,” he says. “The interpretation of the song has to reflect what was going in their lives and on the stage, so I had to re-record the songs.”
For example, viewers can feel the tension between Ruffin and the group during “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” and the sadness surrounding Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams’ exit from the group during “Just My Imagination.” And the buildup to Paul Williams’ death is captured during the 12-minute “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” song, played in its entirety without dialogue.
“That’s one of the things I’m most proud of in the movie,” Arkush says.
The effective combination of a talented cast and crew and timeless music birthed an enduring classic. The miniseries not only garnered an Emmy for outstanding directing, but found new life through its release on VHS/DVD and reruns on VH1 and BET. And 20 years later, the film continues to be discovered and celebrated -- today, people still tell Arkush of fond memories experiencing the film with family.
“Their aunts and their grandmothers and their mothers watched it around holidays together. That’s enough just to know that,” he says.
And the actors feel blessed to be a part of the film’s legacy. “It’s really humbling, I think, for me to have a body of work that stays with people this long,” Brooks says. “They still play it on TV, so it’s just an extraordinary gift.”
“I look at it with nothing but gratitude and appreciation because I’ve had so many young people [say], ‘You’re Otis.’” Whitfield says. “So, I look back and go, ‘You know what? Temptations forever.’”