Despite growing up in an inner-city Chicago housing project, Reuben Cannon knew his future lay in the entertainment industry. With luck, pluck, and a lot of hard work, Cannon broke into the competitive field and became the first African-American casting director in Hollywood—and one of the most successful casting agents ever. He helped launch the careers of Oprah Winfrey, Bruce Willis, Danny Glover, Michael J. Fox, and many more. He has worked with legends like Maya Angelou, Spike Lee, and Steven Spielberg. More recently he has founded a new movement in black film—that of financing black films with black investors. "African Americans don't get the respect that they deserve in Hollywood," Cannon told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). "What people respect is product. So we have to make our own product to get the respect we deserve."
Began Working at Age Eight
Reuben Cannon was born on February 11, 1946, in Chicago, Illinois. Until he was eight, he lived in a two-story duplex with his three siblings and his parents. Then his father died. "I remember my mother saying to me, 'Junior, you have to be the man of the house now,'" Cannon told CBB. "To me, the man of the house meant work, so I went to work." He did what he could—shined shoes, delivered groceries. "I remember being really proud to be a provider even thought it cost me part of my childhood," he told CBB. When the family moved into a housing project, Cannon began delivering papers. On his route were several successful businesses run by black men, including Johnson Publishing, run by publishing magnate John Johnson. "Even though I was living in the projects, I saw successful black men professionally conducting themselves," Cannon told CBB. "They became my role models."
Cannon also found inspiration onstage. "My father could play guitar and sing, so as I was imitating him, I started singing and then I started entering talent shows and winning," he told CBB. "Being on stage and having the audience appreciation, it really inspired me and set my career path. I remember thinking, wouldn't it be great if I could find a way to make a living doing this. It was always a fantasy of mine—to find a way to provide entertainment." After graduating high school Cannon held a series of blue collar jobs. Finding a job was never a problem for Cannon. He explained on the History Makers Web site, "…if you want a job, go to the place you want to work the day after payday. Because someone's gonna go out and party the night after they get paid and they're not gonna show up the next day."
After stints at a printing press, as a bus boy, and in a steel factory, Cannon landed the job that helped launch his career in entertainment. He became a meter reader. "I had to go into dingy basements with rats," Cannon told CBB. "I had a friend who had moved out to California and he told me that if I wanted to work in entertainment I had to go out there and get a job with a studio. But I had never left Chicago. I was afraid to leave my family, all I knew. But after the horror of those basements, I knew I had to go." Cannon saved $500 and bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles.
Went from Mail Clerk to
In November of 1971 Cannon had an interview with Universal Studios. Though he was told there were no jobs, he applied his job-landing theory and proceeded to stake out the studio's employment office everyday until December 31st. "And finally the theory worked," Cannon told CBB. "Some guys didn't want to work New Year's Eve so I got a temporary job bagging mail. That turned into full-time work." It was Cannon's dream come true. "On my mail route there was Alfred Hitchcock, there was Paul Newman. And then I would go to the sound stage and there was Quincy Jones scoring Ironside. I mean there was Edith Head in the back in the wardrobe department," Cannon told History Makers. "I mean I was in heaven."
"The mailroom was, and still is, considered training ground for executives," Cannon told CBB. "You were required to wear a suit and tie." As he distributed mail throughout Universal, Cannon got to know every department and most of the key players. Soon he landed a job interview with Ralph Winters, the head of casting. Cannon recalled that meeting to History Makers. "[Winters] said, 'I've seen you deliver mail here 'cause you're in this department. And, you know, everyone in this department likes you.'" Winters, who studied astrology, then analyzed Cannon's sign and determined that Cannon's calling was religion. Cannon told History Makers that his reply to Winters was, "You know, I believe my ministry will be here in entertainment." The response impressed Winters and he decided to hire Cannon over two more qualified applicants.
Less than a year after arriving in Los Angeles, Cannon became the first black casting director trainee in the entertainment industry. Initially he worked as the assistant to Winters' secretary. "But I was also available to assist everyone in the casting department," Cannon told CBB. "It was a learning ground for me." He supplemented this training with a strict diet. "Twenty hours of television a week, two films a week, and two plays a week for seven years," he told History Makers. He did this so "that when I sat in a room with a producer and director that no one in that room knew more about actors than I did," he confided to History Makers. His hard work paid off and by 1974 Cannon had become a casting director at Universal.
At a Glance …
Born on February 11, 1946 in Chicago, IL; married Linda Elsenhout; children: Tonya, Reuben Jr., Christopher, Sydney. Religion: Christian.
Career: Universal Studios, Universal City, CA, mail room clerk, 1971-72, casting director trainee, 1972-74, casting director, 1974-78; Warner Brothers, Hollywood, CA, head of television casting, 1978-79; Reuben Cannon & Associates, Los Angeles, CA, president, 1979–.
Memberships: Los Angeles Urban League, board of directors; Casting Society of America; Motion Picture Academy of America.
Awards: Humanitas, Film Award, for Dancing in September, 2001; The Chrysler Group, Behind the Lens Award, 2002; Morehouse College, honorary doctorate, 2002; Casting Society of America, Artios Award, for The Bernie Mac Show, 2002; West Angeles Church, Man of the Year, 2005.
Addresses: Office— Reuben Cannon & Associates, 5225 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 526, Los Angeles, CA 90036.
Founded Successful Casting Agency
At Universal, "Ironside was the first show I cast on my own," he told CBB. Cannon also worked on The Rockford Files and Beretta. In 1978 he left Universal to become head of television casting at Warner Brothers. His first big job there was to cast Roots II: The Next Generation, the sequel to the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries. "It was my first mini-series and there was a lot of pressure for it to live up to the original." The program was a hit and it won several awards, including an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Marlon Brando, who was cast by Cannon. However, this was not the highlight of Cannon's time with Warner Brothers. "My proudest moment there was being able to help integrate the industry," Cannon told CBB. "I was the first black casting director in all of Hollywood and until I got to Warner, I was the only one. I knew if things were going to change, it would have to start with me." As head of casting Cannon was able to hire his own assistants. He chose talented African Americans such as Eileen Knight, who later went on to become a powerful casting director in her own right.
In 1979 Cannon opened Reuben Cannon and Associates. "I said, 'If I am as good as people say, I should go independent,'" he told CBB of his decision to found his namesake casting agency. He was that good and soon he landed a major client, Stephen J. Cannell Productions. Cannon cast several shows for Cannell, including The A-Team, Riptide, Hardcastle & McCormick, and Hunter. Cannon also worked on shows for other clients. Cannon is credited with giving Bruce Willis his first big break when he cast the actor in the hit show Moonlighting.
Cannon continued casting hits into the 1990s with Star Trek: The Next Generation, Matlock, and Touched by an Angel. In 2002 he won an Artios Award for best casting for The Bernie Mac Show. Artios is the awards wing of the Casting Society of America. Cannon followed up that success with casting credits on Half and Half and The Parkers. Cannon also cast dozens of films. In 1985 he teamed with director Steven Speilberg on the acclaimed film The Color Purple. His casting of Oprah Winfrey in the film helped solidify her early career. He also cast Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Josephine Baker Story, Desperado, and What's Love Got to Do with It?
Found Success in Film
In 1986 Cannon turned his talents to producing when he was hired to co-produce the television series, Amen. In 1989 he produced the mini-series The Women of Brewster Place. It spawned a television show of the same name, which Cannon also produced. The series, shot in Chicago, gave Cannon the opportunity to work back in his hometown for the first time. "It was an honor for me," he told CBB.
In 1995 the Million Man March brought hundreds of thousands of African-American men to Washington, D.C. The march was a moving display of black solidarity and a public commitment on behalf of the men to family and community. A director friend suggested Cannon make a film about a group of black men traveling by bus from Los Angeles to the march. "I liked the idea because it would show diversity among black men," Cannon told CBB. "So I decided to call Spike Lee and he said he would direct if I raised the money independently. We decided that the money should come from black men." Cannon contacted 15 prominent black businessmen and raised $2.4 million to make 1996's Get on the Bus. Even before filming was complete, Columbia bought the picture for $3.5 million, ensuring all the investors a solid return.
Cannon used this model of financing to produce Dancing in September, Women Thou Art Loosed, based on the inspirational best-selling book of the same name by Reverend T. D. Jakes, and Diary of a Mad Black Woman, scheduled for released in February of 2005. He also produced two more films, using traditional financing through studios: Down in the Delta, directed by legendary author Maya Angelou, and Love Don't Cost a Thing.
Began Black Independent
The financing of Get on the Bus launched a new era for Cannon. "It was always my intention to use the movie to inspire young brothers and sisters to take responsibility for making their own films," Cannon told Black Enterprise. Traditional Hollywood funding has been based on profit potential, a model that often left black films unmade. "There are a lot of stories out there about African-Americans that aren't being told because the studios have so many preconceptions about what will sell and what won't," Cannon told The Star-Ledger. "[Get on the Bus ] couldn't have been made through the normal channels. You can't go in and pitch your story as, 'A movie about a bunch of black men who get on a bus and just talk for two hours.' They'd send you right out the door."
To be successful Cannon had to offer investors more than just a good reason to finance the film. He also had to offer a solid business plan. "There is always risk, you know, in investing in a film, but we minimize the risk by keeping the budget low and adding these elements, elements meaning that it will usually be a name that will assure some type of sale," Cannon told Tavis Smiley in a sound clip on the National Public Radio Web site. For that reason, Cannon looked for good stories, solid actors, and skilled writers and directors. The formula worked for Women Thou Art Loosed. "[It] was made for $1.3 million and so far it has grossed $7 million," Cannon told CBB.
Cannon believed that the idea of blacks financing black films marked a new movement. "I think of myself as the Marcus Garvey of Hollywood," Cannon told CBB, referring to the early twentieth century orator who called for blacks worldwide to embrace their African history and culture with pride. Cannon has already won converts. Director John Singleton, a friend and former intern of Cannon, decided to finance Hustle and Flow with $3.5 million of his own money. Paramount later picked up the film for $9.5 million. Cannon predicted such success back in 2004 when he told Smiley, "Hollywood is not going to change, but we can change how we do business in Hollywood."
Black Enterprise, December 1, 1996.
The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), October 16, 1996.
"Reuben Cannon," The History Makers, www.thehistorymakers.com/biography/biography.asp?bioindex=98&category=entertainmentMakers (February 9, 2005).
"Reuben Cannon: Making Woman Thou Art Loosed. " NPR (October 4, 2004), http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4059523 (February 9, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Reuben Cannon on January 14, 2005.
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