I've worked in film and television for nearly a quarter-century. In doing so, I've met all manner of celebrities—presidents and vice presidents, CEOs of multinational corporations, politicos from the left, right, center and even under the aisle. I once stood on the edge of a dock to get an interview with Richard Roundtree; I was as green as a sapling, but Shaft picked my brain about where his daughter should go to college. Just how young was I?
After a time, you get a bit numb to people like this, a bit less impressed at the actual celebrity of celebrities. But every so often, an assignment comes to film someone like Maya Angelou, and you actually kneel beneath her, like a goddess. But we'll get back to that.
During the latter part of Angelou's career, when she had assumed a role as elder stateswoman, I was blessed to work with her several times. In each instance, she would invite the entire crew into her home, introducing herself to us as though we were guests at a party.
The first time, the interview went very smoothly. Angelou was in good health and great spirits, walking everyone to the door on the way out. At the time, her aunt, a bit of a flirt, managed her affairs. She stopped me at the door, shook my hand and looked back at her niece. "Maya, doesn't he just remind you of one of those gentlemen we knew growing up? You know in the early '60s, the way he dresses and carries himself?" I smiled, and Angelou replied, "Well, he certainly is quite handsome."
I blushed so much that I don't think I heard another word until we returned to Raleigh.
Ahead of my next visit, Angelou had slipped into poor health. She had developed a lung ailment that made it very difficult to breathe and move. Still, she greeted each of us. While we set up around her, she reposed as though in prayer or meditation. The crew was careful not to disturb her rest. But when the lights came on, she sat up and said, "Are we ready?" She removed her oxygen tube, fixed her hair, and told a story about listening to a Joe Louis fight on the only radio in her poor town. Once she started, the producer never stopped her, a real rarity in my business.
When we were done, I did that most mundane of audio tasks—that is, recording "room tone." I removed her mic and said, "Dr. Angelou, I could listen to your voice in my headphones all day, everyday." She laughed that genuine, easy laugh, the kind that makes one feel as though he'd suddenly hung the moon. "Well, young man," she answered, "I'm quite fond of your voice as well."
When I arrived again several years later, her health had again slipped significantly. Though she moved dreadfully slow, she remained gracious and polite. Once the lights flipped on, though, you would have never second-guessed her wellbeing. At one point, she sang a hymn. Her voice wasn't as strong as I'd remembered, but there wasn't a dry eye in her living room.
As we wrapped up the shoot, I removed her microphone again and asked if I could have a photograph taken with her. As a professional courtesy, it's something I rarely do, but I knew it would mean a lot to my own mother. She would be honored, she said. Since she was confined to a chair, I knelt down beside her to take the shot.
"Young man, I do not like this," she proclaimed, suddenly. "I won't do it."
I apologized and said that we didn't need to take the photo. That wasn't it.
"Mr. Gann, we'll take your photo, but no man should lean on another and no man should kneel or bow before any but God. Now, you stand up straight and be proud," she said.
So I did.