Gregory Hines in Showtime’s Bojangles

February 4, 2001

Gregory Hines in Showtime’s Bojangles.
Photo courtesy Showtime


Showtime (SNI) Rating TV14
February 4 and 7, 2001 at 8 P.M., February 19 at 1:35 P.M. EST

Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes

Gregory Hines has successfully transformed his low-slung hard-hitting style to that of the elegant, up-on-the-toes tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in this made-for-television movie, a Ghandi-like, heroic biography that allows viewers to delve into Robinson’s personality as well as his style.

Hines portrays Robinson as a womanizer, a compulsive, cursing gambler and a generous benefactor who loved ice cream and cigars and reigned as the unofficial mayor of Harlem. A Broadway and film star for almost thirty years, Robinson has been considered an “Uncle Tom” in his renowned features with the curly-haired darling of film, Shirley Temple. He, nevertheless, managed to break the “two-colored rule” by appearing as the only black presence on stage (at least two black entertainers were required on stage since one was not considered talented enough), and performed without black-face makeup. Robinson married a would-be college graduate, Fanny Clay (Kimberly Elise), who gave up her pharmaceutical studies to follow her man. She taught him to read, something Robinson’s manager Marty Forkins (Peter Riegert) didn’t do. Forkins did, however, get him the highest salary a black entertainer could get when Robinson was already in his 60s and then appearing in Hollywood. Nevertheless, Robinson died broke.

Hines?s character gives Savion Glover (Newcomer Rae) a star turn, showing just how competitive Robinson might have been. Glover accepts the challenge and dethrones the man who coined the 1940s phrase “Everything’s copacetic,” meaning everything’s OK. In real life, Hines is a proponent of the “challenge” dancing that hoofers were known for, as a way to learn from one another, to push their limits and to honor one another’s superior skills.

Robinson was a role model for many a young hoofer; “Uncle Bo” inspired tap greats such as Eddie Brown, Bunny Briggs and Honi Coles. His contemporary, John Bubbles, who dissed him in a festival in 1980, claimed Robinson was nothing but an egotist.

Nevertheless, Robinson is perhaps the most famous tap dancer of his time, and when he died he had one of New York City’s grandest public funerals. The congressionally designated celebration of National Tap Dance Day is held on his birthday, May 25.

Original black-and-white footage is used throughout the Showtime special. Robinson wore wooden soled shoes instead of metal taps and had an incredible wardrobe, denying the image Sammy Davis Jr. later created of a down-and-out jailed hoofer in the tune “Mr. Bojangles.”

I would have liked to have seen more dancing, more of the show biz and tap influences that inspired Robinson to create his debonair look and light sound. Since individual style is so much a part of the hoofing developed by later black dancers, it would have been interesting to know how Robinson got his upright Irish stance. But this is a story made for TV, not for dance historians or scholars.

Ultimately, Hines makes you think about a fuller Bojangles than the one we often see in the rare footage we have of him dancing. Toward the end Robinson and Hines are shown side by side, with a clip of Robinson’s own delicate style playing out on half the screen with Hines right beside him, doing the famous stair dance Robinson was known for. We then can see the similarities and differences in style and the legacy that is passed on or changed.