Monday, May 01, 2000

She keeps 'Becker' honest




columnist
        Hattie Winston laughs at the suggestion.

        “I'm not mean to him!” says Ms. Winston, who plays chief nurse Margaret for Ted Danson's rude Dr. John Becker on CBS' Becker (9:30 p.m. today, Channels 12, 7).

        “I just sort of put him in his place. I set him straight. I don't take any crap from him.”

        It could have been worse. She could have given me that Evil Eye. Her bone-chilling glare is the only thing that can penetrate Becker's hard, thick exterior.

        “I do give Becker that Evil Eye a lot. They noticed that I was doing that, and now they make sure it's always a part of the show,” the actress explains.

        “When she got the role, I said this was typecasting if I'd ever seen it!” laughs her husband, Broadway composer Harold Wheeler (Swing).

        “Margaret is very much her, in a lot of ways. And that little laugh she has. And the warm side of her too,” Mr. Wheeler says. @subHed:Voice of reason @colText:

        As Margaret, Ms. Winston gets to say what every viewer is thinking when Becker goes off about voice mail, HMOs, low-cholesterol diets, government red tape or whatever is bugging him.

        Her counter-balance, in fact, allows Mr. Danson to be even more politically incorrect. And funnier. (Tonight the Becker script pokes fun at Margaret's ability to make everyone do what she wants.)

        “She's got the thankless job of being the voice of reason,” says David Hackel, who created the CBS comedy, partially owned by Procter & Gamble Co. It has been renewed for a third season.

        “If you're going to have an opinionated character like John Becker — he's not necessarily right, but he's opinionated — it's good for the show to have some governors on him. And Margaret makes a perfect foil for him,” says the former Wings writer from Delaware, Ohio.

        Without her, the show wouldn't work. She's as valuable to Becker as Patricia Heaton is to Everybody Loves Raymond. How many times have we laughed at Tim Allen or Roseanne, failing to appreciate the contributions of Patricia Richardson or John Goodman?

        “In the writers' room, we call her "The Rock.' She represents the sanity in the office,” Mr. Hackel says. “I get the impression that nothing would get done without her.” @subHed:Best person for the part @colText:

        With all the talk about the lack of African-Americans on prime-time TV, it's important to note that the role of no-nonsense nurse Margaret Wyborn was not written for a person of color.

        Becker staffers looked at white, Asian and African-American women before hiring Ms. Winston, who had a broad range of TV, stage and film credits.

        The Mississippi native made her TV debut in 1971 on the Electric Company, the Emmy-winning PBS series.

        Ten years later, she co-starred in Michael Learned's Nurse. Another 10 years passed before she appeared on ABC's Homefront, the post-World War II drama (noon weekdays, TV Land cable).

        She also has been in Clara's Heart, True Crime, Jackie Brown, Beverly Hills Cop III and other features, and on Broadway in The Tap Dance Kid and Two Gentlemen of Verona.

        “I just wanted the best person for the part. She came in to play a nurse, not a black nurse,” Mr. Hackel says.

        So-called “colorblind” casting is how Hollywood should work, says Ms. Winston, former national Equal Opportunity Committee co-chair for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).

        “In the writing, and in the casting, that's where it all happens,” she says. @subHed:White male writers @colText:

        She blames the void in minorities on new shows last fall on the networks' obsession with young adult shows (Popular, Odd Man Out, Wasteland, Time of Your Life, Mike O'Malley, Angel), written by young white males.

        “New young writers write what they know about,” she says. “And young white male writers write about young white males, and young white male fantasies, beautiful young white girls.”

        The NAACP's outcry last summer has resulted in the networks agreeing to add minorities in front of, and behind, the cameras. Networks also promised to help recruit and train young African-American writers.

        “That's very important. My only problem with that, is that ... I know at least 25 good writers right now who are unemployed. There should be an active search by the networks to include some of these veteran writers.”

        All anybody wants is an equal opportunity. From there, they'll fend for themselves.

        Ms. Winston recalls auditioning for a TV commercial needing two actresses, an “Attractive Woman” and a “Black Woman.”

        “So I said to the casting person, "Which shall I read for? I'm in both categories.' And the lady didn't know what to say.

        “I said, "I'm feeling attractive today. I'll go for attractive.”

        And she didn't give anyone the Evil Eye.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. His column appears Monday and Wednesday.