With films starring him generating over $5.7 billion at the box office, Samuel L. Jackson is Hollywood’s highest-grossing actor. He’s also one of the industry’s most skilled ones. It’s that mastery that is very much on display in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, his first-ever limited series as both an actor and producer. It’s a passion project that’s taken him over a decade to get made.
Adapted from Walter Mosley’s 2010 book of the same name, Jackson plays elderly Atlanta resident Ptolemy Grey who is battling Alzheimer’s. It’s a story that’s in many ways very personal for Jackson. “I'm dealing with a subject that has affected me in my life,” he reveals. “My grandfather, my mom, my other relatives have gone through this particular disease.”
Speaking during the Television Critics Association tour, Jackson also shared that “I watched them change, deteriorate, and become different people over the years.” It’s a disease that is increasingly more common in the Black community, with the latest Alzheimer's Association’s annual report, Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures, finding that, “[o]lder Black Americans are about twice as likely to have Alzheimer's or other dementias as older whites.”
Ptolemy, shares Jackson is a “94-year-old man who's living in the throes of dementia [and] isolated. One family member that cares for him kind of disappears and someone else comes into his life and becomes his caretaker."
“This particular person turns out to be a young lady who fixes things, and she sort of fixes Ptolemy to a point where he's found a way to live in his condition. And she takes him to a doctor that helps him find a way to solve some of the problems that he's had in his life in the last year.”
Dominique Fishback—whose recent projects include Project Power, Judas and the Black Messiah and the Prime series Modern Love—memorably plays Ptolemy's caretaker. Like Ptolemy, she too has been displaced. With her mother, who was also a sisterly close friend to Ptolemy’s niece, gone, Robyn has no place to go, and no one to turn to. Cemented by their bond as people others have discarded and forgotten, she and Ptolemy quickly become close, forming a refreshing quasi-grandfather-granddaughter relationship rarely, if ever, depicted on any screen.
Fishback found co-starring with Jackson both personally fulfilling and healing. “I didn't get a lot of time with my grandfathers. One grandfather died when I was about six, the other one died before I was born,” she reveals. “[This year also marks the] 10-year anniversary of my grandmother passing away from cancer. My mom had to take care of her in our little apartment in East New York. She had the oxygen tank. She had all these [challenges], and you look back and [wonder] ‘was I the best granddaughter that I could be? Was I the best person? I hope my grandma knows that I love her. I know I'm not perfect, but I hope that she knows that.’ And Robyn kind of gives me that opportunity [to recreate those bonds].”
“Understanding what your responsibility is to your elders comes from a way of life or a way that you were taught,” says Jackson. “Ptolemy’s been kind of thrown away by his family until they give him this young lady who kind of accidentally shows up. She becomes closer to him than any of his relatives ever have been. And that's one of those situations that a lot of us understand that we have people who come into our lives that take on a role that's much greater than they had to take on and they become people that mean more to you than the people that you’ve known.”
Being able to represent a young Black woman like Robyn who finds a protector in Ptolemy was also very meaningful to Fishback. “I'm from East New York,” she explains. “In life, in that survival mode, you get a harder exterior than, maybe, what you actually are. And, when you are around people who protect you, and you feel safe, you're able to soften. And that’s such a gift as a Black woman, as a Black girl, to be able to soften. And I love that in this series that we get to see her do that because she feels safe and protected.”
In case you think The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is just about generational bonding or living with an illness, it's not. It’s also action-packed with Ptolemy taking a drug that brings a lot of the old him back. What unfolds is a rich life full of interesting twist and turns. There is a detective story as Ptolemy hits the streets to find out what happened to his nephew. A spotlight is also placed on his complicated love story with his beloved wife, Sensia, which is both dangerous and unconventional. Plus a hidden treasure is revealed. How Ptolemy secures that fortune features a fantastical backstory tangled in his Mississippi childhood. Topping it all off is a sensational family drama with Robyn caught dead in the center of greed, accompanied by false accusations and lawsuits.
Because The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is so enthralling, Jackson goes beyond just raising awareness about the illness and its impact. With this limited series, Jackson moves elderly Black people from the periphery and the fringes they typically occupy on the big and small screens to the center of the action, giving them agency in both the past and the present. Paying that kind of homage and respect to his own relatives as well as other older Black people is no coincidence or accident Jackson shares. “I'm also trying to celebrate them by telling the story to let people know that you can't just throw these people away—their lives are rich, and they gave something that made our lives better also.”
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is currently streaming on Apple TV+.