'Petey' Greene: Pioneering Shock Jock, D.C. Icon

Radio personality Petey Greene i i

Ex-convict-turned-radio-host Petey Greene electrified the airwaves in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and '70s. He is the subject of the new film Talk to Me, starring Don Cheadle and directed by Kasi Lemmons. Courtesy Dewey Hughes hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Dewey Hughes
Radio personality Petey Greene

Ex-convict-turned-radio-host Petey Greene electrified the airwaves in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s and '70s. He is the subject of the new film Talk to Me, starring Don Cheadle and directed by Kasi Lemmons.

Courtesy Dewey Hughes

In His Own Words

'Petey' Greene delivers the graduation speech to the Class of 1982 at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. The students voted to have Greene speak at their commencement ceremony, which was held at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

Greene talks to Gwen Hudley about his life in and out of prison in a 1971 interview on All Things Considered.

Note: Audio includes language that some listeners may find offensive.

Petey Greene and business partner and friend Dewey Hughes i i

Greene (left) and his straight-laced business partner and friend Dewey Hughes. Courtesy Dewey Hughes hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Dewey Hughes
Petey Greene and business partner and friend Dewey Hughes

Greene (left) and his straight-laced business partner and friend Dewey Hughes.

Courtesy Dewey Hughes
Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Petey Greene (Don Cheadle) in 'Talk to Me' i i

In Talk to Me, Chiwetel Ejiofor (left) portrays Hughes and Cheadle takes on the role of Greene. Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption Focus Features
Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Petey Greene (Don Cheadle) in 'Talk to Me'

In Talk to Me, Chiwetel Ejiofor (left) portrays Hughes and Cheadle takes on the role of Greene.

Focus Features

The film Talk to Me is based on the life of Washington, D.C., radio announcer Ralph Waldo "Petey" Greene Jr. The smart-talking ex-convict is now regarded as one of the first shock jocks.

But Greene was much more than an entertainer: He was also a social activist who offered cutting commentary on race, poverty, power and politics — and whose voice calmed angry and despairing residents of the nation's capital after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Kasi Lemmons directed Talk to Me, which stars Don Cheadle as the outspoken Greene, who spent more than a decade on air at WOL-AM. Chiwetel Ejiofor co-stars as Dewey Hughes, the station's straight-laced program director, who is Greene's business partner and, ultimately, friend.

Cheadle and Lemmons knew little — or nothing, in the case of Cheadle — about Greene's story before they became involved in the film.

But Lemmons tells Michele Norris that once she started learning about his triumphs and his troubles, capturing his outsize persona became just one part of what she wanted to do with the movie.

"I saw it as a friendship film. I thought of Butch Cassidy and Sundance; I thought of Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier [in Uptown Saturday Night]," Lemmons says.

Cheadle praises Greene's ability to question conventional wisdom — and the outrageous fashion of Greene's era.

A pivotal moment in the movie comes as Greene and Hughes are arguing, when the station owner, played by Martin Sheen, arrives with the news of King's assassination. Greene goes on air to announce the death.

"As a director, you love to do something like that — to turn from comedy to tragedy— and it's also like life. That's the way life happens ... suddenly, something can make five seconds before irrelevant," Lemmons says. "All of a sudden, you're in the here and now of what just happened, the news that you've just gotten. So I wanted it to feel like that."

Rather than rehearsing, Lemmons had the cast talk about the event — and how they wanted it to feel. The director shared a story about hearing her mother scream.

"And she kept screaming, and as a little child, what that felt like, and that I thought she said, 'The king is dead.' And I was wondering, 'What king? Do we have a king?'" she says. "I didn't really relate to who he was, but the sound that my mother made — that I'd never heard before or since — it's like the world must be ending if my mother's screaming, and how bone-chilling it was."

'Talk to Me': The Mouth That Roared in '60s D.C.

Don Cheadle i i

Fast-talking ex-con 'Petey' Greene (Don Cheadle) lands a DJ gig on a D.C. radio station — and turns himself into an influential figure in the nation's capital — in Kasi Lemmons' biopic Talk to Me. Stephane Fontaine/Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption Stephane Fontaine/Focus Features
Don Cheadle

Fast-talking ex-con 'Petey' Greene (Don Cheadle) lands a DJ gig on a D.C. radio station — and turns himself into an influential figure in the nation's capital — in Kasi Lemmons' biopic Talk to Me.

Stephane Fontaine/Focus Features

'Talk to Me' Clips

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Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor  in 'Talk to Me' i i

Greene and straitlaced radio-station exec Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) get off on the wrong foot — but soon learn they have plenty in common. Stephane Fontaine/Focus Features hide caption

itoggle caption Stephane Fontaine/Focus Features
Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor  in 'Talk to Me'

Greene and straitlaced radio-station exec Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) get off on the wrong foot — but soon learn they have plenty in common.

Stephane Fontaine/Focus Features

When program director Dewey Hughes brings an ex-convict to his radio station to work as a new DJ, he withholds the guy's identity until almost airtime. The station's owner is not pleased — and sure enough, "Petey" Greene turns out to be enough of a loose cannon that once he's on the air, he gets himself fired almost immediately.

But with the doors to the studio locked, Greene makes one last pitch to his audience.

"Gimme a call — if you disagree, tell me like a man," he tells listeners. "I'm tired of hearing fools complaining in barber chairs and beauty shops. Let your opinion out!"

The pitch produces results: The phone lines are so jammed that station execs can't even call the police to try to remove Greene — and once they realize that, of course, they no longer want to.

Greene would spend more than a decade at WOL, perpetually startling the D.C. establishment. And though his patter was tame compared to that of today's shock jocks, actor Don Cheadle has a way of making it sound startling all over again.

Director Kasi Lemmons makes the early part of Talk to Me so funny that you'd swear the film was a flat-out comedy. But just as slapstick starts veering toward farce, a real-life tragedy shatters the world of the film: Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, and the riots that follow ravage whole swaths of downtown D.C.

As Greene realizes that he has the credibility in the community to help quiet the violence, Talk to Me gains considerable resonance — at which point it will occur to you that the film has, from its beginning, been about relationships, especially the friendship that develops between its outspoken ex-con and Hughes, the straitlaced company man (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) who gave him a place to use his voice.

Greene's later career would be largely anticlimactic — a fact that's echoed in the film, which also becomes less vital in its final reel. But in its wrenching shift from farce to tragedy, and its evocation of the bridge offered by friendship, Talk to Me tells it, and keeps on tellin' it, much as 'Petey' Greene would have.

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