Samuel L. Jackson is the highest-earning actor in Hollywood, with films starring him collecting over $5.7 billion at the box office. He’s also one of the most skilled in the business. This mastery is on full display in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, his debut limited series as both an actor and a producer. It’s a labor of love that’s taken him more than a decade to complete.
Jackson plays elderly Atlanta resident Ptolemy Grey, who is suffering Alzheimer’s, in this adaptation of Walter Mosley’s 2010 novel of the same name. It’s a story that’s close to Jackson’s heart in many ways. He reveals, “I’m dealing with an issue that has affected me throughout my life.” “This sickness has affected my grandfather, my mother, and other relatives.”
“I watched them develop, degenerate, and become different individuals over the years,” Jackson said during the Television Critics Association tour. “[O]lder Black Americans are roughly twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias as older whites,” according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s newest annual study, Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.
Ptolemy, Ptolemy, Ptolemy, Ptolemy Jackson is a “94-year-old man who is solitary and suffering from dementia.” Someone who cares for his kind of vanishes, and someone else enters his life and takes over as his caretaker.”
“This person turns out to be a young lady who fixes things, and she sort of fixes Ptolemy so that he may survive in his state.” And she takes him to a doctor who assists him in resolving some of the issues that have arisen in his life over the past year.”
Ptolemy’s caretaker is played by Dominique Fishback, whose recent ventures include Project Power, Judas, and the Black Messiah, and the Prime series Modern Love. She, like Ptolemy, has been uprooted. Robyn has nowhere to go and no one to turn to now that her mother, who was also a sisterly close friend of Ptolemy’s niece, has passed away. She and Ptolemy immediately get close, developing a delightful quasi-grandfather-granddaughter relationship rarely, if ever, seen on screen, thanks to their bond as people others have discarded and forgotten.
Fishback found working with Jackson to be both personally rewarding and therapeutic. “I didn’t spend much time with my grandfathers as a child. She confesses, “One grandfather died when I was around six years old, and the other died before I was born.” “This year marks the tenth anniversary of my grandmother’s death from cancer.” My mother had to look after her in our little East New York apartment.
She had the oxygen tank. You look back and question, “Was I the best granddaughter that I could be?” She had all these [challenges], and you wonder, “Was I the greatest granddaughter that I could be?” Was it true that I was the best person? I hope my grandmother realizes how much I adore her. I realize I’m not perfect, but I hope she understands.’ And Robyn provides me with that opportunity [to rekindle those friendships].”
“Understanding your elders’ responsibilities comes from a way of life or a method that you were taught,” Jackson explains. “Ptolemy has been tossed aside by his family until they offer him this young lady who turns up by chance.” She develops a stronger bond with him than any of his relatives have ever had. And that’s one of those circumstances where a lot of us recognize that there are people who come into our lives and take on a role much larger than they were asked to take on, and they become people that mean more to you than the people you’ve known before.”
It meant a lot to Fishback to be able to represent a young Black woman like Robyn who finds a guardian in Ptolemy. She explains, “I’m from East New York.” “In life, when you’re in survival mode, you develop a tougher exterior than you are. You can also soften when you’re surrounded by individuals who protect you and make you feel protected. And being able to soften as a Black woman, as a Black girl, is such a gift. And I love that we get to witness her do that in this series because she feels safe and protected.”
If you believe The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is only about generational ties or coping with illness, you’re mistaken. It’s also action-packed, with Ptolemy ingesting medicine that allows him to revert to his former self. What follows is a fascinating life full of unexpected twists and turns.
Ptolemy goes out on the streets to find out what happened to his nephew in detective fiction. His complicated love story with his adored wife, Sensia, is also highlighted, which is both risky and unorthodox. In addition, a previously unknown treasure is disclosed. Ptolemy’s money is secured through a magical storyline entwined in his Mississippi background. Topping it off is a riveting family story in which Robyn is found dead amid greed, with false allegations and lawsuits.
Because The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey are so gripping, Jackson goes above and beyond simply raising awareness about the sickness and its consequences. With this limited series, Jackson brings older Black people from the outskirts and fringes of popular culture to the center of the action, giving them agency in the past as well as the present.
It’s no coincidence or accident that Jackson pays such regard and respect to his relatives as well as other older Black folks. “By recounting the narrative, I’m also want to show people that you can’t just toss these individuals away—their lives are rich, and they offered something that made our lives better as well.”