Q&A: Dwan Smith of the Original Sparkle

Editor’s Note: Actress Dwan Smith originated the role of Delores in the 1976 version of the newly remade hit film Sparkle.  Co-starring alongside Irene Cara and Lonette McKee, Ms. Smith’s performance helped turn Sparkle into the beloved classic it is today.  SoulTrain.com contributor Stephen McMillian spoke with Ms. Smith about her beginnings in show business, her pivotal role in Sparkle, and her career since.  SoulTrain.com is honored to have the opportunity to feature Dwan Smith in this exclusive spotlight!

Soultrain.com: What were your aspirations growing up?

Dwan: I loved public speaking and the arts. My family and I lived right down the street from Lane College so I got to see a lot of the famous artists perform like Marian Anderson, for instance. Watching her perform really inspired me. All of the odds were against her but she thrived.

Soultrain.com: Education was very important to you and your family, was it not?

Dwan: Indeed it was. I come from a distinguished family and I am very proud of that. My grandfather, Dr. Frank Haugh Sr., created the first black family medical clinic in Missouri. My mother was a high school basketball star and so was I. I was also a majorette. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in speech pathology and a minor in theater. In the south you had to have an education in the white man’s world. That’s why black colleges were significant.

Soultrain.com: Strong family roots were and still are very important.

Dwan: Yes. During the time I was growing up with segregation, my parents built a safety net around us.

My beautiful grandmother, who was a cross between Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandrige, taught me that I don’t have the right to fail and that I was expected to rise above all circumstances. In my one woman show Junk From My Trunk, I do a lot of reflections of how I grew up in an era of segregation but knowing that I was somebody with a sense of responsibility. Being in a segregated community makes you determined to be somebody.

Soultrain.com: How did you get into show business?

Dwan: I had auditioned for the female lead in a play called Spring Training. Hal Williams (Sanford & Son, 227) auditioned for the male lead. We both passed the auditions. I then went to an agent who happened to be Hal’s agent and he signed me on. My uncle even loaned me $500 so I could join the Screen Actors Guild!

Soultrain.com: What were some of your first jobs after you had an agent?

Dwan: My first was a commercial for C&C suntan lotion with Flip Wilson. I did 13 commercials in a row.

I was also the first black girl in a shower commercial–which was shown during the Super Bowl–and I also did a United Airlines 747 commercial with either Suzanne Sommers or Farrah Fawcett. I was considered at the time the black queen of TV commercials. I was also one of the first black women to wear a natural on TV.

I went on to do many television shows. I had a featured role in Room 222 and I played a black girl who was mildly retarded on Owen Marshall in an episode titled “The Sterilization of Julie Simpson.” This was shown at a time when welfare reform was active and a lot of black girls were being sterilized. My performance and the episode got rave reviews and it received an Emmy nomination.  I did were Adam 12, Barnaby Jones and many more. I also did a lot of print work such as with Greyhound and others.

Soultrain.com: You also appeared as a waitress in a nightclub on Sanford & Son, in a classic episode entitled “Presenting the Three Degrees” in which Fred and his buddies were flirting with your character and interrupting the acts. What was it like working with Redd Foxx and the rest of the cast?

Dwan: It was hilarious working with Redd Foxx and his buddies Skillet and Leroy and the other guys! They kept on making jokes even when the cameras were off. They were wonderful. It was a privilege working with these guys who made their way as comedians through the chitlin circuit.

Soultrain.com: What was it like appearing opposite Oscar DeGruy in that classic Afro Sheen commercial?

Dwan: It was wonderful! This was an African American company making a national spot for television and it was great seeing that everyone on the crew was African American. Even the sound mixer, Willie Burton, was black. The atmosphere on the set was great. A funny incident happened during filming. We were between takes and I was standing in front of a bank of light and all of a sudden, smoke was coming from my afro! (laughs). But thank God my hair didn’t catch fire. That was so funny.

Soultrain.com: How did Sparkle come about and what was the process like of auditioning for the film?

Dwan: The producers auditioned a lot of people. My agent was able to get me an audition. The producers decided on Irene Cara and Lonnette McKee, who reminded them of Lena Horne. They are also both singers. I was not a strong singer. So a friend of mine, musician Eddie Beal, who played with Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn and others, came with me to the audition. I read the lines and then I had to sing. I began singing “God Bless America” and Eddie played the piano. But I stopped then continued. Then I stopped again and continued. Then I stopped and stopped and I said to Eddie repeatedly, “I got to have my stuff!” I was pretending to be a singer on drugs. Joel Schumacher and the director told me that it was one of the most extraordinary auditions they have ever seen and I got the role of Delores. I was the least experienced in music and movies. I was very green. I didn’t even know I could look at the dailies after filming.

Soultrain.com: Since you were inexperienced with music and performing in film, what was it like for you to do the dance and singing scenes in the film?

Dwan: The choreographers Lester Wilson and Michael Peters were great to work with. Irene and Lonnette were able to pick up steps quicker than I, but Michael took me aside and really worked with me.

Soultrain.com: What was the atmosphere like on the set?

Dwan: There was so much love and respect on the set. Tony King (who played Satin in the original film) made sure that Lonnette, Irene and I were safe in our dressing rooms. Mary Alice (who played the sisters’ mother) is the most confident, accomplished actress I have ever seen and one of the best actresses ever.

Philip Michael Thomas was so fine! (laughs) He and Irene had a special chemistry in their roles. Irene had that doe eye vulnerable look that was just right for the role of Sparkle. Lonnette just had that fire needed for Sister’s character.

Soultrain.com: The original Sparkle has sort of a dark and gritty look that reflects the tone and mood of the film.

Dwan: That wasn’t intentional. What happened was that the lighting person for the film, who was white, didn’t have any idea how to light black people in films. That’s why the film has that look. Also, many scenes were shot for the film but they wound up on the cutting room floor.

Soultrain.com: Was there a big premiere for the original movie?

Dwan: We had a small premiere at the Baldwin Hills Theater which years later became a Magic Johnson theater and which is now a bank. When we did Sparkle there was no mass advertising nor a lot of money.

Soultrain.com: How did you feel that your, Lonette’s, and Irene’s vocals were not used for the movie’s soundtrack but were replaced by Aretha Franklin’s?

Dwan: I think it was political. The producers were trying to market the film in a bigger way by having Aretha do the songs. She of course did a wonderful job, but Lonnette and Irene both sang their hearts out in the film. Irene has some amazing vocal skills. We never fully understood why that was done.

Soultrain.com: Do you or the other actors from the original film receive any compensation or residuals from the film’s DVD and video sales?

Dwan: We received small residuals for TV rights but we don’t get anything from DVD or video sales or when it airs on cable. Being fairly compensated is something the whole industry is looking into.

Soultrain.com: After Sparkle you went on to do the film Brothers, the story of Angela Davis. What was that experience like?

Dwan: It was so wonderful working with Bernie Casey and Vonetta McGee, who played Angela Davis. I played Kendra, Angela Davis’ assistant. We actually filmed in a prison. It was a chilling experience.

This was the era of “blacktresses” like Vonetta, Lonnette, myself, Judy Pace, Jonelle Allen and others. Vonetta was a very good friend of mine and we lost her a few years ago. It took me two weeks to get over Vonetta’s death.

Soultrain.com: After that, you continued doing work on TV such as The Jeffersons, and a role in the 1979 movie The Concorde: Airport 79. But after a while did you take a break from acting?

Dwan: I did commercials every now and then, but during that time I was very involved with my family and the community, which I still am. After I had my baby, a friend of mine suggested I enter a Mrs. America pageant.  I won Mrs. California in 1985 and I was the first runner up in the national finals. (Producer) Wes Kenney from The Young & The Restless was one of the pageant judges and offered the pageant winner an appearance on the soap.  Two years later, he took over General Hospital and offered me a role on the soap. I became a regular on General Hospital for three years playing the role of Dr. Irma Foster.

Soultrain.com: What did you do professionally after that?

Dwan: I wrote and produced a play after the riots in Los Angeles called Mama, Why is L.A. Burning?. My friend, Barbara Perkins, who was the founder of the San Fernando branch of the National Council of Negro Women, got the money for the play and I wrote and produced it. The premise was families of different races all had different perspectives of the riots. It was held at the San Fernando Boys & Girls club. The play then moved to the Tom Bradley Theater, which is located inside the Los Angeles Theater Center.

Soultrain.com: Wow! The play was really successful.

Dwan: Unfortunately, we ran out of money when we played the Tom Bradley Theater. But thanks to Dr. Henry Anderson, president of City University Los Angeles, and Milton Grimes (Rodney King’s attorney) both of whom pledged $5,000 each, we were able to put on the play. The play also played at the New Ivar Theater in Hollywood. After that, I wrote a number of plays in the community.

Soultrain.com: You even had a role in House Party 4.

Dwan: Yes. My husband knew Irene Stokes, the mother of the film’s producer Chris Stokes, and she told him that he was interested in learning about producing. So my husband took Chris under his wing and taught him all about producing so eventually I got a role in the movie as Mrs. Dixon, a school clerk.

Soultrain.com: Flash forward to now, the remake of Sparkle. You attended the premiere. What was it like?

Dwan: The premiere was outstanding! It was a real Hollywood premiere. I walked on the red carpet and had a chance to meet and talk with Tyler Perry and Bishop T.D. Jakes and his wife Serita Jakes. I also met Loretta Divine, Cicely Tyson, Bobbi Kristina, Leon Isaac Kennedy and so many others. There was major paparazzi there and the security was extremely tight. I wore a Linda Stokes original gown for the premiere. She did outfits for Patti Labelle and Cee-Lo Green among others. When they found out that I was in the original Sparkle, the photographers surrounded me.

Soultrain.com: Did you have a chance to meet Jordin Sparks and the other stars of the new film?

Dwan: Yes! I talked to everyone in the cast. When I spoke with Jordin Sparks before the viewing of the film, she said, “Oh my God! You are so beautiful!” She also said that she wanted to make sure she did everything right in the film. Mike Epps was so funny! He said, “Come here mama!” while we were on the red carpet. (laughs)

Soultrain.com: What is your opinion of the remake?

Dwan: It was wonderful! From the moment the film opens, you are caught up in it. They changed the high points of the film but handled all of the art and elements of the film beautifully. The whole cast was exceptional. Jordin Sparks’ performance was incredible. She brought to the screen the same innocence and vulnerability Irene brought to the original. I love what they did with the development of Delores, the character I originally played. They gave her so much incredible depth. The film also had a sense of spirituality.

Soultrain.com: What did you think of Whitney Houston’s performance?

Dwan: I felt Whitney’s heart throughout the film. When she sang, you are looking at her honesty and greatness. The movie honored Whitney with the best of everything.

Soultrain.com: After screening the film, did you and Jordin Sparks meet up again?

Dwan: Yes. She asked me what I thought of the movie and I said that I loved it and that she honored the film.

–Stephen McMillian



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