There was no ego. On screen or off, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the same man, according to North Haven filmmaker George Silano—he was humble, present, patient.
After filming television producer Arnold Michaelis’s weeklong interview with Dr. King at his Atlanta home in December 1965, a 35-year-old Mr. Silano packed up his camera equipment and put away a film that, unknowingly, he wouldn’t see again for 47 years.
Mr. Silano was a freelance cinematographer who had been hired to film Dr. King’s interview with Mr. Michaelis, who was a television producer and host who interviewed celebrities and politicians over the course of his career. For four decades, Mr. Michaelis worked on a collection of interviews called “The Living History,” and intended to sell the material to television networks. According to Mr. Silano, Dr. King’s interview cost Mr. Michaelis $11,000, but nobody picked
it up, and so it sat unseen for years.
After a series of serendipitous events, Mr. Silano—at age 83—is finally showing “Martin Luther King Jr.: A Personal Portrait” to an audience for the first time. Viewers at the Rogers Memorial Library on Monday, January 28, at 3 p.m. will be privy to the never-before-seen interview with Dr. King in his living room.
“It is a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind, intimate session with the great man,” Mr. Silano said at his home this week. “When you see this film, you’ll be changed forever by the purity of his thoughts.”
The interview took place after much had transpired for Dr. King, who had already delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963 and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
It came as a surprise to Mr. Silano that Dr. King was so approachable. During their weeklong stay in Atlanta, Mr. Silano and Mr. Michaelis spent time conducting the interview in the Kings’ living room, and at one point even had lunch with the family.
“King gave us a whole week, because it was going to take a lot of extra time,” Mr. Silano said. “The filming was a challenge because of the budget. We only had one camera.”
Instead of relying on two cameras to capture both Dr. King and Mr. Michaelis at the same time, Mr. Silano had to film Dr. King answering a question naturally, and then change the lighting and capture Mr. Michaelis asking the question.
“I noticed he didn’t seem to have an ego,” Mr. Silano said of Dr. King. “Arnold asked certain questions that an ordinary person would get defensive over. Not King. He relished the opportunity to explain himself.”
Dr. King covered a variety of topics, from his opposition to the Vietnam War to the Civil Rights Movement and, sadly prophetic, what it means to sacrifice one’s life for a cause.
Holding the Nobel Peace Prize scroll in his hands, Dr. King took a moment to explain what the award actually meant to him. “I could not help but think at that moment that I was receiving an award for something that had not been achieved in the United States and the world,” he said. “I had to think of the fact that even though I was receiving the Peace Prize, we were still having tragic bombings in Mississippi and murders in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia and other places, and I had to think of the fact that people were still dying in war all over the world. It made me more determined to return to the scene of action in the United States and do more to solve the problems, and also look at the world and use whatever influence I have to make peace a reality.”
Dr. King said that two weeks after receiving the award, he took part in the march to Montgomery, and the federal Voting Rights Act was signed into law.
Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s wife, also sat down for a brief interview with Mr. Michaelis and shared her perspective on her husband’s mission and what it was like to be his wife and the mother of his children.
“Toward the end of the film, King made it clear that he understood that his life was possibly threatened by assassination,” Mr. Silano said, adding that Dr. King said he did not believe in martyrdom, but that he would accept death if it came as a cause for his position. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. “He was a very brave man. The interviewer was so expert in how to evoke from King his true nature.”
Mr. Silano said he was under the impression the film would sell because Dr. King had just won the Nobel Peace Prize and was a major personality of the time. Unfortunately, because networks had established their own journalists and film crews, Mr. Michaelis’s footage wasn’t needed.