‘Empire’ producers cut Smollett from season’s last episodes
By DON BABWIN
Friday, February 22
CHICAGO (AP) — Actor Jussie Smollett’s character on “Empire” will be removed from the final two episodes of this season in the wake of his arrest on charges that he staged a racist, anti-gay attack on himself last month in downtown Chicago, producers of the Fox TV show announced Friday.
The announcement came a day after Smollett turned himself in to police, appeared in court on a felony charge of disorderly conduct for allegedly filing a false police report, and left jail after posting bond.
“While these allegations are very disturbing, we are placing our trust in the legal system as the process plays,” ”Empire” executive producers Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, Brett Mahoney, Brian Grazer, Sanaa Hamri, Francie Calfo and Dennis Hammer said in a written statement. “We are also aware of the effects of this process on the cast and crew members who work on our show and to avoid further disruption on set, we have decided to remove the role of ‘Jamal’ from the final two episodes of the season.”
“Empire” has nine episodes left to air in its fifth season; the last two episodes are still being worked on.
Smollett, who is black and gay, plays a gay character on the show that follows a black family as they navigate the ups and downs of the recording industry.
Police said Smollett planned the hoax because he was unhappy with his salary and wanted to promote his career. Before the attack, he also sent a letter that threatened him to the Chicago studio where “Empire” is shot, police said.
As authorities laid out their case against Smollett, the narrative that emerged Thursday sounded like that of a filmmaker who wrote, cast, directed and starred in a short movie.
Prosecutors said Smollett gave detailed instructions to the accomplices who helped him stage the attack in January, including telling them specific slurs to yell, urging them to shout “MAGA country” and even pointing out a surveillance camera that he thought would record the beating.
“I believe Mr. Smollett wanted it on camera,” police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told reporters at a Thursday morning news conference. “But unfortunately that particular camera wasn’t pointed in that direction.”
Smollett’s legal team issued a statement Thursday night, calling the actor a “man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence.” The statement called Johnson’s news conference “an organized law enforcement spectacle.”
“The presumption of innocence, a bedrock in the search for justice, was trampled upon at the expense of Mr. Smollett,” the statement read.
Smollett is earning more than $100,000 per episode, according to a person familiar with the situation. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because salary details were involved. The studio declined to comment on the actor’s salary.
As is customary with a successful TV series, regular cast members on “Empire” received a boost in pay as part of contract extensions that followed the drama’s renewal for a second season, the person said.
Smollett is counted among the series regulars.
AP Television Writer Lynn Elber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Check out the AP’s complete coverage of the Jussie Smollett case.
If proven, Smollett allegations could be a ‘career killer’
By LYNN ELBER
AP Television Writer
Eds: Updates with producers of the TV show “Empire” saying Jussie Smollett’s character will be removed from the final two episodes of this season. With US—Empire Cast Member-Attack, BC-US—Empire Cast Member-Attack-Technology, BC-US—High-Profile Fabrications-List. With AP Photos.
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jussie Smollett has been enmeshed in weekly drama on the set of “Empire,” the Fox TV series that gave the actor a breakout role and the fame to advance his social activism.
Or at least he has been. Friday’s news that Smollett will not appear on the final two episodes of this season of “Empire” leaves his future on the series very much in doubt.
It was a scene that played out on a dark Chicago street in January that has left Smollett facing felony charges and raised the possibility that his role as Jamal Lyon could mark the pinnacle of the 36-year-old’s career.
Smollett, who is black and gay, told police he was the victim of a hate crime committed by men who threw liquid in his face, yelled racist, anti-gay slurs and looped a noose around his neck. After a three-week investigation, Smollett was charged Wednesday with staging the attack with help from two brothers he knew and allegedly paid for their services.
Even in an industry in which bad or erratic behavior is expected, insiders and observers are stunned by what authorities allege was fakery intended in part to get Smollett publicity and a raise.
“This is incredible. No one does this,” said Garth Ancier, a veteran network executive and a co-founder of the Fox network. If more money was his goal, that’s what agents and negotiations are for, he said, calling the alleged hoax “beyond the pale.”
“It’s too bad that such a talented guy threw all that away,” Ancier said, adding he didn’t see how he could be kept on “Empire.”
There are two episodes of the show left to make of the 18 airing this season, the fifth year for the series starring Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard as hip-hop moguls Cookie and Lucious Lyon.
In a statement, “Empire” producers said Friday that while they care about Smollett deeply, “We are also aware of the effects of this process on the cast and crew members who work on our show and to avoid further disruption on set, we have decided to remove the role of ‘Jamal’ from the final two episodes of the season.”
Before Friday’s statement, Fox had publicly stood behind Smollett even as skepticism about the attack arose. Replacing Smollett so late in the series might be problematic. Writing his character, one of three Lyon sons, out of future seasons would be less so.
Smollett’s legal team released a statement late Thursday calling Chicago police’s version of events “an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system.
“Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing,” the statement said.
After Smollett was charged, TNT’s celebrity battle-rap series “Drop the Mic” pulled an upcoming episode with him “in the interest of not being exploitative of an incredibly sensitive situation,” the network said in a statement.
Experts in the field of crisis management were pessimistic. The online mockery Smollett is taking is unlikely to stop, and it could hinder any attempt to re-emerge, said Eric Dezenhall, CEO of the public relations firm Dezenhall Resources.
“The thing it’s really hard to come back from is ridicule,” Dezenhall said. “It can be easier to come back from something just bad. In our culture the whiff of something dangerous has a certain street cred. But here we’re talking about a combination of malevolence and ridiculousness.”
Eden Gillott, president of Gillott Communications, offered a similar take.
“This could be a career-killer. We’ve seen this many times. Society has become more intolerant and unforgiving,” said Gillott, citing instances ranging from Kevin Spacey’s firing from “House of Cards” for alleged sexual misconduct to Megyn Kelly’s “Today” exit after she defended blackface costumes.
What Smollett is alleged to have done isn’t analogous to either one — or to just about anything that’s happened with a celebrity or prominent person in recent memory or in news files.
There have been stunts, such as Joaquin Phoenix’s role in a so-called documentary, “I’m Still Here,” directed by actor Casey Affleck and supposedly about Phoenix’s career as a rapper in decline. The film’s release came with public apologies and lawsuits attached.
Others have exaggerated their exploits, such as TV journalist Brian Williams’ account of being in a helicopter hit by a rocket in the 2003 Iraq invasion or Hillary Clinton’s 2008 account of landing under sniper fire during a 1990s trip as first lady.
But Smollett, instead of creating an image-burnishing fiction, positioned himself as a victim and the deserving centerpiece for outrage directed at his attackers. He said those who questioned him made him feel “victimized.”
The allegation that Smollett did it for money could be seen as both a betrayal and baffling, given what he earns: more than $1.8 million for the current 18-episode season of “Empire,” according to a person familiar with the situation.
Dezenhall said it would be tough for Smollett, who proclaimed himself innocent of the charges through his lawyers, to explain himself publicly.
“All of us have said something stupid, put something in an email we shouldn’t have — we can understand that. But very few of us would say, ‘I would orchestrate something like that to advance my career.’ There’s a difference between a mistake and a scheme,” Dezenhall said. His advice to Smollett: “‘Vanish for a few years, take up a cause, devote yourself to doing something good, and revisit it later.’”
Or search out people like Kandi Burruss, the singer-songwriter and reality star.
“I consider him a friend. I love him and regardless of if it’s true or not, I’m still going to be here for him. I hate the situation but I don’t hate the person,” she told The Associated Press Thursday at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon.
AP Entertainment Writer Andrew Dalton and Cindy Martin contributed to his report.
This story has been corrected to show Smollett is 36, not 38.
Check out the AP’s complete coverage of the Jussie Smollett case.
The Obsession With Jussie Smollett’s ‘Hoax’ Is Obscuring the Real Threat of Racist Violence
Where’s the media furor over real-live racists Christopher Paul Hasson and Roger Stone?
By Joan Walsh
I’m sad about the mess Empire star Jussie Smollett has allegedly caused, and the pain he must have felt to cause this mess. I’m sadder still that the charge that he faked an attack by racist, homophobic Donald Trump supporters in MAGA hats is now the leading story on the front of white-supremacist violence, while we have two genuine examples of white-supremacist menace sludging up our legal system—and they are getting far less coverage.
Of course, Trump took advantage of the Smollett story to tweet: “@JussieSmollett – what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA.” But as TV viewers watched Smollett be shamed live, in real time, in a Chicago courtroom Thursday afternoon, the more important stories about actual violent white racism were elsewhere.
Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson, 49, was arrested nominally on drug and gun charges last Friday, but behind the broad outlines of his threatened violence was a plan to target known Trump enemies, liberals whom the White House bully has railed against in speeches and on social media, from Democratic Congressmembers like Representatives Maxine Waters and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Richard Blumenthal (he called him “Sen blumen jew”), to journalists like CNN’s Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, and “leftists in general.” Weirdly, Hasson’s arrest wasn’t broadcast by the Trump Justice Department; can you imagine the administration busting a violent, well-armed would-be Muslim terrorist and not blowing its own horn to the media?
Meanwhile, lifelong GOP dirty trickster Roger Stone, who likes to portray himself merely as a bad boy, a gadfly, an insurrectionist, a “try-sexual” (as in he’ll try anything); a political fixture who has hundreds of mainstream reporters in his cell phone, because he gives good sound bite—Stone wound up back in Judge Amy Berman Jackson’s courtroom because he seemed to have threatened her last week with ugly images on Instagram, including one that was widely interpreted as placing crosshairs just behind Jackson’s head.
Smollett’s alleged hoax matters, of course, but not as much as the real-life activities of real, live racists—and yet Smollett is getting by far the most coverage. And the fact that Smollett apparently lied about a hate crime should not obscure the fact that hate crimes are increasing in the age of Trump. We, the media, must do better here.
Stone denies those were crosshairs in his menacing Instagram post about Judge Jackson, but it doesn’t much matter. It’s true the circle with a cross through it looks like a type of gun sight; it’s true it also looks like the Iron Cross, the symbol for the Nazi Stormfront site. Stone tried to describe it even more innocently, as a “Celtic cross,” an ancient Irish symbol. If so, it doesn’t look like one. As it happens, I got a Celtic cross necklace at birth, from my godfather; traditionally it’s a cross, often braided, adorned with a circle, a symbol of infinity, or eternal life. There is only one context in which Stone might have been brandishing a Celtic cross, albeit a bastardized one. It’s been adopted by certain racist morons to symbolize their allegedly pure white Celtic ancestry. So we must be clear: Even Stone’s allegedly innocent explanation of the symbol he used to adorn Judge Jackson’s photo is racist and threatening.
At any rate, Jackson didn’t buy it. “Roger Stone fully understands the power of words and the power of symbols. And there’s nothing ambiguous about crosshairs,” she said. “No, Mr. Stone. I’m not giving you another chance. I have serious doubts about whether you have learned any lesson at all.” The judge has now barred him from speaking in any way about his case until his trial. Which to Stone is akin to asphyxiation. But if he violates her order, he will join his old friend Paul Manafort behind bars.
Strangely, Hasson’s much-more-aggressive threats of violence remain even farther at the margins of news coverage, even though Hasson seems to share some of the racist and anti-Semitic obsessions of Trump worshipper Cesar Sayoc, who sent pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and journalists last year, as well as the Pittsburgh Tree of Life murderer Robert Bowers, a racist anti-Semite who thought Trump hadn’t gone far enough with hate. The Coast Guard officer was crystal clear about his racism, according to The New York Times, writing a letter about the need to start a race war: “Much blood will have to be spilled to get whitey off the couch.” His Google searches included questions about “civil war if Trump impeached,” where certain liberals and members of Congress live, and whether they have guards or protection. Trump hasn’t tweeted about Hasson’s arrest, even though prosecutors described him as a “domestic terrorist” in court filings this week.
Appallingly, even after all of this violence and threatened violence, Trump continues to tweet about some of the same media figures targeted by Sayoc, Bowers, and Hasson, going so far as to call the Times “THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE” only yesterday.
The Jussie Smollett story surely merits coverage. But the white-supremacist threats of Trump supporters merit much more. I’m not sure what it’s going to take to get the balance right. Clearly, journalists aren’t being driven by self-interest here. We are in the crosshairs of Trump’s most extreme supporters, but the Smollett story, with its celebrity sizzle, its time-honored fakery and its racial jujitsu, is perceived to draw the bigger audience—so that’s the one more of us chase. That’s bad for the country—and journalists too. Let’s hope we change the balance soon.
Joan Walsh, The Nation’s national-affairs correspondent, is the author of What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America.
Ego, publicity at stake when stars and TV critics meet
By LYNN ELBER and DAVID BAUDER
PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Jerrod Carmichael, lamenting what he called the “terrible” state of TV comedy, asked his audience if they’d seen some of it. Staring back at the comedian was a hotel ballroom filled with journalists whose job it is to cover television.
“I think they see all of it,” helpfully offered Ramy Youssef, his fellow producer and star of their new Hulu sitcom.
“Poor y’all,” Carmichael said, a sympathetic coda to a semiannual event in which broadcast networks, cable channels and streaming platforms parade the shows and stars they hope will get attention from the 250 members of the Television Critics Association and, in turn, viewers.
The group, TCA for short, has been meeting twice a year, winter and summer, since it was founded in 1978. TV producers, actors and sometimes executives trek to a hotel — or more accurately, limo there, and mostly within upscale L.A.-adjacent areas — to answer questions about their shows and mingle with reporters at cocktail parties for more questions.
The stars are easy to spot: they’re well-dressed. Reporters, not so much, but they have the upper hand and a microphone during the Q&A sessions that are the core of the roughly two-week-long event. Adherence to the journalistic maxim of “no cheering in the press box” means celebrities face the unnerving sound of silence as they step out on an ad hoc stage.
“They can’t applaud?” a puzzled Ruth Westheimer, aka sex expert Dr. Ruth and the subject of a new documentary, said at this month’s just-ended meeting at the Langham Huntington hotel.
Dustin Hoffman, touting the short-lived series “Luck” in 2012, felt likewise.
“That was the thinnest applause I’ve ever heard. If it was a play, we would know we were in a flop,” he said, which drew zero response from the room and more from Hoffman: “I don’t even get a laugh for that.”
There’s further uneasiness to be had. With every reporter now online — whether they work for a newspaper or a website — their stories, tweets and blogs are posted as soon as a celebrity offers up a remark bearing a hint of news. That means a roomful of reporters making more eye contact with their laptops than with the panelists, who in turn are left staring at rows of Mac logos.
“I wish I’d bought Apple stock before coming out here,” is an oft-repeated wisecrack, said TCA President Daniel Fienberg. Then there’s the similarly familiar response from actors asked about plot twists in spoiler-inclined shows: “I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you.”
“The number of drinking games that you could play associated with your typical TCA (meeting) is myriad,” said Fienberg, chief TV critic for The Hollywood Reporter.
Sometimes the questions can be downright rude. Jon Bon Jovi discovered that when he was invited to the stage by Fox — for reasons still unclear — during the network’s promotion of a new season of “American Idol.”
The first reporter given a microphone asked him, “What are you doing here?”
Not the rock star adulation he’s accustomed to. But HBO’s session for “Big Little Lies” last week was an example of press tour at its best.
It was packed with star power you’d rarely see gathered together in front of the media — Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Zoe Kravitz — displaying an easy camaraderie as they gave smart answers to smart questions. They offered priceless quips, like Witherspoon’s mock gripe that she’s always left with the tab when they go out, along with insights about the upcoming second season.
Less stellar was the session on PBS’ upcoming “Nova” series about the planets, in which a scientist on the Mars Rover expedition was asked if it was true that stars twinkle but planets don’t, and commanded by another reporter to “talk about Mars.”
Whether the questions were uniformly better back in the day, the TCA meetings nicknamed “press tours” — for no apparent reason, since touring isn’t involved — belonged to a very different universe, a pre-digital version.
“Without any question, the internet and the immediacy of this event have changed completely. It’s a different creature,” said the TCA’s Fienberg.
In the late ’70s, with cable TV on the cusp of expansion and Netflix not yet a noun, ABC, CBS and NBC defined television. TCA members came from the daily newspapers that had plenty of pages to give to TV features, with scribes from the Philadelphia Enquirer, Houston Chronicle and Boston Globe among the group’s first officers.
Networks offered reporters three full days of round-table interviews with industry figures and wooed them with splashy entertainment featuring such stars as Garry Shandling, recalled Fred Rothenberg, who covered TV for The Associated Press from 1981-86 and later became a network producer. Broadcasters had “a lot of money back in the ’80s,” he said, and the big spending paid off for everyone involved.
“Most of the TV critics had a vacation,” Rothenberg said, stockpiling interviews for feature stories to be written and published later, when a show aired. There were also occasional flurries of stories when executives such as then-NBC chief executive Grant Tinker took part and made newsier comments.
Networks still field TCA panels, but they’ve cut back to one day or even less as the critical darlings of cable and streaming, such as HBO’s Game of Thrones” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” increasingly distract journalists.
There’s always an Acorn TV to fill the network void: The niche streaming platform that caters to fans of U.K. series was glad simply to have the chance to be noticed by TV’s tastemakers and promote new shows including “Manhunt,” said Matthew Graham, Acorn’s general manager.
And what reporter would want to miss moments such as the one from the “Big Little Lies” session, in which Streep fielded a question about personal stories the co-stars shared during the production in a coastal California town.
“What happens in Monterey, stays in Monterey,” she said, smiling.
Elber can be reached at lelberap.org and Twitter at lynnelber. Bauder is on Twitter at dbauder.