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Producer Reviving Projects About Gay African-American Men (Exclusive)

Proteus Spann was readying a feature film and stage musical based on best-selling books by E. Lynn Harris when the author died and Harris’ mother filed a lawsuit against him: “It put a stop to everything," he tells THR.

Proteus Spann - S 2013
Proteus Spann

In 2009, after more than six years, Proteus Spann was finally nearing his goal of producing a Broadway musical and a movie based on books by his friend E. Lynn Harris, author of 10 consecutive New York Times best-sellers -- including the critically acclaimed 1994 novel Invisible Life -- that depicted the struggles of closeted African-American gay men.

With the movie on track to be produced by Spann’s E2 Productions and Tracey Edmonds’ Edmonds Entertainment with a score for the musical completed by Motown legends Ashford & Simpson, Harris came to Los Angeles for a celebratory dinner with Spann, who by then had paid over $600,000 for the rights to his 14 books.

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They toasted having come so far despite the sensitive subject matter. “This was pre-Brokeback Mountain,” Spann explains, “so it was very difficult because the story deals with family, religion and sexual preferences.”

The project was also very personal for Spann: “Invisible Life influenced me so much when I read it. It was my life. It answered a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer,” he said. “Being a bisexual or gay man, it was difficult to figure out who to go to. Do you go to your parents? To the church?”

After dinner that night, Harris returned to the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, where he had a heart attack. He was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and pronounced dead.

Despite the loss of his friend, Spann continued on with the production of Invisible Life, the first of the books he planned to bring to the big screen. He finally secured an investor through a personal relationship he had.

Then Harris’ mother, Etta Harris, sued Spann claiming that he did not have the legal rights to the books. "Spann implemented his plan to take control of the E. Lynn Harris Works,” reads the complaint filed in Oct. 2011, “by forging the signature of E. Lynn Harris on each of the Assignments.”

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The lawsuit took an enormous toll on Spann. “It put a stop to everything. I went through a very deep depression. I was fighting for survival.” The suit also brought tremendous financial strain as Spann had to pay over $200,000 in legal fees.

Furthermore, Spann’s backers pulled out during the legal battle. Spann explains why one investor, whom he describes as a conservative multimillionaire, backed out: “He didn’t want any of the publicity.”

Also during the lawsuit, Edmonds left the project, and Nickolas Ashford (one half of Ashford & Simpson) passed away.

After a nearly two-year-long legal battle, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled on July 25 that Spann owns the exclusive theatrical, film and television rights to Harris’ complete library catalogue.

Spann had lost almost everything but experienced relief with the ruling: “I feel like a new man, like I have something to live for again.”

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In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, Spann is now looking to set up the Invisible Life movie, for which he has a completed script. He also hopes to again mount Invisible Life (The Musical), for which he has the book and music. And he is already working on getting Harris’ second best-selling book, Not A Day Goes By, into production. “I’m looking for the best opportunity that comes my way to bring these books to life,” adds Spann, who previously produced the musical stage play Sanctified, which ran in 2010 at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Spann, who first met Harris when he was a casting director in New York City, says that despite all that has happened, he feels he owes it to his late friend to keep going and make their dream come true.

“He believed in me,” says an emotional Spann. “He believed I was the one to make this happen. It’s the reason why I feel I’m here on earth, to bring these books to life.”