Monday, November 8, 2010

MONDO OBAMA: A Former TV Writer’s Long, Twilight Struggle with Black People

dragnet collage

The other day I was watching an episode of the late-1960s incarnation of Jack Webb’s perennial cop series, Dragnet. The premise of this particular installment is that Webb’s character, Sergeant Joe Friday, and his partner are assigned to represent the Los Angeles Police Department on a liberally biased public affairs television program. For approximately twenty-two minutes, Friday does rhetorical battle with an array of counterculture caricatures (including Howard Hesseman as a hippie journalist) and improbably wins every argument with his calm, conservative logic. At one point, the officer even challenges a petulant teen (played by Lou Wagner) to stay off LSD by saying:

“Son if you want to expand your mind, pay a visit to your local library…you’ll discover the place is full of magical cubes. They call ‘em books.”

Lou Wagner

The proceedings take an especially absurd turn when a tall, menacing African American man strides to the podium to confront the LAPD’s pasty white spokespersons:


“My name is Mondo Mabamba. I’m the president of the Black Widow Party and I’m here to tell you honkies where you can put all that bull about democracy. You’re all a bunch of Nazis, only you don’t dress as sharp, man. You drive through Watts and all you want to do is catch one of us alone, so you can work us over or blow our heads off. You tell us about that, Mister Charlie, and you tell us good, because I’ve been there, man…”


Friday diffuses the potentially dangerous situation (Mondo has brought along a few of his fellow Black Widow Party members for support) with the laughable defense that the chief of police’s “number one priority” is improving race relations. Unfortunately, Mr. Mabamba is not afforded the opportunity to follow up with a point about the institutional racism that flourished under the force’s longtime leader—and Dragnet’s patron—William H. Parker (who died two years before this program aired, but left his mark on the LAPD for decades).

When the episode ended, I got to wondering about the comic genius who had written it. Specifically, was he still living and if so what was he up to now? A quick Google search revealed that Burt Prelutsky, the creator of Mondo Mabamba, is, indeed, alive and kicking and still denigrating black people forty-two years later. Only now, after a long and impressive television career, he is doing his writing as a columnist for various far-right websites including WorldNetDaily and Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood. But more on that work in a moment.

Pretlutsky Credit

A year after his Dragnet script was produced, Prelutsky, then in his late twenties, wrote an article about the experience for TV Guide. As he explains in the piece, Jack Webb happened to be a fan of a humor column that he wrote for the Los Angeles Times and, one day, out of the blue, called him with an opportunity to write an episode of the famous police procedural. Webb did not care that the columnist had never written a teleplay before. Prelutsky boasts in the article that he found writing the script “easy,” but that he had difficulty coming up with names for the characters. I guess this helps to explain “Mondo Mabamba.” Another illuminating detail provided in the TV Guide remembrance is how one person reacted to the broadcast:

“The show opened the 1968 season for Dragnet, on September 19. On September 20 I was awakened by a phone call. It was a friend calling to let me know that until the night before he was unaware that I was a fascist. I turned over and went back to sleep.”

Prelutsky is still alienating people close to him with his writing, but apparently he has gotten used to it. In a column that ran earlier this year on Big Hollywood, he declared:

“Over the last few years, I have lost friends and become estranged from relatives because of politics…If you’re convinced, as I am, that Barack Obama is the greatest menace America has ever faced — a far graver danger than Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union or Islamic fascism, simply because they all lacked the ability or determination to destroy our Constitution — losing a few friends and relatives is no big deal.”

Some of Prelutsky’s other fulminations have included diatribes against First Lady Michelle Obama—he called her a bitch—and African Americans who dare to complain about their standing in society:

“If we were a racist society, Oprah Winfrey, your fairy godmother, certainly wouldn’t be a billionaire; she’d be fetching someone’s mint julep. And Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice wouldn’t grow up to be secretaries of state; they’d be sweeping out the stables. And Will Smith and Denzel Washington wouldn’t be movie stars; they’d be in the fields picking cotton. I don’t claim to speak for all white Americans, only for myself. But, personally, I think it stinks that there’s even a single black American who has the gall to blame white Americans for the troubles that continue to plague black communities in 2008.”

More recently, in a self-published column, Prelutsky makes the observation that the “anti-white” National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s title is out of date and “insensitive.” He also helpfully notes that “Even David Duke doesn’t call them colored people.” The former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard’s preferred term for African Americans is left unsaid, but easy to guess.

Prelutsky’s angry fixation with President Obama and race is intriguing given his background as the person responsible for conjuring up such a broad stereotype of black militancy for Jack Webb back in 1968. While reading the hateful columns of the regrettably prolific writer, I cannot help but think that Obama is the real-life embodiment of his worst nightmare: Mondo Mabamba in the White House. Official portrait of President-elect Barack Obama on Jan. 13, 2009.

(Photo by Pete Souza)

The fact that President Obama is a cautious, deliberative man who has kept in place nearly all of his predecessor’s national security reforms makes no difference to people like Prelutsky. In their eyes, Obama is a radical because of his skin color and his party affiliation.

Not surprisingly, Burt Prelutsky is a fan of the Tea Party and he recently spoke at a rally in Beverly Hills hosted by Pat Boone. His uninspired comedy routine and the tepid response of the all-white audience can be viewed on YouTube. Of course, like any good tea bagger, Prelutsky would probably challenge my assessment of the racial composition of the people tolerating his weak jokes at the September gathering.

Tea Party activists are fond of pointing to one or two minorities in a crowd of hundreds to claim that they are an inclusive movement. This same disingenuousness is exhibited in two recent books that Prelutsky has put out containing interviews with more than one hundred successful people. Like the average Tea Party demonstration, the overwhelming majority of the interviewees are white people. In fact, noted Caucasian Pat Sajak proved to be so riveting that the author included him in both volumes.


One gentleman who did not make the cut for either of the interview books and who probably never even entered Prelutsky’s narrow mind is the person who played Mondo Mabamba, Dick Anthony Williams. When I called the two-time Tony Award nominee and veteran of such films as Dog Day Afternoon, The Mack and Edward Scissorhands, he was amused by my interest in one of his first forays into television. “I think they had me wearing a black and white dashiki” Williams recalled, admitting that he had never seen the show that he appeared on. When asked if he would be surprised to learn that the teleplay writer is now a right-wing columnist and Tea Partier, Williams said “Not really.”

The gifted actor, who has worked with such directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet and Jules Dassin, has never met Burt Prelutsky or Jack Webb Big Time Buck White-Beatty copy (Webb filmed his reaction shots and dialogue on another date) and did not have to audition for his part. “At the time, I was playing a similar character, a black militant, in a hit play called Big Time Buck White,” explained Williams, “I was reluctant to do the [Dragnet] role because I was getting other offers and something didn’t feel right about it. I turned them down the first time, but they doubled the money. I think I got three-hundred dollars.” Actress Gloria Edwards, Williams’s late wife, was not thrilled with the script either. “Just look at the [character’s] name,” he recalled her saying, “it’s shit!”

When I asked Williams if he voted for Barack Obama, he replied enthusiastically, “Not only did I vote for him, I tried to get everyone I know to vote for him!” The actor is pleased that the president has begun to improve the image of America in the eyes of the world, but he is saddened by the virulent attacks that come at Obama from the likes of Prelutsky: “It’s pitiful the way some people are trying to tear him down,” he said. “It isn’t American.”

Jack Webb himself could not have put it more succinctly.