Rock Hill, South Carolina
July 2, 1971
ROME (CNS) - Rai Saunders had his last fix in 1966. That was just before he left New York City for Europe.
He hasn’t touched heroin since.
Here Saunders is the black cowboy of Made in Italy western films. He has built a new life for himself. Not only is he a regular fixture on Italian film screens, he is a respected member of the community.
It wasn’t always that easy. Rai has vivid memories of his first attempt at kicking the drug habit. He was still living at home. His mother discovered seven packets of heroin in his sport shirt pocket and flushed them down the toilet.
Rai’s mother was a part-time gospel preacher, conducting weekend services in their apartment. The rest of the week, “Mother Edna washed white folks’ floors downtown.” Her son had never been in trouble before.
“Sure,” says Rai in a quiet, confident voice, “I always dressed neat and clean. I always wore a fresh shirt because it kept the fuzz off. It was instinctive survival. Dope was part of survival, too. Made you feel good… you didn’t need anybody. It was part of life.”
Part of his life went down the toilet. Two hours later his crying jag started. For his mother’s sake, he tried to “take the wait” of withdrawal, He paced the empty apartment.” He walked the streets, drifting up Saint Nicholas Avenue looking for a friend. He needed someone.
He tried to eat, everything came up. He remembers the cafeteria coffee and the very red cherry pie and the mess. Only dry bread stayed down.
The sun, even the rays that got through New York’s smog-laden sky, was too much to take. It hurt his eyes, stabbing like little darts.
Someone gave him a “bag of horse.” He clenched it in his hand and lay on his bed. His mother was asleep in the front room. Saunders says he couldn’t unlock his fist. He was trembling with excitement. Fingers still paralyzed around the packet, he fell asleep.
Despite his mother, despite his good intentions, Rai Saunders didn’t kick the habit that time.
Drugs continued to be a part of life during a checkered career that included exhibition boxing in the U.S. Arm, singing with a violin-playing WAC for Special Services, delivering stocks and bonds for a bank, unloading cargo as longshoreman, and managing the stationery department for the Americana Hotel.
Rai’s mother, wanted him to join the church, sing in the choir, “take that route,” instead he read his poetry in Greenwich Village coffeehouses and sang in a nightclub act in Harlem.
At the New School Dramatic Workshop he read Stanislavski and learned acting technique with Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando. But he never took up the sullen slur. His speech has a studied clarity.
Rai says he began his clear, clipped delivery of words as a child. It was probably influenced by his mother’s desire to have him better himself. It set him apart from the neighborhood, but there was that “con thing” in speech, Rai says. It was the same as wearing the clean shirt.
The lean, compact high-cheek boned Saunders met Muriel Forlerer at an actor’s party in 1965. Muriel was caught up in the frantic Seventh Ave. fashion world as an assistant clothing buyer. They were married later in the same year.
For Rai, the tensions of an interracial marriage in New York’s charged atmosphere to the volatile nature of an actor’s haphazard life. Drugs became increasingly important. Before they’d been married a year, they’d made the decision to leave, and Rai vowed to give up drugs altogether.
Life as an expatriate American negro in Rome has stilled most of the tensions. They have established a home in the picturesque 17th Century “Trastevere” quarter of the Eternal City. Their modern renovated apartment has all the characteristics of permanence from television to built-in furniture.
Justine, the Saunders’ two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, understands Italian almost as well as English. She plays in the local park and trails after mama on shopping trips to the market.
Rai and Muriel now want to buy a home here. There is no longer any drain on the family budget for drugs.
Rai admits that as a Negro he stands out more in Rome than in the states. Here he is a curiosity. To the neighborhood butcher and barber, he is just another one of those foreigners who live in their midst. To the movie public he is an exotic Negro cowboy.
What’s the future for the Negro actor in Europe? “The blacker you are, the better they dig it,” smiles Rai Saunders.