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Reunion: 1989's 'Do the Right Thing'

The cast looks back on the Spike Lee joint

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Universal Pictures/Everett

Do the Right Thing burst into theaters in the summer of 1989 like a trash can crashing through a plate-glass window. Spike Lee’s third film was a stylized, blistering, and vibrant examination of late-’80s racial tensions that straddled the high fence between political and fun. To inhabit his vision of Brooklyn — one block in Bed-Stuy on the hottest day of summer — Lee assembled a formidable cast that included everyone from new discoveries like Rosie Perez and Martin Lawrence to established icons like the married actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, and even Lee himself, as the pizza-toting Mookie. Twenty-five years after they shot the film, we brought many of them back to the original Stuyvesant Avenue location for the photo shoot. (John Turturro and Steve White, who both spoke to ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY for this story, were not available to attend the shoot.) The years and circumstances may have changed, but it’s still impossible to fight Do the Right Thing‘s power. ”This movie still means something and it’s still being watched,” says Lee. ”Even after all this time, it lives and breathes.”

A New Spike Lee Joint

Up-and-coming young filmmaker Spike Lee had already made a name for himself with She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze when he first started writing what would be his most ambitious work to date. Among his influences were flash-point incidents of racial violence in New York such as the 1986 death of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach, the shooting death of Eleanor Bumpurs by the NYPD, and the police-brutality case of Michael Stewart. The director, then 30, started with a title, Do the Right Thing, and went from there.

Spike Lee Director/Mookie

I wrote Do the Right Thing in, I think, 12 days, from March 1 to March 13, 1988. It was shot that summer. I knew it’d take place on one block in the non-gentrified neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. I remember as a kid watching an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents about this [man] who was doing this study that after a certain temperature, the murder rate goes up. People get agitated, it just becomes crazy and combustible. And at this time there was the Howard Beach incident, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart, Ed Koch and his policy towards people of color…all that factored in. It was going to be what we hoped was an honest portrayal of the race relations in that present-day New York City.

John Turturro Pino

I remember the script had a black leather cover. I thought there was something exciting about it and it dealt with a world that I knew. I grew up in Hollis, Queens, until I was 6, and then I got bused out to a school that was all-black for junior high school. Spike grew up in an Italian neighborhood and I grew up in a black neighborhood, so we both kind of had similar experiences with this kind of stuff, from all sides.

Bill Nunn Radio Raheem

Spike said, ”Hey, I want you to do this.” He had me in mind to do Mister Se¨or Love Daddy at the time, the DJ character. But I’m so glad it worked out the way it did. Radio Raheem was really good for me because I like those characters that don’t have a lot of lines but they’re kind of significant to the story. I thought of Steve McQueen because I liked Steve McQueen’s silence a lot in movies.

Ruby Dee Mother Sister

[Spike’s] father was a musician, and it was through that connection that Ossie [Davis] and I got to know Spike. When I first saw him, I thought he looked so young, like a teenager. I didn’t know he was the boss of the joint. But he smoothed any doubts that I had because he knew exactly what he wanted.

Rosie Perez Tina

My earliest memory of making the film is when Spike told me to go see hair. This is my first movie, so I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. So the hair guy tells me to sit down and he says, ”I’m going to give you a little cut.” And he proceeds to shave the side of my head. I thought I was going to die. I go, ”What the f— are you doing?” He goes, ”Spike told me to give you the Salt-N-Pepa!” And I go, ”Are you kidding me? You don’t cut a Puerto Rican’s hair!” So I say to Spike, ”This motherf—er cut my hair! Why didn’t you tell me?” He goes, ”That’s what happens on movies.” I said to him, ”First of all, that Salt-N-Pepa s— is outdated. Second of all, YOU CUT MY F—ING HAIR!”

Making the Neighborhood

The film production took over a stretch of Stuyvesant Avenue for nine weeks, enlivening the mostly empty block with its own makeshift fictional community.

Lee We hired the Fruit of Islam for security. There was a crack spot on the block, so the Fruit of Islam made them go around the corner.

Samuel L. Jackson Mister Se¨or Love Daddy

Once the Fruit of Islam cleaned out the crack houses, it was quiet in there, nobody bothered us. The occasional time when you roam off set and go to a store in the neighborhood, some guys would say something to the effect of ”You acting motherf—ers came in here and ruined our business, we’re gonna f— you up.” I’d be like, ”Well, you know, I haven’t always been an actor, so I’m not gonna stand here and take an ass whupping.” But other than that, it was harmonious.

Perez Well, I was living with my sister, Carmen, and her common-law husband during shooting, and she was four blocks from set. So for me it was ”Okay, I’m just going to walk down the road and film something.” Not a long commute. But for others I remember them being very wary of the neighborhood and being on constant guard.

Ricky Aiello Officer Gary Long

It was a little uncomfortable [playing] a police officer in that neighborhood. We had a great time. But if you’re in a police uniform, you’re not going to be the hero of the neighborhood.

Turturro It was dangerous, but it was a good vibe. It was real. A lot of times you go on movie sets and it’s like a medical office and there’s something austere and antiseptic about it, and this movie was just the opposite.

Jackson I was always stuck in that radio station. They only came in there when it rained and they had to shoot stuff in a covered set. So I’d be in there just kinda looking out the window watching them shoot everybody else, wondering if I was ever gonna get on camera. Half the time I’d be in there asleep, because I’d been up pretty much the night before f—ed up, hanging out with my friends. [Laughs] Bill Nunn actually lived in my basement, in my brownstone.

Nunn We called it ”The Cave.” The Cave was up on 143rd between Broadway and Amsterdam. That’s where we ended up a lot, having fun.

Giancarlo Esposito Buggin Out

Bill went to school with Sam at Morehouse. Spike was there at the time, so that was one group that was tightly knit and more mature adult versions of our younger group — Martin Lawrence, Roger Smith, myself. Then you had Ossie and Ruby as our patriarch and matriarch.

Steve White Ahmad

The [big concern] was cursing out all the neighbors. Here is this icon [Ossie Davis] and I gotta do it like I did it at the audition, but Ossie wasn’t at the audition, the real Ossie Davis. So on the day of the shoot I went up to him, and with my legs quivering I said, ”Excuse me, sir, I hope you don’t mind. I gotta be a little mean here and curse you out.” And he was like, ”Bring it on, whippersnapper. Do your job.”

Frankie Faison Coconut Sid

It was truly like being a part of a neighborhood. We’d come to work, get into our characters, and sit around and talk. What you see in the film is pretty much what it was like on the set. It felt like we had a society all to ourselves.

The Construction and Destruction of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria

The block that hosted the shoot needed two empty lots on facing corners so the crew could build both the Korean grocery and Sal’s pizzeria, the ultimate focal point of all the film’s mounting racial tensions. Lee shot the movie’s climactic riot scene last because they needed to burn the building down.

Lee We essentially built an entire working pizzeria in that empty lot.

Turturro I worked in a pizzeria myself before in preparation. And the ovens in Sal’s were working, so we could actually make pies. I’ll go on record saying I could make a better pizza than Danny [Aiello] and Richard [Edson].

Esposito My people are from Naples. So I can’t deny my Italian part of me. Danny Aiello and I were simpatico, open hearts, real Italians. Danny embraced me, but once the camera’s rolling, we’d stop speaking. Danny cursed me out in the last scene, telling me to go back to Africa and all that. So that was a heated, heavy f—ing moment because, basically, when I was looking at Danny, I was looking at my father. All that I wanted to say to him is ”I’m more Italian than you!” But I’m in a black movie by Spike Lee, so I had to stand up for the African part of me. It infused my performance with a deeper meaning and a deeper tenacity. [Danny Aiello declined to participate in this story.]

Lee New York City is hot in the summer; it’s the humidity, it’s the cement, and everybody living on top of each other. But I remember it was cold that night we shot the riot sequence.

Richard Edson Vito

Before we shot the fight scene, there was a huge discussion. Spike wanted Danny to use the N-word, and Danny refused on the grounds that these were his customers, these were his people, and he would never stoop to that level. Spike’s justification was that when push came to shove, this would be the default position of a guy like Sal. So the production stopped and we sat down at the table, and Spike, who pretty much always got what he wanted, laid it down.

Perez Shooting that last scene where Radio Raheem dies was hard. For someone new to the entertainment business like me, it was so real. I didn’t know how to handle it, I remember getting so upset. Someone on the crew was like, ”It’s all right, he’s all right.” It was hard to watch and it was hard not to watch. It was haunting.

The Legacy

Universal refused to give in to pressure from those who claimed the film was incendiary and move the release from summer. Do the Right Thing opened on June 30, 1989, and all it ended up inciting was critical praise, Oscar nominations (for Lee’s screenplay and Danny Aiello’s supporting role as Sal), and a national conversation.

Lee Even before the movie came out, there was all this controversy and worrying. And then critics like Joe Klein and David Denby said that it would cause riots, that blood would be on my hands. ”Spike Lee’s going to make the natives rise up!” Of course, none of that happened.

Joie Lee Jade

When it opened up is when Do the Right Thing went to Cannes. That’s what blew my mind, just how far it had reached, how global.

Perez My life changed dramatically and I didn’t fully understand it all. For instance, I didn’t understand when I went to the supermarket, I was like, ”Why is everyone staring at me? And pointing and whispering?”

Nunn It would’ve been nice to be nominated for best film [at the Academy Awards]. I know that it was probably the most talked-about movie of that year. We’re not talking about [Oscar winner] Driving Miss Daisy, are we?

Esposito President Obama chased me down at one of the conventions before he was ever president and said it was the film he took Michelle to on their first date.

Lee [Laughs] I told Barack, thank God he didn’t see Driving Miss Daisy or else she might have gotten mad at him and history would have changed.

Turturro I saw it a few years ago for the 20th anniversary. It was right after Michael Jackson died, so when I said ”F— you, too, and f— Michael Jackson,” right then the whole audience turns against me. Once again, I’m the a–hole. It was like 1989 all over again!

Lee I remember the last day [of shooting] we had a bronze plaque put into the sidewalk commemorating that Do the Right Thing was shot on this block on this certain date. We got permission from the city and everything, and the next day it was gone. That’s the old Bed-Stuy, Do or Die. [Laughs] I wish I had it. That bronze plaque did not unscrew itself out of cement and just walk down Lexington Avenue. So if someone is out there reading this EW article and you’re the motherf—er who stole that plaque, I’ll buy it back. No questions asked.[pagebreak]

Update: The Do the Right Thing Cast

Steve White

The actor and stand-up comedian, 48, went on to star in four more Spike Lee films and most recently finished shooting Robert Townsend’s Playin’ for Love.

Frank Vincent

The 74-year-old actor is probably best known for getting beaten to a pulp by Joe Pesci in GoodFellas and as Mob boss Phil Leotardo on The Sopranos. His 2006 book, A Guy’s Guide to Being a Man’s Man, is being developed as a film.

Ricky Aiello

The actor, 58, reprised his role as Officer Long in Lee’s Jungle Fever and has since been acting in TV (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, The Sopranos) and film (Nobody’s Perfect).

Joie Lee

The 51-year-old actress starred in a number of her brother’s projects and is now on the faculty at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She’s working on making her own movie.

Bill Nunn

The actor, 59, will next appear on USA’s upcoming comedy Sirens, from exec producer Denis Leary.

Ruby Dee

The 90-year-old actress, whose husband and frequent costar Ossie Davis passed away in 2005, was nominated for an Academy Award for her role opposite Denzel Washington in 2007’s American Gangster and appeared in the 2012 Eddie Murphy film A Thousand Words.

Frankie Faison

The actor, 64, currently stars on the Cinemax series Banshee.

John Turturro

The 56-year-old multi-hyphenate directed, wrote, and stars in Fading Gigolo (alongside Woody Allen and Sofia Vergara), which recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Spike Lee

The 56-year-old director’s latest joint, Oldboy, a remake of the 2003 South Korean thriller, hits theaters Nov. 27.

Giancarlo Esposito

The actor, 55, is perhaps best known for his role as the punctiliously terrifying Gus Fring on Breaking Bad, and can now be seen on NBC’s Revolution.

Richard Edson

The 56-year-old acts regularly (Vegas, Happy Endings) and is focusing on his photography.

Samuel L. Jackson

The actor, 64, appears in Lee’s Oldboy and plays Nick Fury in pretty much every Avengers-related film, including 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Paul Benjamin

Since Do the Right Thing, the actor, 75, has had roles in films like Rosewood and Hoodlum, plus spots on ER and Law & Order.

Rosie Perez

The 47-year-old actress earned an Oscar nomination for 1993’s Fearless and can be seen this month in Ridley Scott’s The Counselor.