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A legacy revived

He was a heart surgery pioneer who never went to medical school, a black man who didn't get his due in the segregation era. Tonight, HBO tells the story of Vivien Thomas.

Published May 30, 2004

At first, no one in the family could believe what they were hearing.

For more than a decade, St. Petersburg orthopedist Koco Eaton and his relatives had been talking with one film company after another, hoping to dramatize the life of Eaton's remarkable uncle, Vivien Thomas.

Thomas made medical history in 1944 by helping invent the first operation successfully performed on the heart, a procedure to cure "blue baby syndrome" by repairing a defect that reduces oxygen in an infant's blood.

That he accomplished this without a medical degree - he was forced to leave college when the banks crashed in 1929 - was an additional source of pride for Thomas' family. But for decades, the medical establishment resisted crediting Thomas for his knowledge and achievements.

By 2002, persistent producer Robert Cort had persuaded HBO to back a film on Thomas' life, and an all-star cast began to coalesce: Harry Potter co-star Alan Rickman would play Alfred Blalock, the head of surgery at Johns Hopkins University, who recognized Thomas' talent and became his longtime collaborator. Charles Dutton (Roc, Alien 3) would play Thomas' father; Kyra Sedgwick, Mary Stuart Masterson and Gabrielle Union also signed on.

But what astonished Eaton's family was the man producers chose to play the quiet, contemplative, pipe-smoking carpenter-turned-heart surgery pioneer: rapper Mos Def.

A rapper?

"Your perception of a rapper is some kid showing up with a medallion the size of a hubcap and 20 of his homeboys," said Eaton, a former St. Petersburg Times columnist, who serves as a team doctor for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. "The idea of a rapper playing my uncle the scientist initially was a little upsetting to the family."

That was before Eaton met Dante "Mos Def" Smith, a Brooklyn-born, bohemian-style MC whose thin film resume (Monster's Ball, The Italian Job), hardly hints at the depth of his acting talent.

Eaton and Mos Def spent time talking about Thomas' thoughtful nature, his refusal to see himself as a victim, his insistence that many others could have achieved what he did and his awkward appreciation when the world began to recognize and applaud his discoveries.

The result was a careermaking performance in a powerful film, Something the Lord Made, airing tonight on HBO. Mos Def's portrayal of Thomas is so understated and carefully crafted, even the movie's director wasn't sure if the rapper was nailing his part or underplaying his role to a fault.

"Mos was very attuned to not overdoing the victim thing," said director Joseph Sargent, who spent two years waiting for Cort and HBO to work out the details and begin production. "It's quite gutsy for an actor to submerge himself into a low-key, understated characterization like that. On the set, he sounded like he was so low on energy that we weren't getting anything (on film). But when I saw the dailies, I knew we were okay."

That's because his performance, combined with how he and Rickman reproduce the uneasy chemistry between Thomas and Blalock, captures the complexity of their relationship while outlining the injustices and odd alliances that segregation produced in the South.

"The relationship is an extraordinary one; it's like two halves of a whole," said Rickman, a British actor who found the challenge of playing an eccentrically brilliant Southern doctor irresistible.

"It's just psychologically interesting to play these two people who had so much quiet and subtle respect for each other," he added, leaning against a pole in the hip Manhattan eatery Brasserie after a May 17 screening of the film in New York. "But they would never sentimentalize their relationship into words such as "thank you.' Both Mos and I understood that - and fought for it - because less is more in a relationship like that."

Surrounded by stars from other TV projects, including ER's Mekhi Phifer and Oz's Reg E. Cathey, Rickman talked himself hoarse at the post-screening party. (The notoriously press-shy Mos Def skipped the party to hang out with his children.)

For Rickman, the film also offered a chance to explore the uncomfortable symbiosis between white and black people during the segregation and Jim Crow eras.

"When you're playing people who have actually lived, you feel - and I know this, because I've done it a couple of times - you feel a huge responsibility to them and their families and their memory," he said. "You leave their ambiguities intact, so the audience works things out for themselves.

"To take a story like this and take a sledgehammer to it . . . a kind of polemic, black/white sledgehammer to it, would have been terrible. You've just got to be unapologetic about it and say, "This is how it was.' "

So, in the film, as Thomas and a friend walk to his job interview with Blalock, they stop their conversation to step off the sidewalk and allow white people to pass, almost without thinking.

In another scene, a landlord admonishes Thomas for not completing handyman work required for a rent discount, work he couldn't get to because he was helping the wealthy Blalock complete research required to attempt the first heart procedure at Johns Hopkins.

"What shocked me when I got to Johns Hopkins was that even today . . . most doctors and most workers at the hospital didn't know who Vivien Thomas was," said Sargent, whose powerful HBO films have included the Tuskegee Experiment tale Miss Evers' Boys and A Lesson Before Dying. "They don't connect him to that breakthrough operation. It's known as the Blalock-Taussig operation, not the Blalock-Thomas (procedure)."

The film opens with Thomas losing his job as a carpenter in 1930s-era Nashville and deciding to apply for work as a lab assistant to Blalock, then at Vanderbilt University. Though Thomas was hired to sweep floors and clean animal cages, his intelligence impresses Blalock, who trains him as a surgical technician, an assignment barred by segregation's customs.

Eventually, the two land at Johns Hopkins, where Thomas must use the hospital's service entrance and is officially classified as a menial worker while running the laboratory for Blalock, now the Department of Surgery chairman.

Blalock defends Thomas' presence to numerous colleagues who rage at the idea of a black man working in their labs. But he thinks nothing of hiring Thomas as a waiter to work at parties in his home.

Thomas is also a puzzle: He's proud enough to quit work when he discovers his job classification, which prompts Blalock to get him a promotion, a raise and a home telephone. But he's modest enough to shrug off praise for building a respirator from spare parts and assembling specialized surgical instruments crucial to their work.

HBO's film portrays the development of their procedure as a true collaboration, with Blalock and Thomas both contributing pivotal ideas that allow them to re-create the "blue baby" syndrome in dogs, and then devise a curative operation.

Their working relationship was so crucial that Blalock again violated the rules of segregation, calling Thomas into the operating room to talk him through the first operation on a human baby.

But as fame and acclaim follow their achievements, Blalock overlooks Thomas, allowing the awards and media attention to shower on every doctor associated with the operation, but not on his most trusted assistant.

"I cried about seven different times during the movie," said Eaton, who was accepted to Johns Hopkins as a medical student in 1983 before learning about the achievements of his uncle. "I'm sure as a young man, if someone would have told him that someone from the next generation would walk though the front doors of the institution, I don't think he would have believed it."

As the civil rights movement spread, Thomas received some of his due, teaching young doctors at Johns Hopkins and getting an honorary doctorate in 1976, 12 years after Blalock's death in 1964. Thomas died in 1985, after writing his autobiography and seeing his portrait added to the hospital's front hall, an honor reserved for the institution's most prestigious figures.

The road toward HBO's movie began in 1990, when a writer for Baltimore magazine published the first story on Thomas and a Reader's Digest excerpt brought interest from Hollywood.

Eaton estimated he has signed five different deals over the years allowing film companies the right to tell his uncle's story. It took a documentary filmmaker eight years to complete Partners of the Heart, narrated by Morgan Freeman, which aired on PBS's American Experience series.

"There's no special effects, no one gets shot, no one dies - there's no Jerry Springer moment in this story," said Eaton, who hopes to see his uncle's story next turned into a children's book to inspire potential young doctors of color. "The sensationalism angle isn't there, so the timing (of a film) had to be right."

Since the movie's completion, Eaton has taken time from his own practice to travel the country for HBO, speaking about his uncle's legacy at preview screenings. Among his appearances: medical facilities in Chicago and Detroit and, yes, at Johns Hopkins.

"It struck me how different my life was, because I was born 50 years later," Eaton said. "If I had those obstacles to face, would I have risen to the challenge? And when you see what he had to put up with in his lifetime, you feel like there's nothing that can hold you back now."

AT A GLANCE: Something the Lord Made airs at 9 tonight on HBO. Grade: A. Rating: TV-MA (mature audiences).

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