When Michael Schultz began work on his first film, in 1971, there was no road map for a lengthy career as a Black director in Hollywood. The first two studio movies to employ Black directors — Gordon Parks’s “The Learning Tree” (1969) and Ossie Davis’s “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970) — had only relatively recently left theaters. And the movement that would soon be known as Blaxploitation — mimicking the work of Davis, Parks and the trailblazing independent filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles — did little to suggest a promising future.
Schultz was 32 at the time and a rising star of the New York theater scene. He had been tapped to direct a public television documentary, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” adapted from the book about Lorraine Hansberry. Though he didn’t know it, Schultz had already begun an improbable course that would take him to the heart of the mainstream film and television industry, where he has essentially remained for the past five decades.
Although he has cast a more modest shadow than some of his peers, Schultz holds a singular résumé. He has directed more than a dozen films, including the classics “Cooley High” (1975), “Car Wash” (1976) and “Krush Groove” (1985); is responsible for the first feature-film appearances of Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Blair Underwood; and has worked consistently in television since the 1990s.
At 83 — and due behind the camera this fall, for Season 5 of the CW drama “All American” — he is probably the longest-working Black director in history.
Last month, I met Schultz in New York at the offices of the Criterion Collection, which in December will release a remastered special edition of “Cooley High” — a coming-of-age drama set in the 1960s at a school in Chicago. Schultz is slim and energetic, with an easygoing manner and a guitar-pick-shaped face framed by wavy silver hair. In a darkened editing suite, he directed a sound engineer to raise the soundtrack of a pivotal scene by four decibels.
“I wanted to make sure that people can hear it,” he said. “They’re going to be watching at home, and all kinds of stuff is happening at home.”
At lunch later that afternoon, and over several earlier phone and video interviews, we discussed the winding trajectory of his career. These are edited excerpts from our conversations.
When you look at “Cooley High” today, what do you see?
I see really good performances by Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Garrett Morris. I see some things I wish I could have done better.
Like showing Larry as a basketball superstar. That little swish he does is pretty hokey. It would be nice to set his character up a little better. Little nitpicky things like that.
Do you always have that feeling when you’ve completed a film?
You’re never satisfied. Because there’s always something you missed or something that you didn’t think of in the shooting of it. But there’s also always wonderful things that happen that you didn’t think of because of the communal creativity of the actors and the cameraman and all of the elements that make up the film. It’s a dual universe: good and evil, black and white, up and down.
How did “Cooley High” come to you?
The editor of a film I’d done, “Together for Days” (1972) [a kind of gender-swapped, post-civil rights-era update of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”], connected me with the producer Steve Krantz. He had met the writer, Eric Monte, and they had a script based on all of these incredible stories Eric had from growing up in the Cabrini Green [housing project] of Chicago. But the script wasn’t really a script — it was still mostly just stories. So I met with Eric for seven or eight hours a day for four weeks. Every night, me and my wife [Gloria Schultz] would cut everything down until we had the completed script.
What did you see in Eric’s stories? What was the vision?
It had this perfect dramatic twist in the death of a friend that sends the main character off to pursue his dreams. That really happened to Eric. And I thought it could be a window into the lives of Black kids that had never been seen before. My theory was that if it was as culturally specific as possible, and as Black as possible, it would translate across the racial divide and people would fall in love with these kids and their humanity.
It’s become famous for its soundtrack, as well, which is wall-to-wall Motown — The Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson. How did you get all of those songs?
I was using Motown music on the set and in the editing room, just because I loved it. But nobody valued that music at the time.
Yeah. We were able to get it for a very reasonable fee, which was good because the budget for the whole film was like $900,000. The problem came when they wanted to put it out on cassette, because by then the music had had this resurgence and the studio couldn’t afford it. It wasn’t until much later, after Motown got bought by Universal, that they were finally able to do a deal.
You started out in the theater in New York, with the Negro Ensemble Company. How did you end up there?
I had moved to New York after studying theater at Marquette in Milwaukee, where I grew up. My wife and I were working with the McCarter Theater in New Jersey when Douglas Turner Ward and Robert Hooks were just starting the Negro Ensemble Company. My wife suggested I drop my résumé off with them before we went on the road to do a play that she was acting in and I was directing. Douglas Turner Ward ended up coming out to Yellow Springs, Ohio, to see it and offered me any of the plays in the Negro Ensemble Company’s opening season. I chose “Song of the Lusitanian Bogey” [Peter Weiss’s drama about Portuguese colonialism in Angola], which ended up being their very first production.
You made the transition to features in the same year “Super Fly” (1972) came out; right after “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” and “Shaft” (both in 1971). What did you make of Blaxploitation?
I thought what Melvin [Van Peebles, the director of “Sweet Sweetback”] was doing was very inspirational. He self-distributed that film. And I learned a lot from watching Gordon [Parks, the director of “Shaft”]. But when it devolved into all this stereotypical stuff, “Hell Up in Harlem,” “Sheba, Baby,” all the pimps and fur coats, I said, “Wait till I get my break, because I’m gonna do it a lot better than this.”
There was a huge backlash at the time within the Black community — in editorials in Ebony; from the Coalition Against Blaxploitation, which included the N.A.A.C.P.; from Jesse Jackson. The argument was that the movies were degrading and setting us back. Did you participate in those debates?
I agreed with [the criticism] in a way. But to me, providing work for actors who couldn’t get work was a very important thing to do. And so it wasn’t so black and white. Yeah, they’re putting white people on top of the pyramid [most Blaxploitation films, after the initial wave, were directed by white men], but they’re keeping Black people working. I was against the tired imagery, especially given the power of the medium and the influence that it has on people’s minds. Unless you have a counter, unless you can see other versions of who we are, it’s damaging.
When you started working in Hollywood, did people ever think that you were white, because of your name?
All the time. And there was an assumption that I was Jewish, even though it’s a German name. It happened in New York, actually. My agents got me a meeting with the producers of a big Broadway show called “Ari.” They had seen my name on other hit shows in town, but they had never seen my face. I’ve never done a lot of PR. So I walk into this meeting and all of the faces in the room just fall. They couldn’t even keep it together.
Oh, wow. What happened?
I didn’t get the gig. It was “Oh. Oh — we thought … well, it’s good to meet you.” And then I didn’t hear from them again.
Do you have German in your family?
Not that I know of. I did the DNA thing and there’s significant European [ancestry], but it’s so far back that who knows?
After “Cooley High,” you did “Car Wash,” which was a big hit for Universal. It was also the first of three movies you did with Richard Pryor [followed by “Greased Lightning” and “Which Way Is Up?,” both released in 1977]. What was your bond with him?
Richard and I were supposed to do another movie before “Car Wash” called “Simmons From Chicago,” a comedy about a pimp who becomes president. It never got made, but I went to his house to talk about it and we got along very well. I thought he was a brilliant comic — my friends and I all loved listening to his stuff — but he hadn’t really broken onto the scene in films yet. And he respected the work I had done in the theater. We were simpatico. Even though we had completely different backgrounds, we had similar energies. We were both dedicated to the work and wanted to make an impact.
You also cast Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and Blair Underwood in their first feature films (“Carbon Copy” in 1981, “Together for Days” and “Krush Groove”). What was your secret?
Sam was a student at Morehouse. We were shooting “Together for Days” in Atlanta and he came in to audition for a background role. When I watched him, I said this guy needs a speaking part. He was very natural. He was the kind of kid who you didn’t see the acting with — there was a certain ease.
When Denzel came in for “Carbon Copy,” [a race comedy, also starring George Segal, about a white businessman who finds out he has a long-lost Black son], I knew immediately that he was the guy. He was centered and focused, with a real self-assuredness that made him seem mature for his age. He wasn’t in awe of any of the things around him. And he was very handsome. I did tell him, though, “Hey, if you want to be a leading man, you better get that gap in your front teeth taken care of.” [Laughs] And he did.
He did. I said, “It’s not a requirement. You got the part. But I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve never seen a leading man with a gap in his teeth.” [A representative for Washington declined to comment.]
Another audition [for “Krush Groove,” an early hip-hop film about the founding of Def Jam, in which Underwood plays a character based on Russell Simmons]. Matter of fact, I almost hired another kid. We were getting ready to make the call, but I saw Blair out in the hallway. I said, “Cancel the call. This is the guy.” He read and he was great. He just had this energy, this aura about him.
You directed the Beatles musical “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which was a big pivot and had a big budget and a high profile. How do you get an assignment like that?
Robert Stigwood [the producer of the film and the manager of the Bee Gees] was a big fan of “Car Wash.” He had wanted me to do “Grease” [which Stigwood was also a producer on]. I tried to work it out, but I was editing “Which Way Is Up?” and Travolta had a hard out because he had to go back to his TV show [“Welcome Back, Kotter”]. So then Stigwood offered me “Sgt. Pepper’s” as a consolation prize.
Did you ever wish you had done “Grease”?
It wasn’t really the kind of musical I wanted to do. I never liked musicals growing up; they always seemed phony to me. So even if I had accepted it, I would have done it differently. “Sgt Pepper’s” wasn’t like a traditional Hollywood musical. It was more like an opera or an extended music video — a different approach to music as a filmic experience. Would it have been nice to have done “Grease”? Yeah. It made a lot more money than “Which Way Is Up?”
Critics savaged “Sgt. Pepper’s,” especially the Bee Gees, who were kind of in an impossible position, standing in for the Beatles, who don’t appear in the film. How did it feel when you were shooting?
The Bee Gees were cool when they were playing music, but trying to get them to act was quite tedious. Peter Frampton, as well. When the guys were singing, they were fine. But otherwise it was elementary school theater. Barry Gibb couldn’t get out of bed unless he had a stogie; he was high constantly. [A representative for Gibb didn’t respond to a request for comment.] Peter was a really sweet guy, but the Bee Gees hated him. I think they resented the fact that he had this huge hit album out [“Frampton Comes Alive!”]. They were always ignoring him and trying to make his life as difficult as they could. But I ended up really liking the movie and thought it was going to be a big hit. At the very first screening, the audience loved it. The studio was ecstatic. But it got really damning reviews. It was like “The worst musical in the history of modern Hollywood moviemaking.”
How did you deal with that?
It was a big hit internationally. I made more money on that film than on most of my earlier films put together. But the response in America was devastating, depressing, deflating. It took me about a year to recover. I had been doing one film after the other before that and was pretty wiped out. Going through that emotional disappointment and taking that break kind of slowed down the trajectory of my career.
Since the ’90s, you’ve worked most frequently as a television director. What do you like about the medium?
When I was starting out, everybody in film looked down their nose on television. I always thought that was stupid. My feeling was, “Hey, television reaches millions of people.” It’s crazy not to want to get your story out to an audience of that size.
But would you rather have been making features?
No. [Pauses]. Because around that same time, our family was going through some personal difficulties. Our oldest son was stricken with schizophrenia and I had to have a steady stream of income coming in.
I’m so sorry.
Thank you. I had to keep working to get him the level of care that he needed. I couldn’t wait around for six months to get the green light for a feature.
That sounds really scary.
It was. But we had really good psychiatrists, therapists and these new medicines — psychotropics. The scary thing was when he would have a relapse. You’re always afraid that they’ll end up on the street and the cops will get involved, or shoot them down. But we just weren’t willing to let him go. Fortunately, our son is OK today.
How do you think you’ve been able to survive through so many seasons of change in the industry?
I’m good at what I do and focus on what’s best for the project. Maybe it’s my theater background, but I like to work very collaboratively and make everyone a part of the process. I don’t need to be Michael Bay or James Cameron, or whoever. I remember, after we finished “The Last Dragon” [a 1985 Black kung fu comedy, produced by the Motown founder Berry Gordy], Berry Gordy decided that he should be credited as the director. But the Directors Guild wouldn’t let him. So Berry went and changed the title to “Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon,” just to get his name in there. I’ve never understood that kind of ego. [A representative for Gordy didn’t respond to a request for comment.]
Were you angry?
Well, I was not happy about it. But I wasn’t going to spend a whole lot of energy being upset. [Gordy] is very slick. It’s no wonder he made all that money.
In the last decade, there’s been a real resurgence in Black filmmaking, with many more Black directors working regularly than in the past. What has it been like for you to see that evolution?
It’s extraordinarily gratifying to see the talent, and to see so many avenues for young people to develop and get in the mix. And they’re coming with the goods. I don’t think it would have happened, though, if there weren’t Black executives, as well. Ryan Coogler had a Black executive supporting “Black Panther” [Nate Moore, Marvel Studios’ vice president of production and development]. When you have the creative and the executive in sync, that’s when extraordinary things can really happen. We saw that way back when with the Negro Ensemble Company.
When you’re on set today, is it still as fun as it used to be?
Oh yeah. I still get the butterflies when I’m starting something new — “Am I going to mess this up?” But once I’m in there, it just flows. People keep asking me when I’m going to retire and I always say, “Retire from what? Having fun?” I’ll retire when either my body gives out or it starts to feel like work. But, right now, I’m having fun — and they’re still paying me.