Samuel L. Jackson has been dealt pretty good cards when it comes to aging.
“I was fortunate enough to be blessed with a really great gene pool,” the actor said. “There’s a lot of Alzheimer’s in my family, but people live a long time, too.”
The history of Alzheimer’s disease in his family is a big reason why the prolific performer — whose notable big-screen credits include “Pulp Fiction,” “Unbreakable” and “Black Snake Moan” — long has been captivated by Walter Mosley’s 2010 novel, “The Last Days of Grey.”
Jackson is an executive producer of Apple TV+’s new six-episode adaptation of the work and stars as its titular character, a man suffering from crippling dementia and memory loss who, through the use of an experimental drug, is able to recapture a wealth of recollections for a finite period.
“It’s something I’ve been preparing for a long time,” Jackson said during the show’s panel during the Television Critics Association’s recent virtual press tour last month, in which Jackson’s primary co-star, Dominique Fishback, and Mosley, the limited series’ writer and another of its EPs, also took part.
“Walter can tell you how long we’ve talked about doing this and how badly I’ve wanted to do it. I’ve seen this series for about 10 years in my head.”
At the time of the panel, Jackson was in London, again reprising the role of Nick Fury for an upcoming project in Disney-owned Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fury, a highly skilled intelligence operative, may be the only character he’s played that he knows as well as Mosley’s creation.
“I repeat (Fury) a lot. I know who he is, and he’s easy to access,” Jackson said. “Ptolemy was easy to access because I read the book a lot. I mean, I read the book a lot of different times in different time periods when we were trying (to make a) deal with other people to get it made.”
Problem was, he said, earlier potential collaborators saw “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” as a movie.
“I was always banging my head against the wall about that because I never wanted to tell the story that way,” Jackson said.
Instead, he, Mosley and four directors have about six hours to tell the story, which begins with a focused, well-dressed Ptolemy, pouring himself a drink, handling a gun and making an audio recording for Fishback’s character, Robyn, in which he apologizes for what is about to happen.
We then flashback two months, to a disheveled Ptolemy living in squalor, struggling to remember things from minute to minute. Eventually, Robyn — an orphaned family friend trying to get her life together — will clean and debug his home and then move in to take care of him.
She’ll also take him to an appointment with a medical specialist made for him by his nephew Reggie (Omar Benson Miller), who has since been shot and killed. Although Robyn has reservations, Ptolemy decides to undergo the cutting edge, memory-restoring treatments offered by the doctor — portrayed by Walton Goggins, one of Jackson’s scene partners from “The Hateful Eight” — because he hopes to solve the mystery of who killed Reggie, as well as unearth what he believes to be buried treasure.
Through the first three episodes, available now through Apple’s streaming platform, the viewer experiences the character’s challenges with memory loss in rather vivid detail.
“I don’t know of any show like this one,” said Mosley, whose other novels include “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “Fearless Jones” and last year’s “Blood Glove.” “Just concentrating on having a whole experience around a person who’s experiencing dementia in a television environment (is unusual).”
Jackson may have been so intimately familiar with the character that the mental preparation for the role was no great burden, but turning him into a man of Ptolemy’s age required him spending about 90 minutes in the makeup chair.
For Fishback — whom Jackson said he saw in 2020’s “Project Power” and immediately believed the production had found its Robyn and who had a significant role in last year’s acclaimed “Judas and the Black Messiah” — the prep work does typically happen farther in advance.
“I mean,” Jackson said, “she probably wouldn’t even want you to know that she journals her characters, which is kind of crazy. I don’t have time for that.”
As Jackson was receiving a round of laughter, Fishback said, “Well, actually for this one, I made a PDF about —”
“I know,” Jackson said.
“The book,” she concluded.
“I remember,” he added.
“I just really wanted to bring Robyn from the book to the series as much as we could,” she said, “And Walter was really great about that.”
You can see why Mosley may feel the story is in the right hands.
“I have so much help,” he said, referring to all the behind-the-scenes folks who worked on the series, as well as those in front of the camera. “Sam literally knows the book better than I do. Dominique knows it just as well as I do. They did an extraordinary job of making it look and feel the way the book wanted to be.”
Returning to the unpleasant but familiar-to-many topic of Alzheimer’s, Jackson said family members including a grandfather, uncle, aunt and his mother have suffered from it directly.
“I watched them change, deteriorate and become different people over the years,” he said, soon adding he appreciates giving “an audience an opportunity to know that they aren’t the only people who watch their loved ones deteriorate that way.”
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Samuel L. Jackson long has wanted to see an adaptation of ‘The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey’