How Casting a Black Actor Changed ‘Night of the Living Dead’

Without Duane Jones in the lead, “Night” would still have been an innovative shocker but wouldn’t have hit the cultural nerves it did

night of the living dead 1968“They’re dead. They’re…all messed up.” — Sheriff McClelland, Night of the Living Dead
Before filming could begin, Image Ten looked to cast the core characters caught up in the zombie menace. Most crucial was the lead, Ben, who would have to carry much of the movie on his shoulders. As originally written, Ben was a resourceful but rough and crude-talking trucker, a role initially envisioned for Rudy Ricci. Those plans changed when a 31-year-old African-American actor named Duane Jones competed for the part.

“A mutual friend of George’s and mine was a woman by the name of Betty Ellen Haughey,” producer Russ Streiner relates. “She grew up in Pittsburgh, but at that time she was living in New York and she knew of Duane Jones. He’d started off in a suburb just outside of Pittsburgh, yet he was off in New York making a living as a teacher and an actor. Duane happened to be in Pittsburgh visiting his family, and we auditioned him. And immediately everyone, including Rudy Ricci, said, ‘Hey, this is the guy that should be Ben.’”

Director George Romero agrees with that recollection: “Duane Jones was the best actor we met to play Ben. If there was a film with a black actor in it, it usually had a racial theme, like 'The Defiant Ones.' Consciously I resisted writing new dialogue ‘cause he happens to be black. We just shot the script. Perhaps 'Night of the Living Dead' is the first film to have a black man playing the lead role regardless of, rather than because of, his race.”

(Contrary to that opinion, oft-expressed by Romero and others, Jones was not the first black actor to be cast in a non-ethnic-specific starring role; Sidney Poitier earned that distinction in 1965 playing a reporter in James B. Harris’ nuclear sub suspenser “The Bedford Incident” and, the following year, portraying an ex-military man turned horse-breaker in Ralph Nelson’s western “Duel at Diablo,” doubly ironic given "Duel’s" racial theme, albeit one centering on Native Americans.)

At that, black actors were no strangers to Latent Image ads. “In looking at some of those old [mid-‘60s] commercials,” says co-writer John Russo, “we always had black actors and we always gave a lot of work to people who had a tough time getting it. That was our nature, so we didn’t blink at casting a black actor in that role.” The slim, handsome Jones was himself was quite familiar with aspects of the ad world, having earlier posed as an Ebony magazine model in layouts selling everything from liquor to Listerine.

While still earthy and capable, Ben acquired an at once intense and understated quality that Jones brought to the role. According to the late Karl Hardman: “His [Ben’s] dialogue was that of a lower class/uneducated person. Duane Jones was a very well-educated man. He was fluent in a number of languages.” A B.A. graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, Jones had dabbled in writing, painting and music, studied in Norway and Paris, and was completing an M.A. in Communications at NYU between “Night” shoots. “Duane simply refused to do the role as it was written. As I recall, I believe that Duane himself upgraded his own dialogue to reflect how he felt the character should present himself.”

A look at the original script demonstrates the difference. When white Ben first arrives at the house, he says to Barbara: “Don’t you mind the creep outside. I can handle him. There’s probably gonna be lots more of ‘em. Soons they fin’ out about us. Ahm outa gas. Them pumps over there is locked. Is there food here? Ah get us some grub. Then we beat ‘em off and skedaddle. Ah guess you putzed with the phone.”

As translated by Duane Jones, the same speech goes: “Don’t worry about him. I can handle him. Probably be a whole lot more of them when they find out about us. The truck is out of gas. The pump out here is locked — is there a key? We can try to get out of here if we get some gas. Is there a key?” [Ben tries the phone.] “‘Spose you’ve tried this. I’ll see if I can find some food.”

Same basic information, but in the original script, white Ben is a stereotype. Via Jones’ interpretation, black Ben is not.

Jones also contributed what proved to be an important component in perfect synch with the zeitgeist, an element vital to the film’s runaway success: black rage. In that pre-“blaxploitation” era, Jones’ Ben emerged as a cross between contemporaneous characters in a Sidney Poitier vein (e.g., “In the Heat of the Night’s” Virgil Tibbs) and the edgier African-American protags, like Richard (“Shaft”) Roundtree and Ron (“Superfly”) O’Neal, who would soon change forever the image of black men on screen. And while he earned audience support, Jones’ Ben made for an unusually harsh “hero,” even shooting an unarmed Harry Cooper in cold blood (though it would be hard to say he didn’t deserve it).

But that was a large part of the point: Ben wasn’t a hero. He was an average guy, an everyman of any ethnic stripe, who simply reacted to an irrational situation with strong survival instincts and a competence that, though far from infallible, surpassed that of his five adult companions trapped in that zombie-besieged farmhouse.

Since Ben’s character was written sans a specific ethnicity, there’s never any overt reference to race in the film — not even in those heated shouting matches between Ben and Harry (though one senses the ever-seething Harry’s unvoiced bigotry) — yet the character’s black identity undeniably added another layer of anger to the pair’s ferocious battles for alpha-dog status.

Ben’s blackness also lent greater tension to his relationship with the alternately comatose and hysterical Barbara. As Russ Streiner admits, “We knew that there would be probably a bit of controversy, just from the fact that an African-American man and a white woman are holed up in a farmhouse.”

When Barbara claws at her clothes, citing the house’s unbearable heat, the scene suggests a subtext of sexual repression and fear. John Russo points out: “And then she falls into his arms. And I know that a lot of the bigots in the country are going to be thinking, ‘Oh my God, now what's he going to do? He's got this white woman in his arms,’ and lays her down on the couch and he unfastens her coat…and so I was aware that it might have those kind of vibes.”

A panicky Barbara then angrily lashes out. “It was written in the script that Barbara was to smack Ben at least three times,” says actress Judith O’Dea. “But this was a very sensitive issue for Duane Jones at that time and he said, ‘I can accept being smacked once. But I don't want to play it the way that you've written it.’ It was rewritten…I gave him a smack. And he gave me the fist — right in the face.”

And when Ben punches Barbara, a white woman — this before Poitier’s groundbreaking smack of a racist aristocrat (Larry Gates) in “In the Heat of the Night” — that act supplied another envelope-pushing note to the proceedings. Those scenes provoked palpable reactions in audiences of the day.

At one point, when the filmmakers considered lensing an alternate ending that would permit Ben to survive, it was Duane Jones who stood firm. “I convinced George that the black community would rather see me dead than saved, after all that had gone on, in a corny and symbolically confusing way.” Besides, said Jones, “The heroes never die in American movies. The jolt of that and the double jolt of the hero figure being black seemed like a double-barreled whammy.”

Many audiences perceived the parallel between America’s increasingly violent civil rights struggles — particularly the then-recent assassination of Martin Luther King by racist hitman James Earl Ray, with the suspected cooperation of the FBI — and Ben’s execution at the guns of the redneck posse at film’s end. Without a black actor in the lead, “Night” would still have been an innovative shocker but wouldn’t have hit the cultural nerves it did.  

In 1987, shortly before his premature death from heart failure the following year, Jones granted Fangoria journalist Tim Ferrante an extremely rare, exclusive in-depth interview, wherein the actor — who’d largely shunned his association with the cult hit, adopting something of a “Ben there, done that” attitude — revealed his feelings about working on the then-20-year-old film. Jones owned up to having problems with many critics’ perception of the film. “The thing that used to bother me the most was that interviewers just assumed that we were a bunch of amateur actors. It was an interesting mix of amateurs and professional actors, which was even more clever on George’s part.”

Ferrante fondly recalls his meeting with Duane Jones. “The moment he spoke you just knew he was a special human being. He was gracious, fiercely intelligent, funny, charming, respectful…it was impossible not to like him.” Jones had zero interest in exploiting his cult rep. “It was his practice to not draw attention to himself,” Ferrante explains. “He wasn’t going to live in a world that forever identified ‘Duane Jones’ as the star of “Night of the Living Dead” and nothing else. “Night” was a mere sliver of his life.”

Jones’ “Night” cohorts felt the same way. Says a grateful John Russo, “I doubt that our movie would have been a success without him. His screen presence was one of the key ingredients that helped lift that low-budget pipe dream up by its bootstraps and make it into something that it almost had no right to be. The dream became reality, partly because of Duane Jones.”
From “Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever” (Citadel Press/Kensington, 2010)