Remembering Chadwick Boseman: A journalist's cherished, complicated friendship with a superhero

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·13 mins read
Chadwick Boseman in the press room during the 2019 American Music Awards on Nov. 24, 2019 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)
Chadwick Boseman in the press room during the 2019 American Music Awards on Nov. 24, 2019 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s kind of a funny story, how I met Chad. At least the second time.

The first was pretty standard in this line of work. It was early 2014, and my wife, 10-month-old daughter, 10-year-old cat and I had just moved from New York to Los Angeles for my new gig at Yahoo when I got one of my first travel assignments: I flew to Jackson, Miss., to spend a day on the set of Get on Up, the James Brown biopic starring Chadwick Boseman.

I was excited for a few reasons. Above all, I’m a huge James Brown fan, and not only was I anticipating his Hollywood treatment, but I was intrigued, if slightly skeptical, how Boseman — who was then only really known for his understated portrayal of another African-American icon, Jackie Robinson, in 42 — was going to pull off such a firecracker of a man. Plus, I’d be talking to the likes of Mick Jagger (who was a producer), Dan Aykroyd and Craig Robinson. To be honest, I was more excited to talk to another of the co-stars, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of The Roots, than Sir Mick. (Our mutual love for hip-hop, especially the classics, is one of the things Chad and I would bond over through the years. Chad was passionate about music.)

The shooting schedule had unexpectedly moved up and by the time of my arrival, the production was on its final day. Boseman was warm and engaging during our interview, his affection for his subject readily apparent. They had only pick-ups left to shoot, mostly choreography, but just seeing him slide around the stage with the swagger of The Godfather re-animated, it was clear that this was a special actor, a chameleon who could slip into the skin — and the physicality — of anyone.

Fast forward to a few days later, back in Los Angeles. A day I’ll never forget. We’re at a gathering at the home of Addison, a friend of mine from our hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., who soon became my creative partner and closest friend here in L.A. At some point, Chad walks in. “Wait, what’s Chadwick Boseman doing here?” I turn and ask Logan, whom I’d only met a few weeks earlier, oblivious to the fact that Logan had been best friends and creative partners with Chad since their days at Howard University. “What are you doing here?” Chad and I would say to each moments later.

Chad, along with Addison and Logan, would be part of the family that adopted us and made us feel at home in a new city from that day until Aug. 28, 2020 — when he left us way too soon, at only 43, after a four-year bout with colon cancer.

Chadwick Boseman and Kevin Polowy
Chadwick Boseman and Kevin Polowy

For someone who profiled actors for a living, there was an undeniable rush from the connection we made, and actively rooting for him and witnessing him blossom. But in large part because of my profession, there would be always a little bit of a wall between us. Chad was an intensely private person, especially the more famous he became, and the more he eventually struggled with his health woes.

Still, I was blessed to share so many unforgettable moments with him.

I’ll never forget the premiere of Draft Day. Chad was like seventh billed in that movie, but that didn’t stop us from rushing him out of the after-party like we were the Secret Service shielding the president, all to protect him from a scant few paparazzi flashes. Chad was destined for greatness.

I’ll never forget celebrating the opening weekend of Get on Up over a Sunday night beach bonfire, pondering the strange young trajectory of our connection from formal set visit to intimate ceremony. Chad loved life.

I’ll never forget attending a Marvel unveiling event at the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. As Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans hyped their upcoming clash in Captain America: Civil War, they paused to announce who would be joining them as Black Panther: Chadwick Boseman. I was in the second row and practically jumped out of my chair, yelling, “Oh, sh**!” at the top of my lungs. The guys had wisely kept that one from me. Chad was about to be big time.

Kevin Feige, Robert Downey Jr., Chadwick Boseman and Chris Evans at the Oct. 28, 2014 press event that introduced Boseman as the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Black Panther. (Photo Getty/Disney/Marvel)
Kevin Feige, Robert Downey Jr., Chadwick Boseman and Chris Evans at the Oct. 28, 2014 press event that introduced Boseman as the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Black Panther. (Photo Getty/Disney/Marvel)

When he got the Marvel gig, rather than seek out a Hollywood assistant or trainer he was now well-budgeted for, Chad hired one of his closest and most trusted friends, Addison, to be his all-around right-hand man. They already worked out together anyway. It made sense. And Chad was loyal.

I’ll never forget those moments at cookouts when he would slip a few feet away from the crew to kick his feet into the air, building on the martial arts background he had and perfecting the training he was receiving to play T’Challa. Chad was devoted, determined, always a student of the game.

Chad was fiercely intelligent, philosophical, a deep thinker, which could be a pain for journalists looking for sound bites. Chad didn’t like doing interviews, but as the countless clips shared over the past few days have proven, he was not only generous with his time, he also had so much knowledge to drop.

Most entertainment journalists would be lying if they told you they didn’t enjoy the thrill of cozying up to celebrities they interview. But the more attention Chad got, and the closer we became over the years, the more awkward it became in those settings. “Can’t have no one in here who knows where I live,” he cracked when I came in the door at a press junket. In an instant, we’d have to recalibrate from talking all kinds of sh** to being professional and doing our jobs, and neither of us liked it much.

When I went to Atlanta for a long weekend while Chad and Addison were working on Black Panther, I spent a day in Chad’s trailer as we waited for hours upon hours for him to be called to set. “You know too much,” he’d tell me, nervous that something about the way he felt or issues he had would slip out, even subconsciously, in interviews.

It hurts so much now to know what he was hiding, and that by welcoming me into his world, I may have added even the least bit of stress to his battle. That day, in that trailer, we had a heart-to-heart and put it all on the table. I vowed I would never break his trust, and I never did.

I knew Chad was sick at points — and I worried about him — but had no idea the extent of his illness. He kept it so quiet, so private, not even telling filmmakers and co-stars. As his family revealed on Friday, he was initially diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016 and the disease grew progressively worse until his death. That’s life’s cruel irony: how someone could have so much going for him yet struggle so much at the same time. Like so many have echoed since his passing, I stand with the world in awe of how he powered through his illness and his treatments and surgeries to keep delivering incredible work. As his family perfectly stated, Chad was “a true fighter.”

I’ll never forget the night of Black Panther’s Hollywood premiere, and the block-walk from the Dolby Theatre to the soon-to-be-raging after-party at the Roosevelt Hotel. My wife and I trailed closely behind Chad and his future wife, Simone, his parents, brothers and extended family like Logan and Addison. No one spoke. We simply breathed in the moment and its magnitude, the only sounds a few camera clicks from onlookers on the other side of a barricade. His parents radiated with pride. It was so quiet it was serene, surreal, almost mystical.

I’ll never forget the opening night of Black Panther. Chad’s manager, Chris, closed our go-to spot The Dime, which he co-owns, so we could celebrate. Not long after I got there, I saw Chad sitting alone, wallflowering, head in his phone. Chad could be reserved, introverted, but I couldn’t believe he was being antisocial tonight. I walked over, prepared to give him sh**, when he looked up and flashed his phone up toward me. He had been tracking the opening night numbers of the future record-smashing hit in real-time, and he couldn’t believe his eyes. He knew how much the film meant for the industry. For the world. But above all, for the Black community.

Chad was an activist. He marched for immigration rights with Kamala Harris as our government was locking children in cages. He worked with Trayvon Martin’s parents in Marshall. He felt an enormous responsibility as a prominent Black man, to celebrate the culture, to empower the culture, to use his stature to serve as a role model for youth, many of whom mourned his passing with the “Wakanda forever!” salute shared on social media.

Much of his activism manifested through his art: he wanted to use his time here to make things that mattered. Chad and Logan were always writing and developing and producing, and their projects were steeped in social justice. There’s a film about the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, who fought against gang violence in Boston; a series about the Little Rock Nine, the Black girls who integrated an Arkansas high school in 1954, which was announced just 10 days before Chad died. I have no doubt Logan will continue Chad’s legacy.

I remember fearing we’d never see him once he blew up. I just pictured him being too busy hanging out with Evans and Downey. But that never happened. He kept his friends and family and team — manager Chris, agent Michael, publicist Nicki, hair artist Dee, costumer Craig — close. Chris Hemsworth never showed up and crashed the party. (Not that we would’ve turned him down. Chris Hemsworth is a genuinely super-nice guy.) That just wasn’t his style. Chad never changed.

I’ll never forget when Chad started picking up the tabs. Chad was giving.

It did get harder to go out. There was no more random bar-hopping, everything had to be planned out and calculated. Of course with that came the VIP treatment, as we lived out Entourage-esque fantasies. On multiple occasions I was asked by random club-goers trying to inch into Chad’s orbit if I was his agent. Maybe it was because I was the white guy in our crew. Maybe I didn’t look like I belonged. Maybe I just look like an agent.

Kevin Polowy, Jumar Habtemariam, Logan Coles, Addison Henderson, Chadwick Boseman and Chris Huvane
Kevin Polowy, Jumar Habtemariam, Logan Coles, Addison Henderson, Chadwick Boseman and Chris Huvane

I’d often think about how our relationship would be different if I didn’t do what I did, or he didn’t do what he did. But we’re so lucky to live in a world where he did what he did. I have no doubt that Chad will go down as one of the all-time greats as we revisit the gifts he left us. The quiet simmer he brought to Jackie Robinson, the explosiveness he brought to James Brown, the dignity he brought to Thurgood Marshall. The authenticity and regal power he brought to T’Challa. A part of Chad was reflected in all those roles.

I’ll never forget how proud we felt when he was on the cover of Time magazine. Chad was an icon.

I’ll never forget celebrating his 40th birthday, never imagining he’d have so few left.

Dancing to James Brown and Fela Kuti. Watching Erykah Badu at the Hollywood Bowl. The barbecues where you could tell how excited our other friends were that he was in the house. Chad brought an energy everywhere he went.

I’ll never forget seeing him in Buffalo while he was there to shoot Marshall, our worlds colliding, and how proud we were he was experiencing our hometown and seeing where we came from. Like so many actors, Chad had to be a nomad.

The quiet days and nights when we watched the Final Four at his modest “pre-T’Challa” apartment in L.A., NFL games in his Philadelphia temp housing after pulling all-nighters while they shot 21 Bridges, and the NBA Finals at a bar in downtown Buffalo. Chad loved watching sports. Clearly.

I’ll never forget how incredibly sweet he was with our daughters, and how cool they thought it was they knew a real-life superhero. I’ll never forget watching him drum — that drum became a fixture — as my girls danced along.

I'll never forget the first time I saw him after my father passed away and the long, warm hug he gave me. It was at the Governors Awards in 2017, one of those black-tie events where our career paths crossed. It didn’t matter who witnessed our embrace. Chad had so much love in him.

The late nights when we were feeling it and he’d wrap his arms around us. The moments that the barrier between us was no longer there.

It was a privilege any time I was in his presence.

I'll never forget the last time I saw him, at The Dime, of course, when he pulled me aside to tell me he'd gotten engaged. Chad was madly in love, and I’m so glad they got to make it official before he went.

Taylor Simone Ledward and Chadwick Boseman attend the 2019 Oscars. (Eric McCandless via Getty Images)
Taylor Simone Ledward and Chadwick Boseman attend the 2019 Oscars. (Eric McCandless via Getty Images)

My heart aches for Simone, the love of his life, his sweet parents, his loving siblings, his huge South Carolina family, our shared brothers Logan and Addison, Jumar and the rest of our crew.

I was out for a run when I got word that Chad was leaving us. I was shattered. When I finally collected myself and managed to put my headphones back on, I clicked to the next song. It was Aretha Franklin’s “I Say a Little Prayer.” Of the thousands of songs on my phone, how this one? It was a song I didn’t even know I had.

Chad was a man of deep faith. I’ve never been as devout, but this felt like too much to be a coincidence, one of those moments that makes you believe. It felt like divine intervention. Much like that second time I met him, the day Chadwick Boseman walked into my life and affected me forever.

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