Do the right coast: Ross scripts a local life

Monty Ross relaxes on the steps of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library downtown, casual in a baseball cap and a t-shirt. He laughs that if he were in Los Angeles, his cap would be more fitted, although he'd probably forego entering full movie-producer mode– all-black, accessorized with a bit of "bling" and a movie script.

Don't recognize the name Monty Ross? You know his work. From the 1980s until 1995, Ross was behind all of Spike Lee's movies, producing everything from Do the Right Thing to Malcolm X to the numerous TV commercials and music videos Lee directed.

Ross, now 47, became friends with Lee while a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta. After graduating, Lee went to New York University for film school. Nebraska native Ross stayed in Atlanta doing improvisational theater. But when Lee mentioned his NYU thesis project, Ross recalls, "I said I'd like to be in it."

Ross not only starred in Joe's Bed-Study Barbershop: We Cut Heads, which won Lee a 1983 student Academy Award, but also took care of whatever needed to be done on the set. "I didn't mind," he says, "because it was in New York, and I was learning about movies."

Although Ross and Lee ran out of money before finishing their next collaboration, The Messenger ("Larry Fishburne was going to be in that movie," Ross laments), the following project, She's Gotta Have It, shot on a shoestring in just 12 days, became the sleeper hit of 1986.

Careers launched, Ross helped Lee establish his production company, Forty Acres and A Mule, in an old Brooklyn firehouse. "The blood and sweat he pumped into that company often goes unnoticed," says L.A.-based film producer Lashan Browning of Ross, "but he was the heart of it all."

By 1994, though, Ross was dreaming of producing a movie about Harlem civil rights leader Adam Clayton Powell Jr. When Showtime signed on to the project, Ross moved to Los Angeles.

"It took eight years to get that film made," says Ross about Keep the Faith, Baby, which aired in 2002 to critical acclaim.

Weary of Hollywood's constant hype and with a new baby in the family, he and his wife, Carol, decided to move to Charlottesville soon after to be near Carol's family.

Ross still travels for work, but these days he concentrates his energy on parenting. Nevertheless, he has several production pots simmering, including a rags-to-riches bio-pic of local entrepreneur and York Place real estate magnate Chuck Lewis.

After L.A., where "people are constantly pitching, pitching," Ross is enjoying life in a lower key. "I kind of like being an unknown person and floating around Charlottesville," he says with a smile, "because you get to see the real world."

Monty Ross