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Carbon Copy
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMichael Schultz
Written byStanley Shapiro
Produced by
  • Carter DeHaven
  • Stanley Shapiro
CinematographyFred J. Koenekamp
Edited byMarion Segal
Music byBill Conti
Distributed byAVCO Embassy Pictures (United States)
Hemdale Film Distributors (United Kingdom)[1]
Release date
  • September 25, 1981 (1981-09-25)
Running time
92 minutes
CountriesUnited Kingdom
United States
Budget$6 million[2]
Box office$9 million[3] or $3.5 million[4]

Carbon Copy is a 1981 American comedy-drama film directed by Michael Schultz, produced by RKO Pictures and Hemdale Film Corporation, and released by Avco Embassy Pictures. The film stars George Segal, Susan Saint James, Jack Warden and Denzel Washington in his film acting debut. It was the first feature film produced by RKO after a break of many years.


Roger Porter (Washington), a 17-year-old African-American man, is the long-lost son of Walter Whitney (Segal), a successful businessman living in the exclusive, predominantly white community of San Marino, California.

Walter, who is secretly Jewish, lives a frustrating life in his gated community—as he constantly has to beg his wife for intercourse and has to put up with his obnoxious, disrespectful step-daughter Mary Ann's antics. Roger turns up at Walter's office, revealing that he is the result of Walter's long-ago relationship with a Black woman—Lorraine Porter—who is now dead. The only person who knew about Roger's mother was Walter’s anti-Semitic and racist father-in-law and boss Nelson Longhurst (Warden)—who had Walter change his surname from “Wiesenthal”—and who, upon discovering Walter and Lorraine’s engagement, had implicitly threatened to fire Walter if he continued the relationship. Walter, unaware of Roger, wrote her a letter seeking to put the relationship on hold; Lorraine never answered, but Roger received the letter from his Aunt Clara upon his mother’s death.

Attempting to make it up to Roger, Walter tells his wife Vivian (Saint James) that he wants to have Roger live with them for the summer as a foster son. She ultimately accepts, but immediately regrets the decision after she finds out about Roger's real relationship with Walter. She kicks Walter out, and Nelson fires him—taking his car and credit cards. His lawyer and erstwhile best friend says that he will be representing Vivian in the divorce, but gives him a referral to another lawyer, Bob Garvey, who is African-American. Garvey tells him that all his money is in only Vivian's and Mary Ann’s names, so all he really has left is the money in his wallet, $68. Walter checks into a sleazy motel with Roger and is unable to get a corporate job or a loan because Nelson has had all business leaders in town blacklist him. Determined not to be “broken”, Walter ultimately takes a job shoveling horse manure in a stable, after telling Garvey to have Roger find him “a cheap furnished apartment”; Roger hocks Walter's golf clubs to finance their move into a rundown apartment in Watts. Walter announces they will part company as soon as Roger gets a job.

While Roger is out, Vivian and Nelson visit him in the apartment, telling Walter they miss him—admiring his durability amidst his extreme hardships—and plan to treat him better than before, while looking after Roger so Walter can leave him without guilt. He chooses to take the deal, but when, after they leave, a cop chases Roger on suspicion of criminal activity, Walter creates a diversion and gets arrested in Roger’s place; Roger visits Walter in jail and tells him that he never wanted anything material from him, but simply wished that Walter, upon first meeting him, had seen in him his mother—who waited a lifetime for Walter—rather than seeing “black”.

Upon returning to San Marino, Walter is disgusted with the way Nelson uses logic to give his “sickness”—racism—“respectability”, and walks out—telling Nelson off for not giving a person “with two strikes against him … a third pitch to swing at”, and dismissing Nelson’s threats that this time he will make Walter really suffer. When he seeks to meet Roger again, Garvey reveals that Roger didn’t drop out of but graduated high school at age 16, and is actually a pre-med college student at Walter's old alma mater Northwestern University. He takes Walter to where Roger is at the side of the road working on his car; Walter tells him that he plans to go and work for an old acquaintance in order to live nearby Roger—and finally lets Roger call him “Dad”. A few moments later, he decides to go immediately and stay with Roger's Aunt Clara, as a full part of Roger’s life. As the movie ends, Walter proudly rides along in Roger’s jalopy and accepts from him an old picture of him and Lorraine from before Roger’s time.



The film was the first to be produced by RKO Pictures in 23 years, after it had declined in the 1950s and stopped making new films. The Hemdale Film Corporation and RKO co-financed the film, and CBS paid $3 million to fund post-production in exchange for allowing television screenings of the film on its network. Avco Embassy Pictures later received the rights to distribute the film in the United States, while Carolco Pictures received international distribution rights.[5]

Principal photography began on May 19, 1980, at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio in Hollywood, California, and concluded in July 1980. The production used 25 locations in Southern California, including Malibu and Lancaster.[5]

Carbon Copy initially received an R rating from the MPAA, but it was reduced to a PG rating on appeal.[5]

Home media

The film premiered with a benefit screening at the Directors Guild Theater in Los Angeles attended by former Vice President Walter Mondale, with proceeds going to the Hamburger Home.

The film is considered a box-office bomb.[5]

The film was released on VHS, Betamax, and LaserDisc in 1983 by Embassy Home Entertainment.

The film was released on DVD in 2004 by MGM Home Entertainment in a pan and scan format.

Shout! Factory (under license from MGM) released the film in its original widescreen format on Blu-ray in 2018.


  1. ^ "Carbon Copy (1981)". BBFC. Retrieved April 24, 2021.
  2. ^ "AFI|Catalog". Retrieved March 26, 2023.
  3. ^ Carbon Copy at Box Office Mojo
  4. ^ Donahue, Suzanne Mary (1987). American film distribution : the changing marketplace. UMI Research Press. p. 294. Please note figures are for rentals in US and Canada
  5. ^ a b c d "Carbon Copy". AFI Catalog. Retrieved June 12, 2022.