Willard Motley

Genres - Drama

Share on

Willard Motley was one of the more successful African-American authors of fiction of the mid-20th century, and saw two of his books, Knock on Any Door and Let No Man Write My Epitaph, made into feature films during his lifetime. Born in Chicago and raised by his mother's parents in Illinois and later in New York. Motley's writing career began in 1925 at the age of 13, when he had a short story published in the Chicago Defender and was then offered a weekly column in the newspaper's children's section, writing as Bud Billiken. It was while writing under that pseudonym that Motley developed into a serious writer while still a teenager, and by the time he graduated from Englewood High School (where he was just about the only black student in the otherwise exclusively white neighborhood), he had decided upon a career as a writer. The onset of the Great Depression prevented him from attending college, so, instead, he used the time and the upheaval as an excuse to travel across the country. He had thought to go to Europe to pursue his writing, but Motley's mother persuaded him that the U.S. was where he should base himself and his work. It was on his return to Chicago that he began working on Knock on Any Door, a harrowing account of poverty and juvenile delinquency and their destructive consequences for a boy named Nick Romano. He worked on the book on and off for most of a decade, writing non-fiction articles in the interim to support himself.

Published in 1947 to glowing reviews and exceptionally good sales (moving 47,000 copies in less than a month), Knock On Any Door was immediately licensed for the screen by producer Mark Hellinger in conjunction with Humphrey Bogart, who was to star in the proposed movie alongside a young New York theater actor named Marlon Brando, who would play Nick. Hellinger's death, however, delayed the film's production for two years, and by the time it was made, Bogart was producing, Nicholas Ray directing, and Brando was no longer available, so John Derek took the part of Nick. Motley's second book, We Fished All Night, was about three World War II veterans, the way they relate to each other, and the problems they encounter coming out of the war. In the early '50s, Motley returned to the characters and setting of his first novel for a sequel, Let No Man Write My Epitaph, which told of the fate of Nick Romano Jr., the illegitimate son of the first book's protagonist. That book was a huge success and was licensed by Columbia Pictures, which made a screen adaptation of it under the same title starring James Darren, Shelley Winters, and Burl Ives in 1960. Motley spent the last 12 years of his life in Mexico, having moved there in the mid-'50s. He died March 4, 1965, of complications from gangrene, two weeks after finishing his final book, Let Noon Be Fair. Motley's death meant that he missed out on a lot of the recognition that might well have been his during the African-American community's growing consciousness of its members' achievements in the '60s. Only in the 1970s and '80s did that recognition start to manifest itself, and his books gained new readers and continue to sell.