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'Big Cigar' cast looks back on Black Panthers leader's flight to Cuba

Andre Holland recreates a famous photo of Huey P. Newton. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+
1 of 5 | Andre Holland recreates a famous photo of Huey P. Newton. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

LOS ANGELES, May 15 (UPI) -- The Apple TV+ original series, The Big Cigar, tells the true story of Black Panthers co-founder Huey P. Newton's escape to Cuba in 1974. Andre Holland plays Newton, who by 1974 was a target of law enforcement.

Newton served six months in prison for fatally stabbing Odell Lee in 1964, and 1 1/2 years in prison for the fatal shooting of police officer John Frey during a roadside stop. He was released when his conviction was overturned in 1970.

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The Big Cigar shows Newton skipping bail in 1974 when he was accused of the murder of a 17-year-old prostitute. The ultimate 1979 trials for that murder ended in mistrial, according to The Washington Post.

In 1974, FBI was harassing Black Panther members and confiscating funds needed for community programs. Holland, 44, said it was important to convey that Newton feared that the FBI, and even some Black Panther party members, wanted him dead.

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"The constant state of fear that he lived in had a huge impact on his life, on his person, on his work," Holland told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.

Newton's first wife, Gwen Fontaine (Tiffany Boone), was with Newton through many of those events and fled with him to Cuba. Boone said The Big Cigar captures the sense that threats could come from anywhere.

"The whole show, you feel the anxiety of somebody's knocking right behind the door," Boone said. "There's the boogeyman around the corner."

The Big Cigar flashes back to some of Newton's historic demonstrations, such as the 1967 armed sit-in at the California Capitol to protest gun control laws that would prevent the Black Panthers from patrolling their own neighborhoods.

Holland also recreates Newton's speech upon his 1970 prison release, standing atop a police car. The show portrays the shooting of Frey as Newton described it -- that Newton was unarmed, but Frey and his partner drew their weapons and fired.

"Honoring what Huey said happened felt important," Holland said. "He was ultimately acquitted. The charges were dropped, so I think we had no choice but to believe what he said happened."

In the early '70s, Newton met film producer Bert Schneider (Alessandro Nivola). After producing The Monkees TV show and films Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show, Schneider wanted to get involved in the Black Panthers' movement.

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The Big Cigar shows Newton was skeptical about accepting Hollywood money. When he needed to escape from the United States, Schneider offered Newton a way to get to Cuba, where Fidel Castro was offering asylum to Black Panthers.

Schneider produced a movie called The Big Cigar, but the production was fake. Schneider never made the movie, but rather had mounted the production as a smokescreen to cover Newton's travel to Cuba.

Nivola said Schneider earned Newton's trust when they were arrested together. Nivola said Schneider had a true admiration for Newton based on interviews Joshuah Bearman conducted with Schneider for Bearman's article that inspired The Big Cigar.

"There was a period of time where Bert was begging him to let him fund the Panthers," Nivola said. "I've heard these interviews with Bert late in his life where he was talking about [Newton] and saying he was the smartest person he'd ever met."

Producer Steve Blauner (PJ Byrne) helped Schneider with the Big Cigar effort as a friend and colleague of Schneider's, Byrne said. Through working together, Byrne said, Newton won Blauner to his cause, too.

Byrne said when Blauner was exposed to the Black Panther movement "and all the struggles he's been through and all the friends he's lost in the Civil Rights movement, [Blauner] decides to do the right thing."

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Of all the historical figures portrayed in The Big Cigar, Newton was the most public and historically documented. Holland said he studied Newton hoping to capture his essence more than an imitation.

Holland consulted dialect coach Erin Washington, whom he met filming Shirley, the Netflix film about the first Black congresswoman, Shirley Chisolm (Regina King). Washington was King's dialect coach.

"We listened to so many speeches, so many interviews," Holland said, adding that he and Washington focused on "certain vowel sounds that he used and how he used them, the placement in his mouth, the rate of speech, the tone of his voice."

Boone said she had less material on Fontaine and has never been able to find an interview with Newton's then wife. Boone said she scoured books about Newton for any mention of Fontaine, and had to cobble together any sentence that referred her.

However, seeing pictures of Fontaine struck Boone how much the actor resembled her character.

"I sent a picture of her to my mother and my mother was like, 'Oh, you look cute,'" Boone said. "I was like, 'That's not your child. That's Gwen Fontaine in the '70s.'"

Newton and Fontaine remained in Cuba until 1977, but became disillusioned with life there.

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Because The Big Cigar flashes between the late '60s and early '70s, the actors wore multiple different styles of hair and dress.

Holland said he had different wigs for each year of Newton's life he portrayed, and the hair, makeup and wardrobe departments helped him keep strict track of Newton's appearance in each year.

"We really had to make a plan for it because obviously I'm jumping around in terms of ages, time periods and different states of distress," Holland said of the makeup. "Trying to make sure we were charting that in the right way was no small task. It definitely took a village."

Boone wore her hair in an Afro style as Fontaine did during that era.

"What was very important to me was the shape of her Afro because she had a very particularly shaped Afro," Boone said.

New episodes of The Big Cigar premiere Fridays on Apple TV+.

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