B.B. King Estate Announces Official Biopic, Clears Up Wendell Pierce Confusion (EXCLUSIVE)

Ellise Shafer
·4-min read

An official biopic of iconic blues musician B.B. King is going into pre-production in 2021, Vassal Benford, chairman of King’s estate, tells Variety. This is a separate project from “The Thrill Is On,” which is a drama about King’s friendship with drummer Michael Zanetis starring Wendell Pierce as King.

Confusion first arose when “The Wire” and “Selma” actor Pierce announced that he would play King via Twitter on Oct. 19. “We are official. Preparation has begun on a film where I will be honored to play the great B.B. King,” Pierce wrote. This led many to assume he would be playing King in a biopic retelling the late singer-guitarist’s life story.

Pierce expanded on the situation on Oct. 22, writing: “The Estate of B.B. King has requested I clarify the film ‘The Thrill Is On’ is not a biopic in the traditional sense. It is a dramatized version of a real-life friendship story in the spirit of the film ‘Round Midnight.'”

B.B. King’s estate has clarified that there are two separate projects in the works concerning King — “The Thrill Is On,” which is not associated with the estate, and an upcoming biopic of King’s life, which is being produced by the estate. Though Benford says King’s estate has considered Pierce to play King in the biopic, they are looking at a number of other actors for the role, including “Saturday Night Live” star Kenan Thompson. A major director is also in talks to helm the upcoming biopic, according to the estate.

A representative for Pierce confirmed that “The Thrill Is On” is not a biopic, as did Zanetis.

“I am not qualified to write a biopic of Mr. King’s life, but this decade of his life is a chapter I lived with him,” Zanetis told Variety. “Our friendship flourished until our last visit in 2011.”

Representatives for Thompson did not immediately respond to Variety‘s request for comment.

However, Benford — who recently executive-produced the new film “After We Collided” — says that the estate highly respects Pierce as an actor and believes that he “unintentionally misspoke” in a way that gave the impression he was starring in a biopic of King. Though “The Thrill Is On” is not associated with or produced by King’s estate, Benford says that the estate does not disapprove of the film.

“We want to be crystal clear that the film announced by Pierce is not a biopic, as there are several major players involved in the new B.B. King biopic and the estate does not want there to be any confusion as to the nature of each separate project,” Benford tells Variety. “One is a docudrama, and the other is the official B.B. King biopic approved by corporate management of the B.B. King estate and trust as a part of B.B. King’s legacy initiative.”

In a statement previously released by representatives for “The Thrill Is On,” the project is described to be a “friendship film.” The movie tells “the inspiring true story of how a chance meeting between Zanetis, a young musician, and B.B. King in 1980 led to King being the first blues artist to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990,” according to the statement.

Pierce has been attached to star in the film produced and co-written by Zanetis since 2009, but the film — then titled “B.B. King and I” — ran into legal trouble in 2012 when Zanetis sued King after receiving a cease-and-desist order from King’s representatives. However, both Pierce and Zanetis have said that King gave them his blessing to make the film before his death in 2015.

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