If you grew up when I did then you probably remember who Raj, Dwayne and Rerun were. They were the three main characters on “What’s Happening,” a late 70’s sitcom about three teens growing up in Watts. It aired from 1976 to 79, and then endlessly in syndication. Every now and then I’ll catch sight of Ernest Thomas, who played Raj, somewhere. He had a pretty big role in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.” Unfortunately, Fred “Rerun” Berry passed away back in 2003. But the one I hadn’t seen or heard of much since the show was Dwayne…Haywood Nelson. Turns out he still works in the entertainment industry, but mostly behind the scenes. I hadn’t really thought about him, or the other “What’s Happening” cast members, recently, until I ran across today’s film. It features Haywood Nelson (2 years before he played Dwayne) in a sort of racially charged twist on the premise of “The Brady Bunch.” It’s 1976’s “Mixed Company.”
The film focuses on the family of Pete and Kathy Morrison (Joseph Bologna and Barbara Harris). Pete is the head coach of the Phoenix Suns basketball team, and they stink! Meanwhile, Kathy helps out at a local adoption agency and wrangles their three kids (Lisa Gerritson, Eric Olson, and Ariane Heller). One day, Kathy’s boss encourages her to consider adopting a child. Pete isn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of having another kid. He’s even less thrilled with the fact that this kid is black.
The child in question is named Freddie (Nelson). He’s a bit uncertain about joining the Morrison family himself. Why shouldn’t he be? Even the kids are quipping things like “there goes the neighborhood.” Though Pete does let fly with the occasional racial slur, he also starts to become, shall we say “moderately” fond of the boy…especially considering the boys’ interest in basketball.
However, there are some problems. The first comes in the form of a racist neighbor, Al (Tom Bosley…yep it’s Mr. C!), who offers the Morrisons a hefty sum of cash to get rid of Freddie. He’s concerned about the neighborhood home values, after all. Pete and Kathy refuse, of course, but then there’s another problem. It seems that many people, especially at the kids’ school, are treating Freddie as disadvantaged, and thus are giving him special treatment…like not requiring him to do homework. It’s going to Freddie’s head. Kathy determines that the solution is to adopt two more kids…so Freddie won’t be singled out. Makes sense, right!?!? Enter Vietnamese refugee Quan (Jina Tan) and a pint-sized Native American, Joe (Stephen Honanie). Through it all, Pete struggles with his own prejudices and eventually begins to fight to keep this new family together.
As I said earlier, there are definitely some similarities between this film and the premise of “The Brady Bunch.” A family with three kids is joined by three more kids…only here it’s through adoption and the kids are of various races. But this definitely does not take place in the cheery world that the Brady’s inhabit. First of all, Joseph Bologna is always yelling…I mean non-stop. Mike Brady never did that. The biggest thing, though, is that according to this film, just about everybody that lived in Phoenix in 1976 was racist. Even Tom Bosley…Mr C from “Happy Days.!” He’s the worst of them all in this film! It’s like casting Santa Claus to play Charles Manson! There’s also tons of harsh language, many of it coming out of the mouths of the kids. The film is rated PG (this came well before the creation of PG-13) and looks like a family film, but it definitely is not.
There’s plenty in the film to make a 2012 audience squirm. Politically incorrect doesn’t even begin to describe it, however I did find myself enjoying the film to some degree. Though Joseph Bologna’s character is unpleasant, and he comes from the Rod Steiger school of angry acting, his character is interesting. He’s a man who definitely has some racial prejudices, yet he’s an NBA coach…leading a team of African-American players. Bring into that mix an African-American kid…it’s a premise with potential. Only some of it is realized in the final film. Sadly, the addition of the other two adopted kids gets in the way of the storyline with the most momentum. I do wish that Bologna could’ve been a bit more subtle in some scenes, he literally resorts to screaming for about 90% of his screen time. But I did enjoy Barbara Harris’ performance and Haywood Nelson really surprised me, turning in a pretty skillful performance at a young age.
“Mixed Company” is definitely a product of its time, but it’s worth a look. I’m not saying there won’t be some uncomfortable moments watching it, though. I mean, I still can’t get over Mr. C as a racist! I’m scarred for life!