Samuel L. Jackson

Samuel L. Jackson

Art Streiber/August
Ptolemy Grey

Samuel L. Jackson as Ptolemy Grey with Dominique Fishback as Robyn

Hopper Stone
Ptolemy Grey

Scene from The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

Hopper Stone
Fill 1
Fill 1
April 26, 2022
Features

Samuel L. Jackson Defies Destiny

In his long-sought adaptation of a Walter Mosley novel, Jackson confronts memory and destiny. And while Apple TV+'s The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey requires a leap of faith, its very real racial issues remain undeniable.

Eric Deggans

Samuel L. Jackson is one of Hollywood's most popular actors, with a résumé that includes blockbusters like Jurrasic Park, The Avengers movies and The Incredibles. Walter Mosley is one of contemporary literature's most recognized writers, with dozens of books to his credit and awards ranging from a Grammy to a lifetime achievement medal from the National Book Foundation.

Still, when they teamed up to turn Mosley's 2010 book The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey into a limited series, it took about ten years to bring the project to fruition. Its six episodes are now streaming on Apple TV+.

Ask Jackson why it took so long, and he offers lots of answers — they pitched it to outlets that didn't understand the story, some wanted it condensed into a two-hour movie ("I would say miniseries to some people, and they would look at me like I was out of my mind") and some didn't understand the family component.

"I'm in a room with Walter Mosley, and people are questioning him about his book," Jackson recalls, his voice vibrating with the familiar tones that have powered cutting quips in movies like Pulp Fiction and Die Hard with a Vengeance. "I'm like, what the hell is going on here? This is Walter Mosley. You should be anxious to make a Walter Mosley story. But it didn't seem like they were. And that's disturbing to me."

Mosley, who has worked in the writers' rooms for shows like FX's Snowfall and Paramount+'s Star Trek: Discovery, is more diplomatic, noting that many projects take a while to get made. From his perspective, it's almost as if the media universe had to evolve while they were developing the scripts, until a platform emerged that could showcase such a complicated, challenging narrative.

"I'm glad we can make this project now," says Mosley, who is an executive producer. "One of the great things for us right now is, there's Apple TV+. They're making shows that other people are just not making. I'm really happy that Sam stuck with this for all these years. And I'm really happy that Apple TV+ said, 'Let's make this. We think this is important.'"

To be sure, it's a complicated story. Centered on a ninety-oneyear-old Black man with dementia, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey asks what might happen if he had to make an impossible choice: will he take a medicine that restores his lucidity and allows him to solve the murder of the nephew who took care of him for years — knowing the drug will cause his death within weeks?

The idea itself is fantasy; there currently is no cure for Alzheimer's disease. But the setup lets Mosley tell different stories through the lens of one character. The medication gives Ptolemy access to all his memories, including a boyhood incident when a trusted mentor and caretaker was lynched by a mob of white men. Before he died, that mentor asked Ptolemy to fulfill a promise — a vow he'll only remember if he takes the cure and relives the trauma of that murder.

The story addresses many important issues, including the trauma embedded in the family histories of many African Americans, the distrust many people of color have for the medical establishment and the way some families discard relatives struggling with dementia.

It's also a story unlike those seen on most TV outlets. The lead character is an elderly Black man who lives in an almost entirely Black world. The most prominent white character is the doctor who offers the elixir — Ptolemy calls him "Satan" because of the devil's bargain he's proposing.

And the story requires Jackson — one of the most electric actors of his generation — to play a man mired in severe dementia. "I don't particularly blow my horn the way that some people do, or think that everybody should have been jumping to [make this series] because I wanted to do it," Jackson says, calling from a car in London, where he's shooting a movie for Marvel.

"But you know, it's a hard lesson to learn," adds the actor, who's also an executive producer on the series. "Sometimes it's not about me and it's not about Walter. It's about somebody else's perception of what's profitable and what's not. We're trying to prove that our stories are valuable. And the reason you're out here trying to copy our culture is because our culture is viable; the stories that we want to tell about ourselves aren't always the story that you want us to tell."

Jackson says he was drawn to the book when it was first published, because many in his family have suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

When he reached out to see if the film and TV rights were available — certain that, because it's a Mosley book, they wouldn't be — Jackson was astonished to find out they were. 

"I had [the rights] long enough that they ran out and I had to buy 'em again," he says, ruefully. "I bought the rights to it because I believed in it. I think Black artists and writers should be supported that way. So, I put my dollars where my heart is."

The result has been a singular showcase for Jackson, who spends most of the first two episodes playing a man who barely recognizes his surroundings and struggles to remember why his home is so cluttered — and who his closest relatives are.

"I know about these things because my mom, my grandfather, her sister, her brother... a lot of people in my family have had [dementia]," Jackson says. "And I know that they live in the past, the place they remember best. You can ask them what they had for breakfast and they can't tell you. But they can tell you what happened in 1953 in detail. That's a time they know, and that wrinkle is buried deep in their souls. It's a safe place."

The power of Jackson's performance helps knit together the varied issues referenced in the series — which, Mosley says, is one of the biggest benefits of working with an actor of Jackson's caliber. "You feel the inner turmoil of the character, which is what great acting is all about," the author adds. "There are great actors and there are movie stars; they're not necessarily the same thing. But Sam is one of those rare actors, like Humphrey Bogart, who is both."

Ptolemy's situation takes a dramatic turn after Reggie, his nephew and caretaker, is killed. Robyn — an orphaned teen taken into the family — steps up to care for him and later takes him to meet the doctor. Dominique Fishback, who plays Robyn, noted at a recent press conference that her costar has a photographic memory and knew not only his own dialogue but everyone else's lines in their scenes. But his sense of self, perhaps, impressed her the most.

"Sam knows how to be himself, right?" Fishback said, via Zoom. "And to me, that's a huge lesson. Coming into this industry, especially if you're young, you don't always know how to be yourself. He shows up as he is, and it's inspiring. If you're going to be acting for the rest of your life, you can't put a character on all the time. You have to learn how to be, so I'm definitely learning how to just be from Sam."

Another important collaboration involves Walton Goggins, who plays Dr. Rubin, the peddler of the deadly cure. He's the only white character of note; both Jackson and Mosley connect his offer with the specter of the Tuskegee Experiment, the infamous 1932–72 study by U.S. health organizations of the progression of syphilis. Some 400 Black men who took part were misled into believing they were getting treatment, and instead were left untreated.

"In my mind, that doctor [Rubin] goes to various and sundry Black clinics where they treat all kinds of things," Jackson says. "He has a cure for diabetes, a cure for some forms of cancer. He's enlisted doctors to give him their patients, to try these drugs on them, and he buys their bodies when they're dead. Ptolemy understands he's making a deal with the devil and that he's being used."

But Goggins — who's been friends with Jackson for years, appearing alongside him in films like The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained — doesn't see it that way. He says the doctor isn't targeting African-American or non-white patients; he's offering all his patients a momentous choice.

Race "didn't come into play for me," Goggins says. "What I think is more important outside of race is to ask this question: if you told me that I could live for ten years without understanding my environment and remembering anything that happened to me, or I could live for a month and have all my memory back, what would I do? That's a very difficult thing to answer."

For Mosley, Dr. Rubin's honesty can't outweigh the fact that he is supporting an evil system. "He goes out of his way to explain the situation, but that doesn't change the relationship to Tuskegee," the author adds. "He's saying [to Ptolemy], 'Listen, I'm experimenting on the people I can experiment on. And you are one of those people.'"

Race serves, at various points, as both text and subtext in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. Much of the drama comes from the convoluted workings of Ptolemy's extended family, who live near him in Atlanta. (The book is set in Los Angeles, but the production shot in Georgia, where production costs were lower, Jackson says.)

Viewers see a family that vacillates between tolerating Ptolemy and taking advantage of him, especially once Reggie dies and another relative realizes the older man gets several checks each month from pensions and Social Security.

It's a dynamic we often see in media: by offering an authentic and culturally specific portrait of an African-American family, the series reveals universal themes about families and relationships that anyone can relate to. Viewers
who don't know much about Black culture can learn more, while the universal human themes provide relatable material.

"It's time for something like this," Mosley says. "No one ever talks about Black men experiencing dementia. Nobody talks about Black life as life — outside of its relationship to white lives. It's about this man and his incredible internal struggle to overcome... and to do the right thing in the world."

For Jackson, creating The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey reminded him of something simpler. "When I leave home, even now, I hear my grandmother say, 'Remember when you leave here, you represent us.' And not just the people in our house, but all of us [Black people]. That means something. Ptolemy understood that over time he had lost some of those values. He had to regain that... [and rediscover] what he was supposed to be doing. And that's a pretty amazing story."


Besides Jackson and Mosley, the executive producers of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey are David Levine, Eli Selden, Diane Houslin, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Ramin Bahrani.


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #3, 2022, under the title, "Defying Destiny."

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