Friday, April 12, 2019

TNT Jackson: For Whom Jeanne Bell Tolled

Long ago I promised tireless B-movie fan Errol Thomas that I would write about my memories of Jeanne (also known as Jeannie and Jeanie) Bell. I worked with her on the blaxploitation classic TNT Jackson, and have never forgotten the experience. TNT Jackson, of course, has a sterling exploitation film pedigree. Shot in Manila by the always audacious Cirio Santiago, it was released in 1974 through New World Pictures. Since the film got its start in the fertile brain of Roger Corman and since Roger has just celebrated birthday #93, this post can be considered a tribute to him and to the outrageous environment in which I got my very special Hollywood education.

TNT Jackson sprang out of Roger’s canny realization (in the wake of Enter the Dragon and David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV series) that a martial arts flick with a gimmick could make for a sure hit at the drive-ins. He was well aware of the box office being generated by such physically tough African-American actresses as Pam Grier (in Coffy) and Tamara Dobson (in Cleopatra Jones). Roger’s brainstorm was to propose a film featuring a sexy black chick adept at martial arts. Manila, home of Roger’s crony Cirio, would nicely stand in for Hong Kong, enhancing a story about a woman outfoxing rival “tong” gangs. There were several attempts at a suitable script, one banged out by a Corman stalwart, the late Dick Miller. (When Dick turned in a draft that Roger disliked, the two got into a fight that severed their friendship for years to come. Find details about that colorful episode in my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers). Once the screenplay was finally done, it was time to find our leading lady.

Back then, while working at New World Pictures,  I moonlighted as a theatre critic. At a local playhouse, watching a drama about drug addiction, I was impressed by the performance of a young black actress. We invited her to audition for the title role of Diana (TNT) Jackson, and she was quickly cast. Then, just before she was due to fly to the Philippines, she announced that she was pregnant. Not a good sign: the part would require intense fight scenes and (since this was a Corman movie) a fair amount of nudity. On short notice, we started looking around, and came up with someone who was not much of a thespian but could boast an appearance as one of Playboy’s first African-American centerfolds. For a Roger Corman actress, this was a terrific credential. And though she hardly knew much about martial arts, Jeanne proved to be amiable and hard-working (and looked mightily impressive in a topless kung fu battle).

What I remember best about Jeanne Bell was the day she came into my office to work on some publicity material. I jotted down some notes about her background, and then she asked me how she should spell her name. Say what? It seems her real name was Annie Lee Morgan. She’d settled on a stage moniker, but wasn’t sure about the spelling. She wanted to be called Jeanie, but liked the Jeanne spelling. So she asked if that was OK. I reassured her she could spell her name any way she pleased.

So, though I liked Jeanne, I didn’t give her credit for much in the way of smarts. She was undeniably cute, however. Later that same year, she was cast in The Klansman, and Time magazine revealed to the world that she was canoodling with star Richard Burton. Who probably gave her some tips on spelling. 

Ms. Bell and Mr. Burton, Oregon, 1974
This one’s for Errol Thomas, who willed it into being





2 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing the story. She's a fellow Texan (Houston); I remember her most for THE MUTHERS and as one of Milburn Drysdale's secretaries late in THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES' run.

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  2. I'm happy to share, Hal. Thanks for visiting Beverly in Movieland.

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