Film: The Un-Shyamalan

A certain Philly filmmaker has made a career by ending his movies with gimmicky twists, but Lee Daniels — with a little help from actors like Halle Barry and Kevin Bacon — is bringing Hollywood back to reality

Barely a step out of the womb, Leonardo Daniels knew what it meant to exist outside the lines of what most people thought he should be. He was taking dance lessons and exploring French cinema while other kids in his Wynnefield neighborhood played hoops and watched cartoons. But the creative exuberance of his childhood on Wyndale Avenue was tempered by the physical abuse of his father, Corporal William Daniels. “Back then, you respected the cops,” says Carolyn Holloway, Daniels’s longtime friend. “You would either be fearful of them or respect them. That’s what he commanded at home.”

One night in December of 1975, Corporal Daniels was headed to Cavanaugh’s, a bar at 58th and Christian. Fourteen-year-old Lee watched his parents argue over his father’s decision to leave his gun behind. Despite his wife’s pleading, William slammed his pistol down and left for a pack of smokes, and maybe a beer to go with them. What he found was a robbery in progress. Five black kids with guns. They shot a patron in the foot, and Daniels, weaponless, told them to put their guns down. BANG! He crawled toward them, bleeding from his chest. One of the thugs leveled his piece at Daniels’s head and pulled the trigger before running off into the cold darkness.

The next day, the strains of the O’Jays’ “Stairway to Heaven” spilled out of the Daniels home like a cry of mourning as young Leonardo grappled with his loss and, as the eldest of five children, his abrupt, premature promotion to manhood. His mother Clara, suddenly a single mom working two jobs in a neighborhood that was getting rougher, sent him to Radnor High. “It was an immediate cultural change,” he says. “It was a turning point in my way of being.” From day one, Daniels challenged other people’s definition of what’s real — who is this black city kid in the school’s production of The Sound of Music? — while struggling to define himself. Racial and sexual inhibitions fell all at once when he lost his virginity to a white girl on the floor of the boys’ bathroom. In college, during two slack years of liberal arts studies in Missouri, his lessons were learned outside the classroom, not in it. “There were no color barriers, no sexual barriers,” Daniels says. “That became my world. I was free. It was fun.”

Uninspired by lectures and hungry for Hollywood, Daniels flew to Los Angeles with little direction. Maybe he’d write screenplays. Something was pulling him toward that place, he says, but once he arrived in the capital of all things fake, Daniels started to lose touch with himself and his desire to make movies. A nursing agency he ran turned a hefty profit as AIDS exploded in the mid-’80s, and Daniels cultivated a taste for Porsches, designer labels and cocaine. Hollywood didn’t reenter his plans until a patient’s son, an entertainment lawyer, told him he’d make a great producer. Hungry for a creative outlet, he became a tailored-suit-wearing intern at Warner Brothers, then a casting director with a little too much grit and unpredictability for mainstream Hollywood. “If Farrah Fawcett was hot at the time,” says Daniels, “I would have cast Edie Falco.”

Daniels started managing actors, repping Morgan Freeman early on, and other artists, mostly black ones, followed. “He was like our pimp,” says Kimberly Russell, best known for her work on the sitcom Head of the Class. “He’d tell you how to walk, how to talk. He’d read lines with you. We called him Big Daddy. He’d cook crabs for dinner and invite us all over and say, ‘If Big Daddy’s got money, everybody eats!’”

In the midst of all the cash, coke and clients, reality didn’t just knock on his door — it kicked the door in. Freeman’s career took off, and Daniels was dumped. He’d sold his nursing company, but the couple million he’d made was gone — “What I didn’t blow up my nose, I blew on Gucci.” He took a pen to his phone book, crossing out the names of friends wiped out by AIDS. Suddenly, life in L.A. wasn’t a party anymore. Then, in 1996, Daniels’s brother, Maynard, went to jail. Maynard’s girlfriend had just given birth to twins, and neither parent was in a position to take care of them. Unhappy with his life, burned out on managing other artists’ careers, Daniels headed to New York City to rescue the kids and himself, trading his shallow West Coast existence for an East Coast perspective he’d left behind a lifetime ago on Wyndale Avenue.