It's no small irony that the first African-American to apply and graduate from the DGA Assistant Directors Training Program, Charles Washburn, would never have come to Hollywood if not for experiencing the same racial bias in Chicago that blacks in the industry had endured for so many years.
"I had interviewed to be an AD at an NBC affiliate, because some production friends told me they wanted to hire a black for the control room," the gentlemanly Washburn relates. But they never called me back. Months later I wrote to my friend asking who got the job and he said, 'Charlie, they didn't hire anyone. They never intended to. They just wanted to be able tell people they were looking for a Negro.'"
But after he graduated from the trainee program at the top of his class, Washburn didn't have to look too hard for work. As a trainee, he distinguished himself so well on Paramount's new sci-fi series, Star Trek, that he was immediately hired back as a 2nd AD once he banked his 400 hours of apprenticeship. Washburn even came back 20 years later to work on several episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
"The crew and casting director on the lot called me 'Charlie Star Trek,'" he says, noting he plans to use the moniker for the title of the autobiography he's writing. "Working closely with all the extras was a big part of the job, even to the point of knowing who would be getting a 'bump' or 'double whammy,' which is what we called an added amount of time to an extra's base pay rate if he or she was given some pertinent story business."
In the late '60s, The Bill Cosby Show recruited Washburn as a 2nd AD, working under the Guild's first black member, 1st AD Wendell Franklin. "I was very adept at using a strip production board—this was way before computers," Washburn states. "So, Wendell would essentially let me run the entire show as a 2nd. We had one episode directed by Melvin Van Peebles, shot on location. It was very challenging because Melvin loved the F-word, and the MF-word. He was cursing so loudly and so often that when we got back to the stage, the gaffer came up and said, 'Charlie, I want to bring my mom to the set but I'm afraid.'"
Although Washburn says he heard stories of racism from Franklin and another black TV AD, Reuben Watt, he personally never had any issues during his many years on set. "I was shocked to hear about guys on the crew complaining about Reuben yelling 'quiet,' and the producer telling him to have the 2nd AD do it instead. Or even worse, of threats he received to meet later in the parking lot to settle any differences with their fists."
Besides running the set in a calm and courtly manner, Washburn says his prime mission was to become the crew's best friend. "Not a single day passed by that I didn't greet every single crewmember by name and ask about their families," he shares. "I'm proud to say I was the first AD to be goosed by an electrician on Star Trek when I was up on the rigging one day putting together the call sheet. After it happened, [gaffer] George Merhoff smiled and said: 'Hey, Charlie. Now you're part of the group.' I named a chapter after it in my book."