The first order of business was to "de-jewel" Rufus. The world's oldest living teenager loved his gold jewelry. In the winter of 1998, while conducting a casting call for a short film that I was directing, a local casting agent introduced me to Rufus Thomas. At the time, I was not familiar with the legendary blues and soul singer, but my husband, born and raised in Memphis, assured me that he was perfect for the project.
The film, called Breakfast with Arty, was a sweet story about an elderly sharecropper who befriends a young, fatherless boy in 1970s rural Tennessee. I met with Rufus at a local café and was instantly convinced I had met my Arty.
Each day, our production manager, Cher Payne, made sure Mr. Thomas was on the set on time, had his breakfast, and was in the proper wardrobe. She then would begin the process of removing a series of gold rings, bracelets, a gold necklace, and one gold watch, with a stern warning from Rufus "not to lose my gold."
Rufus' wardrobe consisted of old, worn-out dungarees, work boots, and a frayed farm coat. His jewelry simply didn't fit the character he was portraying, so all day someone had to "watch over the gold."
At 82, Rufus had a hard time remembering his lines. He played the title role and consequently had the most lines to memorize. We helped him out by writing his lines on cue cards, which we held off-camera for him to read. He was comfortable with the cards, but on nearly every take he ad-libbed something. A word here, a phrase there. While filming a pivotal scene where Arty sees a vision of the young boy's deceased father, Rufus once again improvised his lines. This time, it was an unrehearsed version of the classic hymn "Amazing Grace." We were shooting on the outskirts of Collierville at an old, abandoned shack.
The song was not in the script, but Rufus felt that the one thing missing from our story was music. So he sat on the steps of that old shack and sang the most beautiful rendition of "Amazing Grace" I've ever heard. I didn't have to tell the cameraman to keep rolling or the sound guy to keep recording. The crew was small, but he got a standing ovation. Needless to say, the song made the final cut.
After I learned of his passing, I got out a scrapbook of the shoot and flipped through some photos. In one shot taken on the last day, I am sitting on one side of Rufus and his 8-year-old co-star sits on the other. Rufus is clutching my hand and holding it to his heart. I don't know how he got it past us, but the evidence is shining bright in the photo.
He's wearing his favorite gold ring.
I only knew him for a few short weeks.
I will remember him forever.
Donita Dooley is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City.