Forest Whitaker Teases His 'Ruthless but Sensitive' Mobster on 'Godfather of Harlem'

Kate Hahn
Fall Preview EPIX

It's 1963. "Heat Wave" by Martha and the Vandellas is a hit. The Civil Rights Movement is exploding. And notorious Harlem crime boss and community hero Bumpy Johnson (Oscar winner Forest Whitaker) — a real-life figure — is released after 10 years in Alcatraz.

In Epix's impeccably cast 10-episode drama Godfather of Harlem, Bumpy gets straight back to business, leaving a welcome-home party thrown by savvy wife Mayme (Ilfenesh Hadera, Billions) in their glamorous penthouse to begin reclaiming his crime territory from the Genovese mob family.

"Bumpy's bodyguard told me he was a unique type of gangster, somebody willing to get his hands dirty. He would get out of his car and engage in an actual gun battle," says Whitaker, who visited Johnson's former heavy in a nursing home as part of his exhaustive research. (Johnson himself died in 1968.)

(EPIX)

"He was ruthless — he killed people — but also sensitive, especially with his [drug addict] daughter."

See EPIX's 'Godfather of Harlem' Cast in Our TCA Studio (PHOTOS)

See EPIX's 'Godfather of Harlem' Cast in Our TCA Studio (PHOTOS)

See Forest Whitaker, Giancarlo Esposito and more pose for photo fun.

Bumpy allies with an old friend, convicted criminal turned preacher Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch, also Selma's Malcolm X), who thinks driving out Mafioso Vincent "Chin" Gigante (Vincent D'Onofrio) could help the community. (Chazz Palminteri and Paul Sorvino also play mobsters.) And the battle is on.

Godfather of Harlem, Series Premiere, Sunday, September 29, 10/9c, Epix (timeslot premiere: Sunday, Oct. 6, 9/8c)