Whatever Happened to Freddie ’Boom-Boom’ Washington?
Born in New York City on September 4, 1953, Lawrence Hilton Jacobs was the fifth of nine children hailing from a family with West Indian heritage. He began auditioning for acting gigs while still attending the High School of Art and Design, and after graduation, he supported himself by taking a series of menial jobs, honing his skills at Al Fann's Theatrical School and with the Negro Ensemble Company.
Later heading to Hollywood, Lawrence appeared in a handful of feature films, Death Wish, Claudine, The Gambler, and Cooley High, before landing the role of a lifetime in 1975 as Freddie ’Boom-Boom’ Washington on a new TV series called Welcome Back, Kotter. Though fated to be associated with that lovable character forever, he has, nonetheless, gone on to enjoy an enduring career, evidenced by a resume’ which boasts over 50 big screen and television credits, plus work as a director, as a scriptwriter, as a composer, and as a producer.
Here, he talks about his latest movie, Sublime, recently released on DVD, a thought-provoking, sci-fi thriller, where he plays a man with suspicious motivations who goes by the name of Mandingo.
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Studio: Warner Home Video
DVD Release Date: March 13, 2007
Run Time: 113 minutes
The Sublime Interview with Kam Williams
Kam Williams (KW): Hi Laurence. The first thing I want to ask you is whether you remember my cousin, Maurice Sneed, an actor who came up around the same time as you.
Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (LHJ): Oh, man, to death! Are you kidding me? What a small world man! I haven't seen Maurice in a million years.
KW: I can't wait to tell him that we spoke, although we all call him Brother. That was his nickname as a kid.
LHJ: Here's just a little interesting piece of trivia. See if you can find a movie called Youngblood. It was made in 1978. Maurice and I did that movie together. It's a street gang movie.
KW: I'll check it out. Weren’t you also in the Chicago production of What the Wine Sellers Buy back in the Seventies with him? If so, I might have met you when he brought me backstage to meet the rest of the cast.
LHJ: No, I only did that play with the New York company. I think every black actor did Wine Sellers at some point in their career back then; but say ’hi’ to Maurice for me
KW: Will do. Is it true that you did an assortment of odd jobs after high school?
LHJ: Yeah, I had a lot of jobs, because I wanted to be an actor, and I had this bad habit of wanting to eat regularly. So, I had to make some money somewhere. I was everything from a stock worker in an Alexander's department store to flower delivery person to a messenger to a grocery clerk to a gas station attendant. I even worked in Macy's dusting off fur coats for two weeks.
KW: How old were you when you got bit by the acting bug?
LHJ: Early, just like your cousin. Sneed was around 13 or 14 when he started. We were both out of New York. I bounced around then, trying to get work while still going to school, which is a little tough. And then, when I became 18, I just started studying with the Al Fann Theatrical Ensemble and with the Negro Ensemble Company. Work started to flourish from that, eventually.
KW: What was one of the early productions you remember appearing in?
LHJ: Al Fann had a famous play back then called King Heroin which everyone who came to the ensemble did. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, as you know, the heroin epidemic was exploding. I also did Cora's Second Cousin, The Dean, and The Exterminator, where I played a guy who lands in purgatory where he gets put on trial by the bugs for trying to kill them.
KW: You made your screen debut in Death Wish, the original vigilante movie. Did you die in that flick?
LHJ: Yep, I was killed, shot by Bronson [star Charles Bronson] with a gun. It's kind of funny, because when we were doing that scene over by the Hudson River, which took two days to shoot, it was so cold I couldn't believe it. And then some of the spray from his blank gun hit me in the face, man. I just sprung back from it, and the director thought I was overacting, but it had burned my face.
KW: People forget that even shooting blanks is potentially lethal. I remember how the actor Jon-Erik Hexum accidentally killed himself on a movie set with a blank.
LHJ: Yeah, he put the gun to his head and he took himself out, which is a drag, man.
KW: Would you say that Cooley High was your breakout role?
LHJ: Oh, big time! Yet, it's funny how these things can overlap. Back in those days, when a movie came out, it might stay in theaters for a year or even longer. So, I had done Claudine and Cooley High, and then Welcome Back, Kotter. And they were all out at the same time. So, I was all over the place.
KW: What was it like to have that degree of fame all of a sudden?
LHJ: It was like an explosion. You just don't get ready for it. I don't even know how you can, because you just don't expect it. For me, up until that point, you would do a gig, and then you'd go out and try to find the next job. So, I had no idea what effect something blockbustering would have. To me, it was just a job that I was trying to do the best I could. We had shot the first five shows before it went on the air. Then, it was this firecracker hit, and people were recognizing me, so it was just nuts. It was overwhelming, insane, wonderful and scary all at the same time. It's really peculiar that people see you on television and then think they have a personal relationship with you. So, they want to touch you, and grab you, and sit down and have lunch with you. It's strange, and you never get used to that.
KW: I guess they know who you are, but they don't really know you. Did you have a hard time handling that aspect of fame?
LHJ: You learn to roll with it. I'll talk to anybody and everybody. I learned that from Jack Albertson years ago. When he was doing Chico and the Man with Freddie Prinze, we were doing Kotter right next-door to them. We all used to hang out on the lot together. And Jack, Red Foxx and Scatman Crothers were like the elder statesmen, telling us the vaudeville stories from their early days. But Jack is the one that told me, ’Larry, you should talk to everybody, that's how you learn life.’ It was a simple thing to say, but I got it. It's also a way of keeping yourself down-to-earth, so you don't think of yourself as all that.
KW: Tell me a little about this new sci-fi thriller Sublime. I watched it, I liked it, but I still need someone to explain it all to me.
LHJ: What was happening is that you were taken on a journey with a man who was going through his own early midlife crisis. He was re-examining his self-worth when, by accident or misfortune, he had the wrong operation performed on him in the hospital. This made him think further about who he really was, but being under sedation he had hallucinations which blurred the line between what was real and what was not real, as we sometimes experience in our nightmares or in our subconscious.
KW: Into which genre of film does Sublime fit? I found it sort of hard to pigeonhole.
LHJ: They classify this movie under the horror/sci-fi banner, but I saw it as a psychological drama about a heightened reality, which can be horrific in itself. But this isn't a slasher flick or anything like that.
KW: Was playing a character like Mandingo new to you?
LHJ: Yeah, I'd never this kind of role before. I'd never done a person absolutely committed to trying to scare the hell out of you. That's all this guy wanted to do. And he has no remorse. He's pretty out there, man.
KW: Do you have any plans to direct again?
LHJ: Yes, I just set up a pickup scene for a movie starring Sarah Jessica Parker that's untitled for the moment. That was a long, long day, like an 18-hour shoot. There were a lot of action sequences we had to cover in a day, but we did it. That's being edited as we speak. That was my sixth time directing. But yeah, I want to direct a lot more, especially feature films as opposed to television. With a film, you get a chance to tell a story the way you envision it and how you feel it. It's pretty exciting to bring the collaborators and components together, and then to pull off the images to achieve the effect that you're going for. When you make a film, you're creating the illusion of a natural experience. But everything is created on purpose. If I want you to be scared, I'm trying to scare you. If I want you to cry, I'm trying to make you sad. If I want you to laugh, I'm trying make you laugh. So, how I get you there is what makes it interesting, because I also want it to feel seamless, and not forced. That kind of constant experimentation is just fun to explore, and I love it.
KW: What do you attribute your having an enduring career to?
LHJ: It's been interesting that a diversity of roles have come my way, and that I've had the opportunity to do them. To me, it's about going for a good role that has something to say, and that's a challenge. I've been lucky enough to play everything from a homeless guy to this crazy male nurse.
KW: He's not a stalker, but Jimmy Bayan, this friend of mine in L.A. always wants me to ask celebs where they live.
LHJ: I live in the Hollywood area. The same, old tired Hollywood.
KW: What advice do you have for aspiring young actors?
LHJ: Anybody who wants to go into any business, I always say that you have to make a commitment to yourself to make it a part of your nature like the air you breathe. I don't mean that lightly. It's hard. You have to do the work, and a lot of it is going to be during your own personal downtime. And you have to be interested in it. You can never study enough, and you can never learn enough.
KW: Well, thanks for a great interview, Lawrence.
you're welcome, I appreciate it.