Hampton Clanton Stars in The Cool World

Hampton Clanton Stars in The Cool World

Wendy Clarke, who helped her mother through all the stages of the production, recalled that it was the first feature film shot in Harlem using inexperienced actors and ordinary people. “Over two thousand folks auditioned for The Cool World, and I got the role,” said Hampton Clanton, who was cast as the lead—Duke, a fifteen-year-old gang member. “I never acted before, so there was a lot of things I never did, like look at a script.” He grew up in the projects, though Clanton himself was nothing like the character he portrayed. His parents raised seven kids who went to church every Sunday and stayed out of trouble. “But I grew up on the Lower East Side, where all of that was around me,” he said. “The gangs were prevalent, man.” Clanton had been employed as a summer youth worker at St. Augustine’s Church when Carl Lee came by scouting for young actors and encouraged him to audition. When Clarke asked the aspiring actors to improvise a gang scene during auditions, everybody was quiet until Hampton shouted from the back, “Get that motherfucker!” They all started fighting, and she said, “Bring that kid over here.” Clarke and Lee sat Clanton down and gave him a script, which he had difficulty reading because he had never seen one before—though that didn’t stop the fourteen-year-old from landing the role (he has since appeared in dozens of films, as Rony Clanton). Over a half century later, Clanton vividly remembers the production. “Shirley was very focused, very creative,” he said. “We’re talking about 1962, right? Because of Shirley, I was one of the first cats that walked around with an Afro back then, in 1962, because of working on this movie. Duke was one of the first cats who was wearing it natural, which was the way Shirley wanted it. That’s how innovative this film was.”

From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore


St. Augustine's Church
290 Henry St, New York, NY 10002