- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2007

You’d never have known that Don Cheadle was starring in the nation’s No. 1 film, “Ocean’s Thirteen,” when he casually sauntered into a posh suite at the Ritz Carlton Georgetown in early June.

There was no mention of the film’s healthy opening weekend box-office take. Nor did Mr. Cheadle prattle on about working alongside such tabloid fodder co-stars as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in the heist caper.

Instead, the 2004 Oscar nominee (for his role as hotel manager-turned-hero Paul Rusesabagina in “Hotel Rwanda”) and star of such acclaimed films as “Boogie Nights” and the Academy Award-winning “Crash” was in town to talk up “Talk to Me,” the new film about D.C. native, felon-turned-local media star, community activist and full-time raconteur Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene.

Yes, thatPetey Greene — whose gravelly voice, raucous humor, oft-fractured English and homespun wit became a mainstay Sunday evenings on radio (“Rapping with Petey Greene” on WOL-1450-AM) and later on television (with the Emmy-winning “Petey Greene’s Washington” on WDCA-TV, Channel 20) from the late 1960s through the 1970s.

He died in January of 1984, just two weeks shy of his 53th birthday.

Native Washingtonians (this writer included) will, of course, note that the clean-shaven, medium-height Mr. Cheadle bears no physical resemblance to the lanky Mr. Greene — with his impeccably-shaped Afro, trademark muttonchop sideburns and tailored leisure suits that were as much a part of his outward bravado as his most famous quote:

“I’ll tell it to the hot; I’ll tell it to the cold; I’ll tell it to the young; I’ll tell it to the old. Don’t want no laughin’, don’t want no cryin’, and most of all, no signifyin’ .”

“Everybody has a Petey Greene story, no matter where you go in D.C.,” says Mr. Cheadle, 42, casually clad in jeans, sneakers and a simple black T-shirt.

He may not physically resemble the former radio star, but he’s got his moves and the voice down pat.

“As an artist, I like that he brought people down to a level of reality,” he says of Mr. Greene. “People can relate to that.”

Joined by director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) and co-star Taraji P. Henson (who portrays Vernell Watson, Greene’s sassy, no-nonsense girlfriend in the film, opening nationwide today), Mr. Cheadle recalls the arduous journey involved in bringing the story to the big screen.

“ ’Talk to Me’ went through many, many different permutations,” he says of the project that reportedly drew the interest of many of Hollywood’s leading black actors (including Terrence Howard and Martin Lawrence) at one time or another. “I first heard about it through a friend of mine, [the late filmmaker] Ted Demme. But somehow, it just didn’t come together. Finally, Kasi got the material, and her vision became really clear.”

“There was so much spontaneity to Petey’s voice, so I focused on that,” explains Miss Lemmons, who insists her film is not a biopic. “Biopics intimidate me,” she says. “There’s only so much you can do with a cradle-to-the-grave story.”

Beginning her story in the mid-1960s, the director focuses on two critical relationships in Mr. Greene’s mercurial life: his romance with Vernell (a composite of his many lovers) and his complex friendship and business partnership with former WOL program director and Anacostia native Dewey Hughes (British-born actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), who served as a consultant on the film.

The two men meet at the old Lorton Reformatory, the District-owned correctional facility in lower Fairfax County, where Mr. Greene — a Korean War veteran with a history of alcoholism and drug abuse — was serving time for armed robbery. Mr. Hughes had gone to visit his brother Milo (played in the film by Mike Epps), who was also an inmate when he happened upon the humorous, profanity-laced radio show hosted by Mr. Greene on the prison’s radio station.

Soon after completing his sentence, Mr. Greene is seen rockin’ and shockin’ the mic at WOL, whose powerhouse lineup of deejays included Sunny Jim Kelsey (played by Miss Lemmons’ real-life husband, Vondie Curtis-Hall), the on-air-beer slurping Bob “The Nighthawk” Terry (Cedric the Entertainer) — and a newcomer named Bobby Bennett, who joined the station in 1968.

Petey was a very intelligent guy. He knew how to play the game, and he could BS you in a New York minute,” says Mr. Bennett, now host of the nostalgic music show “Soul Street” on XM Satellite Radio.

“He could do and say things that other people couldn’t. He was really the first Rush Limbaugh,” says Mr. Bennett, who also did the voice-overs for Mr. Greene’s primary radio sponsor, Melvin’s Crab House. “Petey was controversial, yes. But he knew just how far he could go.”

Even the King of All Media, Howard Stern, took note, once making an appearance — in blackface and carrying a boom box and big curly wig — on Mr. Greene’s Emmy-winning TV show.

“I’ve learned more from your show — I listen to your show, and I go on and use your material,” Mr. Stern reportedly said on the broadcast. To which Mr. Greene replied, “They might not like us, but they don’t change the dial.”

In his later years, Mr. Greene found religion, once broadcasting his show live from Face’s, a popular nightspot on Georgia Avenue. “Petey got saved and decided to take his show on the road,” Mr. Bennett recalls. “He went in there talking about backsliding Holy Rollers and preaching against the evils of smoking, even going so far as to put out burning cigarettes. Petey never did anything halfway. You either loved him or you hated him.”

“With Petey, you never knew what he was going to say or do. He was just raw and straightforward,” says the Kansas City-born Mr. Cheadle, who’s reportedly gearing up to play another live wire, jazz great Miles Davis, on film. “You don’t see that, today.”

“My dad was a lot like Petey Greene,” adds Miss Henson, known best for warbling the Academy Award-winning song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” during the 2006 Oscar telecast. “A lot of people are afraid to be like that in the present time. Petey just had that childlike quality.”

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