“I got a call. It was like, ‘Can you meet?’ The meeting was online, but it just kind of clicked because of my love of New York, my love of shooting in New York, in particular the history of New York, which is extremely important to ‘Godfather of Harlem,’” Leigh told Gold Derby at our Meet the BTL Experts: Production Design panel (watch above). “It is very mixed up with real characters from the mid-1960s, political, music, social, gangsters. And it’s kind of a tapestry of people who live a very high life and people who really have very little and everybody in between. That kind of New York history is extremely important to me.”
The Epix series follows real-life crime boss Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker) as he returns home to Harlem in 1963 following a nearly decade-long stint in Alcatraz, only to find his turf under the Italian mob’s control. Shot on location, the drama does not feature the gritty, grimy look you might expect from a mob show. Well-off, Bumpy is often impeccably dressed, and his home is a spacious penthouse apartment that’s based on the real coveted Harlem apartment that his wife Mayme (Ifenesh Hadera) had purchased.
“While he was in Alcatraz, he made sure that envelopes of cash were provided to Mayme on a regular basis. She, knowing he would return, kind of took that cash and she made a life that was a life that she aspired to, that she knew, once he got back, that he would have to accept it,” Leigh explained. “What’s interesting about it is the building that she chose for an apartment was at the time the most beautiful, prestigious new housing in Harlem. Everybody wanted to live there. It had everything — it had dishwashers and everything was kind of provided. There were terraces. … She took the best apartment in that building. Even though that building does not have a penthouse, we imagined that it had a penthouse and that’s what she went for.”
Leigh, an Emmy nominee for “Taking Chance,” and his team built the entire apartment, the centerpiece of which is a sunken living room. But he initially had trouble getting approval from the studio, which had some rather stereotypical ideas of what Bumpy’s home would look like.
“They were completely mystified because they didn’t know about this building in Harlem and they were very surprised the set was not maybe one or two floors of a tenement that was probably kind of OK, but there was probably leaks and vermin,” Leigh recalled. “That’s the kind of thing that everybody expects Harlem to be, especially in that time, which just simply wasn’t the case. There were a few days back and forth with the studio. We actually found magazine advertisements for this building. It may have been the first doorman building in Harlem [with] brass elevators and everything else that anybody could want. And the studio came around and said, ‘OK.’ That gave us the full tapestry of what Harlem was at the time because we needed that high end in order to offset the low end, which is extremely obvious and expected.”
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