An afternoon with Richard Wesley

On Wednesday, April 9, the University of Baltimore was graced with the presence of a special guest. Richard Wesley, who made a name for himself in the 1970’s by writing for acting heavyweights Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby, stopped by UB to talk about his time in Hollywood as well as his award winning plays. He also gave advice to aspiring writers on the inner workings of Hollywood.

Professor Wesley received his B.F.A and M.F.A from Howard University, which at the time was the premier Black university. Writers such as Toni Morrison, activists like Stokely Carmichael, and future Mrs. Huxtable, Phylicia Rashad, are all alums of the historic Black college. It was there that Wesley began to fully develop his skills as a writer.

His first play, The Black Terror, was influenced by the terror and turmoil of the 1960s and early ’70s. As a young man, Professor Wesley and many others of his time suffered from what he termed local PTSD. He felt that death was a constant companion, seeing great figures like President John Kennedy, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King assassinated while they were fairly young. He noted that much of the activism at the time was led by young adults, people between 20 and 40 years old.

Even though Professor Wesley wasn’t soon to forget all of the unrest that loomed over the 1960’s and early 70’s, he transitioned his writing from drama, to comedy. Sidney Poitier, who was at the time, one of the most profitable actors in the world, commissioned him to write a story. He came up with a comedic plot and titled it Uptown Saturday Night. Though Poitier was not initially slated to star in the film, the studio executives wanted him to be a part of it. The film was a major success in 1974. Professor Wesley was penned to write the follow up, Let’s Do it Again, which was more successful at the box office than its predecessor. It was one of the twenty highest grossing films of 1975. Wesley continued writing for films into the 1980’s, adapting Richard Wright’s classic novel, Native Son, into a film.

He wrote teleplays in the 1990’s including Murder without Motive (1991), Mandela and De Klerk (1997), and Bojangles (2000); as well as television shows Fallen Angels on Showtime, and 100 Centre Street for A&E.

Professor Wesley still writes plays, but he is also a highly respected professor and Chair of the Burton and Rita Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing at New York University. He was also the Tisch of NYU Asia Chair. With all of his success, Professor Wesley was humble enough and kind enough to spend time with students from UB and to dole out some advice to the future writers in the room:

From his mentor Ed Bullens: Artists should know ideology, but artists should never be ideological.

From Professor Wesley: The prime time for writers in Hollywood is between 25 and 45. Screenwriters should be of note by 45. There are chances to still be a successful writer after that age range, but like so much of Hollywood, age is a factor. He says that writers should also form a production company, preferably before 45. It’s a way to stay viable in a constantly evolving industry; it’s also a way to develop young talent.

Wesley’s final note: Develop your ideas. Nurture them. And have integrity!