BACK IN 1957, WHEN HE WAS RIDING high as the king of calypso and the "Day-O" refrain from his "Banana Boat Song" emanated from radios and hi-fis around the globe, Harry Belafonte tried to do something that should have been easy: rent an apartment in Manhattan. But he was repeatedly turned down, he says, because he was a black man married to a white woman. "This was the '50s, remember," says his wife, Julie, an antiques dealer and costume designer. It took the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt to get them a home. She wrote of the Belafontes' plight in her syndicated newspaper column, offers poured in, and soon the couple took up residence in a sprawling, Upper West Side apartment.
They have spent the intervening years there, raising four children and collecting Caribbean, African and European art. Sitting in one of his three living rooms (the apartment has 19 rooms), Belafonte smiles as he talks about the past but steers the conversation toward the present. Lately he has emerged from a long period marked by humanitarian work, occasional concerts—and too much time to contemplate his Diego Rivera water-colors. At 69, he is singing to enthusiastic crowds with his new African and Third World music band Djoliba, and his film career is in high gear. Last December he starred with John Travolta in White Man's Burden, his first major role since 1974's Uptown Saturday Night. This month he plays a Mob boss named Seldom Seen in Robert Altman's Depression-era drama, Kansas City. "I think he's got a whole new career," predicts Altman. Says Belafonte: "I'm hopping again, running with the hounds and rabbits."
His comeback has already survived one sobering complication. Last spring, while rehearsing for a concert, Belafonte underwent a routine medical checkup. A few days later he had the test results and went home to his wife with a peculiar smile. "It might have been panic," she remembers. His news was that he had prostate cancer. "Now," he said, "let's deal with it."
At first, only Julie and the children knew. (Belafonte has two daughters from a 1948 marriage to child psychologist Marguerite Byrd: Adrienne, 45, a family counselor; and Shari, 41, an actress. Belafonte and Julie, whom he met in 1952 when she was a dancer, have a son, David, 37, who runs his father's production company, and a daughter, Gina, 34, also an actress.) Last April 8, Belafonte quietly checked into Manhattan's New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, where surgeons removed his prostate and he began what he says has been a full recovery. "Harry showed amazing courage," says Julie, 67. "No matter his pain, he never complained."
Indeed, Belafonte has turned his medical ordeal into something he has never been able to resist: a good cause. The activist who supported the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the '60s, and who since 1987 has traveled the world as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, is now speaking out "to heighten public awareness" about a disease that last year was diagnosed in 317,000 American men. "It's an epidemic," he says. "I want men over 50 to understand that it can be lethal."
Belafonte has beaten the odds before. He was born in Harlem, New York City, the elder of two sons, to Harold Belafonte Sr., an alcoholic who occasionally worked as a merchant marine chef, and a mother, Melvine, who was too busy cleaning other people's houses, he says, to spend much time in her own. "The most difficult time in my life was when I was a kid," he says. "My mother gave me affection, but, because I was left on my own, also a lot of anguish." From age 5 to 12, Belafonte lived on the island of Jamaica with maternal relatives. In 1939 he returned to Harlem and his mother, whom he credits with forming his sense of social justice. "She was feisty against rich people who would look upon her as an artifact rather than a human being," he says. But she still worked long hours, and the relatives who took care of Belafonte were often "unemployed or living outside the law," he says, making for a chaotic life. Escape came at 17, when he joined the Navy. It was 1944, and the country was united by the war, but the Armed Forces were still not fully integrated. "Our officers were white, mostly from the South," Belafonte recalls. "They looked at us as a sea of niggers they wished they didn't have to command."
Back in New York after finishing World War II in the Pacific (too late to see combat), Belafonte attended a play by the Negro Ensemble Company and promptly signed up for acting lessons at the New School for Social Research. "When I walked into my first class, there was Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Rod Steiger, Tony Curtis, Bea Arthur and Tony Franciosa," he says. "That was the class!" For one assignment he sang an original ballad of his own, "Recognition," and captivated his audience. Soon he was playing jazz clubs, thrilling audiences with his adaptations of the West Indian folk songs he had heard as a child, delivered in a husky yet honey-filled voice. In 1956 his Calypso was the first album ever to sell more than a million copies. He was the first African-American to produce for TV and win an Emmy (for a 1960 special, Tonight with Belafonte). His appeal, however, was not universal: When his 1957 movie Island in the Sun opened, the studio had to yank it from the South after the Ku Klux Klan threatened to burn down theaters because of the suggestion onscreen of a kiss between Belafonte and his white costar Joan Fontaine.
Belafonte says his film career petered out in the mid '70s because of bad scripts and a lack of opportunities for black actors. "I had pretty much given up on the movie thing," he says. White Man's Burden came and went from theaters, but Belafonte has higher hopes for Kansas City, which began with a dare from his friend Robert Altman to play a villain. "Altman has great trust in actors," he says. "It's quite disarming. The question is, will other directors and producers see enough to stimulate them to hire me to do more." While he waits to see, Belafonte has a new movie project he'll coproduce with Altman and star in, Amos 'n' Andy, a panoramic dramatization of the racial effects on America of the '30s radio show on which white men spoke in black dialect. The movie will no doubt "touch a lot of raw nerves," warns Belafonte, who, as always, will be ready to deal with life's open wounds.
STEPHEN M. SILVERMAN
RON ARIAS in New York City