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'The Sit-In' Revisits A Landmark Week With Harry Belafonte As 'Tonight Show' Host

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. On Thursday, the Peacock streaming service presents a new documentary about a very old program. The documentary is called "The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts 'The Tonight Show,'" and it revisits a week in 1968 when "The Tonight Show" had a very special guest host. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: It's somewhat amazing, looking back, that Johnny Carson had the desire, the commitment and the clout to hand over a week of his late-night NBC series to Harry Belafonte in early 1968. By then, Belafonte was a prominent civil rights advocate as well as an entertainer. And when Carson handed him the reins for a week, starting February 5, it was just after the demoralizing Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, and it was the same week segregationist governor George Wallace and pro-war politician Richard Nixon both announced their intentions to run for president.

Carson must have known that Belafonte would do something relevant and outspoken. But when announcer Ed McMahon introduced that week's guest host to the sounds of the sizzling "Tonight Show" house band, viewers at home had no TV precedent for what they were about to witness.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON")

ED MCMAHON: From New York, "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" - and now, here's the fabulous Harry Belafonte. Here he comes.

(APPLAUSE)

BIANCULLI: The recent documentary "The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show" premieres this week on Peacock and by far is the best new program Peacock has shown since its unimpressive July launch. It's part TV history, part civil rights activism and part detective story. For all those aspects to be examined properly, that period in February 1968 needs context and "Sit-In" director Yoruba Richen provides it - lots of it. For the history of "The Tonight Show," which Carson had hosted at that point for only six years, she turns to Bill Carter who literally wrote the book on late-night TV. For the significance of Belafonte's appearance at that time in television history, Richen turns to Ron Simon, the curator and expert TV historian at New York's Paley Center for Media. And for personal perspective, she turns to Harry Belafonte himself, who, in his early 90s, shares with pride his still-vivid memories of that week when he selected and invited all his own guests. Fifteen of the 25 guests that week were people of color and almost all the guests were big names at the top of their respective fields. The roster included Sidney Poitier, Aretha Franklin, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Cosby, Paul Newman, Lena Horne, the Smothers Brothers and two prominent national figures who, within four months, would be assassinated - Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Both of them were close friends of the very socially and politically active Belafonte.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SIT-IN: HARRY BELAFONTE HOSTS THE TONIGHT SHOW")

ROBERT F KENNEDY: I think that there are many areas in which we have problems in the United States. There's great wealth that I talked about and yet there's great poverty. There are speeches made about the fact that we're going to treat everybody equally. And yet we don't treat everybody equally.

HARRY BELAFONTE: He came on and spoke to issues of race through the eyes of Black children.

KENNEDY: I was out in Watts (ph) and I went by to see some young men and one of them was talking about the fact that he lived at home with his mother and nobody ever cleaned the garbage up. He said they could draft me and send me off to fight for this country at the age of 18, but they won't let me complain about the garbage out front my mother's house at 19 (ph).

BELAFONTE: He spent a good number of minutes talking about what he saw America's future to be.

KENNEDY: If we didn't tell untruths about ourselves, then I think - and faced up to reality, then I think our country would be much better off and our people would have much more confidence in those of us who are public officials and in our government as a whole.

(APPLAUSE)

BIANCULLI: Belafonte was eager to talk politics and policy and what we now discuss as systemic racism. But he also used the NBC "Tonight Show" platform to showcase other sides of famous people, to shine the spotlight on some less famous ones and to stir up a little trouble. He asked the Smothers Brothers to perform some material that had been censored over on CBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SIT-IN: HARRY BELAFONTE HOSTS THE TONIGHT SHOW")

BELAFONTE: What are some of the jokes that CBS will not permit you to tell on the air?

TOMMY SMOTHERS: They've been kind enough to let us come on this show and do some of our distasteful material.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Belafonte also invited Leon Bibb, a Black entertainer who had been blacklisted for years, in hopes of helping to restart his career.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SIT-IN: HARRY BELAFONTE HOSTS THE TONIGHT SHOW")

BELAFONTE: Ladies and gentlemen, my dear friend, Mr. Leon Bibb.

(APPLAUSE)

BELAFONTE: It was a song called "Suzanne." And I just adored that song. (Singing) Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river. You could hear the boats go by. You can spend the night forever.

When Leon Bibb came on, I suggested to him that he sing this song. And it blew everybody away.

LEON BIBB: (Singing) Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river. You can hear the boats go by.

BIANCULLI: And with Martin Luther King Jr., Belafonte encouraged the usually somber civil rights leader to show off his lighter side, which he did with perfect delivery right from the start.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SIT-IN: HARRY BELAFONTE HOSTS THE TONIGHT SHOW")

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Well, I'm delighted to be here, Harry. And I'll tell you one of the reasons I'm so happy to be here - I flew out of Washington this afternoon, and as soon as we started out, they notified us that the plane had mechanical difficulties and I don't want to give the impression that as a Baptist preacher I don't have faith in God in the air. It's simply that I've had more experience with him on the ground.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: The clips tell some of the story and so does Belafonte. But there's a mystery to address, too, about some missing parts of the puzzle, episodes from that week of shows that have been lost for more than 50 years. "The Sit-In" will leave you wanting more but also will leave you impressed and maybe even astounded by what Harry Belafonte did so long ago and by how fresh and how bold it still seems.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and professor of TV studies at Rowan University. On tomorrow's show, we talk with Yaa Gyasi, whose first novel, "Homegoing," about the legacy of slavery, won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Her new novel, "Transcendent Kingdom," is about science, religion, depression, addiction and race in America. Gyasi was born in Ghana and was raised in the U.S. mostly in Huntsville, Ala. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GLORIA")

BELAFONTE: (Singing) Can't bear this strain any longer. I'll tell you no, Gloria. Can't bear this strain any longer. I'll tell you no, Gloria. You promised to marry me in the month of May. Now you try to run away. If it's the last thing I have to do, Gloria, my darling, I'm begging you. Please marry me, Gloria, darling, can't you see, Gloria. With all your faults, I want you like a long dose of Epsom salts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.