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Samuel L. Jackson leads a ‘dark fairytale’ about a man with dementia in ‘Ptolemy Grey’

The new miniseries, based on Walter Mosley's acclaimed novel, tells the story of a man with dementia who confronts his past and solves the mysterious death of his great-nephew.
Samuel L. Jackson and Dominique Fishback in "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey."
Samuel L. Jackson and Dominique Fishback in "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey."Hopper Stone / Apple TV+

Samuel L. Jackson’s newest role is one he’s been waiting over a decade to play. In the new six-episode Apple TV+ miniseries, “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” the Academy Award nominee stars as a 91-year-old man on the verge of slipping deeper into dementia. Jackson, 73, said his performance is, in large part, inspired by his own family’s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease.

“My grandfather, my uncle, my aunt, my mom, there are people on my father’s side who have Alzheimer’s, and I watched them change, deteriorate, and become different people over the years,” Jackson, who also serves as an executive producer, told reporters during a Television Critics Association panel last month. “'Ptolemy' fits into the real-life chronology of my life in terms of honoring all those people in my life who had Alzheimer’s.”

Created by Walter Mosley and based on his acclaimed 2010 novel of the same name, “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” stars Jackson as Grey, an ailing man who — after undergoing an experimental treatment that can temporarily restore his addled memories — uses his fleeting lucidity to confront the ghosts of his past and solve the mysterious death of his great-nephew Reggie (Omar Benson Miller) with the help of his new caretaker, Robyn (Dominique Fishback).

Calling the story “a dark fairy tale” set in a world where there is a temporary cure for Alzheimer’s, Mosley said “Ptolemy Grey,” is, in a sense, an exercise in “wish fulfillment” for families who have been directly impacted by the disease.

Samuel L. Jackson in "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey."
Samuel L. Jackson in "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey."Hopper Stone / Apple TV+

“Whenever you walk into a room with somebody who you love, who’s going through dementia, the first thing you wish is you could have them back,” Mosley, 70, told NBC News. “There they are sitting in front of you — that’s their voice, it’s their face — but you want to get them back. And what I did in this story is just to say, ‘Well, OK, imagine this: You have them back for a couple of weeks, a month, month and a half, whatever. How much would that be worth to you?’ And it would be worth everything.”

Drawn to the way Mosley tackled issues of “race, family tragedy and buried memories,” Jackson said he had repeatedly envisioned an on-screen adaptation of “Ptolemy Grey” for years, but he didn’t think the story could be properly told in a full-length feature film. Mosley agreed, adding that the idea of centering an entire television show on an elderly Black man’s experiences with dementia — when those stories are normally marginalized — was unique in and of itself.

“There’s only really one or maybe two stories you can tell in 90 minutes — and there’s so much of this story which needed to come out,” Mosley said. “The new way that television and streaming works is to say, ‘OK, I don’t need to make a series that’s going to last five years. I just need six hours to tell the whole story.’ And we could tell you everything that was important in the novel … in six hours.”

Faced with the reality of his impending mortality, Ptolemy lives alone in squalor, unable to overcome the frightening and dizzying haze of his dementia. But after the sudden loss of his great-nephew, who was the last family member to check on him, Ptolemy meets Robyn, a shrewd 17-year-old orphan who was initially taken in by Ptolemy’s niece Niecie (Marsha Stephanie Blake) but was ultimately evicted after a brush with Niecie’s son Hilly. In exchange for a place to live, Robyn offers to help clean and declutter Ptolemy’s vermin-infested home, handle his finances and take him to his doctor’s appointments.

Walter Mosley and Samuel L. Jackson arrive for the premiere of "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey" in Westwood, Calif.
Walter Mosley and Samuel L. Jackson arrive for the premiere of "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey" in Westwood, Calif.Patrick T. Fallon / AFP - Getty Images

After finding a home for the project in December 2020, Jackson said he became set on Fishback playing Robyn after seeing her performance in the Netflix film “Project Power.” He then called his manager and said, “I found Robyn,” not realizing that she had previously worked with his wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, on the HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero.” Fishback, meanwhile, had been in the middle of the press tour for “Judas and the Black Messiah” and said she was still trying to learn the lines for her chemistry read with Jackson in between interviews.

“I wasn’t sure if this was the next thing that I should do. I’m such a fun person, I want to do comedy, I’m very silly and I’m such a romantic, and I don’t really get a lot of time to do that,” Fishback, 30, said. “So I was like, ‘Is this the thing where this character is, like, fighting and doing all the stuff?’ But what you learn from this show is that it is about unconditional love, and it is kind of that thing that I’ve always been asking for.”

She said the thought of sharing the screen with Jackson was daunting, so she focused on tapping into Robyn’s psychology by journaling her character’s thoughts and emotions. 

“I don’t try to think about being on the screen with Samuel L. Jackson,” she said. “I try to think about how Robyn is servicing what Ptolemy needs.”

Fishback added: “I just knew the first day that I was on set with him and Robyn says, ‘Come on, let’s get you home and let’s get you to the bus,’ I remember Sam just telling me, ‘Hearing you say that line really took a weight off of my shoulders because we’ve been trying to put this together for so long and it felt like it was in solid hands.’ So for me that was good enough.”

When Jackson first approached Mosley about adapting “Ptolemy Grey” for the screen, Jackson was clear on his vision: He understood that, for people suffering from dementia, “things in their past are more present than what’s going on in their everyday life” and he wanted to figure out a way “to convey that to people.” In the process, he hoped to give audiences “an opportunity to know that they aren’t the only people who watch their loved ones deteriorate that way.”

“[Robyn] comes in when his family kind of discards him and [she] treats him like a really valued individual,” Jackson said, “and that’s something that a lot of people don’t have.”

For Fishback, who said the experience of working with Jackson has opened her eyes to the importance of being yourself and speaking to everyone on a set, she hopes that the series will be “healing for people” and “that they can see themselves” in any of the characters.

“They might relate to Niecie, they might relate to Hilly, and think that, ‘I could have done better. I could have cleaned.’ They could relate to Reggie, who was doing all he could [for Ptolemy],” she concluded. “He didn’t have the wherewithal to clean his house, but he took him out to use the bathroom, he fed him. And then Robyn came in and was like the cleaner, saying, ‘No, you can’t live like this.’ And maybe, hopefully, everybody gets to see themselves, and [realizes] there’s no perfect way to be. We’re just trying to figure it out.”

The first two episodes of “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” premiered Friday on Apple TV+, with a new episode premiering weekly through April 8.