Chris Willman
August 23, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Not surprisingly, Harry Belafonte has a beef with contemporary black movies. ”We’ve developed a whole culture of caricatures,” gripes the African-American actor, who helped put the color in Technicolor in the ’50s and ’60s. ”We behave as we think they want to see us. I know a lot of guys in the hood who don’t dress with Nikes and dreads and baggy clothes — but you never see that.”

So what sort of alternative archetype is the activist and humanitarian offering now that he’s back on screen after a two-decade layoff? Well, a gangsta.

Make that gangster. As Seldom Seen, the ’30s Mob boss in Robert Altman’s jazz-age melodrama, Kansas City, Belafonte adopts a mustache, a fake bald spot, a Godfatheresque slur, and the blood drive to rip the innards out of double-crossers. His character may be smooth, but his depravity requires some suspension of disbelief for the millions who know Belafonte as America’s ”Day-O”-singing diplomat to the world.

Tell him about it. ”I didn’t start off working on this film with any intentions of being in it,” he protests. ”Altman and I struck up a relationship pretty late in both of our lives” — beginning when the auteur, now 71, asked Belafonte, now 69, to make a cameo in 1992’s The Player, and continuing when the two found they lived only a few blocks apart in Manhattan. The new buddies brainstormed over a script about Amos ‘n’ Andy (as yet unproduced), then moved on to develop Kansas City‘s Seldom Seen. Certain character flourishes were inspired by some family ”numbers guys” Belafonte knew as a youngster in Harlem. ”One day [Altman] popped the question to me: ‘Why don’t you play it?’ I laughed and said: ‘It’s ridiculous! It’s so outside my persona.’ And then after a couple more drinks, he said: ‘Can I ask you something, Belafonte? Who started this rumor that you were an actor?”’

Ouch. Actually, though, KC marks the UNICEF goodwill ambassador’s second consecutive heavy. He returned last year after a 21-year gap between screen leads as a bigot in the little-seen role-reversal parable White Man’s Burden. Coaching him daily through his ”rustiness” for both movies was his actress daughter Gina (who has a cameo in Kansas City), one of two children from his 39-year marriage to Julie, a former dancer (actress Shari Belafonte is one of two more from a previous union).

Unworried about how his big-screen turpitude will affect UNICEF donations, Belafonte has assured his nervous agent that he’s all right with playing guys who are all wrong, so long as the picture itself doesn’t celebrate evil. Corrupt as he is in Kansas City, Belafonte finds affirmation in how Altman weaves ethnicity ”around a set of events that has all these people touching each other’s lives.”

Meanwhile, Belafonte has been long resigned to not touching many studio executives’ lives. ”I don’t have many friends in Hollywood, because I walk in and they say, ‘Here comes Mr. Conscience.’ And they dismiss you with the word liberal or do-good…all the things we should most want to be. To be a ‘liberal’ today is worse than being a Communist 20 years ago.” Come to think of it, maybe Belafonte is used to playing the villain.

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