Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Taking a Shot

By Sheri Bancroft

APRIL 13, 1998:  By now, the prospect of a movie being made in Memphis is old hat. But 422 1/2 South Main, set to start filming this fall, is somewhat out of the ordinary for this town. It has no honky-tonker with a wild streak and a tender spot for a young girl. There isn’t a paralyzed pornographer clinging to the First Amendment. Nor is there a single just-graduated lawyer whose cocksure attitude gets him in and out of a terrible fix. This film is different because its roots are truly in Memphis. Its screenplay was written by a native Memphian, Charles Raiteri, and one of its producers, Celia McRee, is a local performer.

Raiteri’s 422 1/2 South Main is based on private eye Renfro Hays’ investigation of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. It takes its name from the address of the boarding house where James Earl Ray allegedly fired the shot that killed King. (Though the actual address is 418 South Main, many of the original documents on the assassination list it as 422 1/2.)

Raiteri, a former Channel 13 reporter, now an assistant professor of broadcast journalism at the University of Mississippi and creative consultant for the film, wrote the screenplay 10 years ago. He says the inspiration came from an encounter with Hays. “I met Renfro Hays at the auction of James Earl Ray’s getaway car, which the court awarded Hays in lieu of payment [for his service]. I found Renfro to be a colorful person, so I wrote a character sketch of him.” And while it sounds simple enough, Raiteri worked hard on the script, trying to get the story, the facts right. He says the work gave him a chance to use his background as a reporter to do something different.

Opportunity, Raiteri found, was also Hays’ calling card. According to Raiteri, Hays moved to Memphis at 41 to investigate the King assassination, determined that this case would be the one that would propel him into the big time. Raiteri can’t say if it was money or fame that motivated Hays, only that he was “making the jump for the brass ring.”

“It’s a thought-provoking script,” says Celia McRee, one of the film’s producers. “Exciting and solid – very character-driven.”
McRee, a longtime friend of Raiteri, believes the story of Hays deserves a place in history. It is an important story, she says, but not a very well-known one. Hays, according to McRee, became obsessed with solving the case. She calls him “a real Willy Loman type – he goes after his dreams and still lives by his dreams even after they don’t exist anymore. We can all identify with him to a certain degree.” Hays died last year in Memphis broke and homeless. And though he is gone, McRee has a feeling that this film will be the thing that will finally give Hays the recognition – if by proxy – he craved. She says the actor who is cast to play the tragic private eye will have “a role of a lifetime.”

On that front, in 1996, McRee showed 422 1/2 South Main to Karen Johnson, an associate director of ABC’s All My Children. The two had met through a mutual friend years ago while McRee worked on new music for the soap opera, and both had stayed in touch with each other. “We shared a passion for the script,” McRee says, so they decided to produce it. “It’s a thought-provoking script,” McRee adds, “exciting and solid – very character-driven.”

Originally, McRee and Johnson intended for 422 1/2 South Main to be a very small independent film, but after an article about their project literally made headlines last September 29th in Liz Smith’s column in The New York Post, calls from major directors, actors, and film companies expressing interest in the project began to pour in. “I can’t name any names,” McRee says, “But they’re high-caliber people.” She adds, “We even had a call asking if the film had been distributed yet.” With all the attention the project was receiving, McRee and Johnson are excited about all the possibilities but reluctant to make any hasty decisions. “We didn’t want to relinquish our creative control,” says McRee. “We wanted the project to be in Memphis and to use Memphis talent, especially in acting and production.”

As this article goes to print, McRee and Johnson are in L.A. to listen to offers and look at potential deals.

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