Sunday, September 17, 2000

TV tunes in to diversity

Actor and ex-Cincinnatian Rocky Carroll's role is one example of how things are changing this fall

        When Chicago Hope was canceled last spring, Rocky Carroll wasn't worried about his next TV role.

        “I was flooded with offers. Everybody had a show (with minorities). I got offers from ABC and NBC,” said the Mount Auburn native, who will co-star with Christine Baranski on CBS' Welcome to New York.

        The Hollywood environment was radically different 18 months ago, when TV networks had virtually no roles for minorities.

        The lack of diversity prompted a protest by the NAACP, which early this year negotiated agreements with each network to improve minority positions on TV, behind the cameras and in management.

        The result has been an appreciable change of TV's prime-time landscape for African-Americans, though not for Asian-Americans or Latinos:

        • Almost one-third (nine) of the 30 new fall series have major African-American characters.

        • Three of the nine have African-American leads: Andre Braugher's Gideon's Crossing (ABC); David Alan Grier's DAG (NBC) and the Girlfriends ensemble comedy (UPN).

        • Other high-profile minority roles this fall include Mykelti Williamson as the detective chasing The Fugitive (CBS); Chi McBride as the high school principal on David E. Kelley's Boston Public (Fox); and Mr. Carroll as a Bryant Gumbel-type arrogant morning TV show host (CBS).

        Mr. Carroll, 38, took the CBS role because he wanted to return to comedy and work with Ms. Baranski. His first TV series was Fox's Roc (1991-94).

        It didn't hurt that Welcome To New York, about a naive Indiana weatherman (Jim Gaffigan) taking a network TV job, was produced by David Letterman's Worldwide Pants Inc. on the network that had invested four years in Mr. Carroll's career.

        “When CBS asked, I didn't waiver too much,” he said.

        The 1981 School for Creative and Performing Arts graduate has chosen his TV roles selectively, moving from the freeloading brother on Roc to a surgeon and now a TV anchor. He turned down numerous opportunities to play a criminal suspect on police dramas, or other “bad guys,” the roles most offered to African-American men, he said.

        “Casting people would say, "You turn down more roles than many actors have had.' I could have made a lot more money. But I had a plan (to take only the most challenging roles). It was a promise that I made to myself when I moved out here,” said Mr. Carroll, who will return home next spring to star in and direct the Children's Theatre production of The Piano Lesson May 11-13 at Taft Theatre.

        Joining Mr. Carroll on CBS will be Lynne Thigpen (Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego) as the statistics expert on Craig T. Nelson's The District, and Mr. Williamson (Forrest Gump) as Lt. Philip Gerard on The Fugitive.

Colorblind casting

               The Fugitive producers said they weren't looking specifically for an African-American as Lt. Gerard, a role played by Barry Morse, a Caucasian, in the Dennis Janssen series (1964-67). That kind of so-called “colorblind casting” was what African-Americans told TV critics last year they wanted in Hollywood.

        “There were numerous actors that wanted this role,” said executive producer Arnold Kopelson, who also produced The Fugitive film starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in 1993. “Mykelti just knocked us out with the intensity of his personality and performance, and we went with him.”

        Producers of ABC's Gideon's Crossing also said the role of Dr. Benjamin Gideon, a Boston hospital chief of experimental medicine, was not written for a person of color. They looked for the best actor, and that was Mr. Braugher, the Emmy-winner from Homicide: Life on the Street.

        “As soon as the idea came up, it was everybody's first choice,” said Katie Jacobs, executive producer.

        Gideon's Crossing will offer viewers the most diversity of the 15 new dramas and 15 new comedies. The cast includes a Hispanic hospital administrator (Ruben Blades), an African-American chief resident (Russell Hornsby), and an immigrant intern (Ravi Kapoor).

        Author Dr. Jerome Groopman, whose The Measure of Our Days was the basis for the series, said the multicultural cast was “a very authentic reflection” of today's medical school student population.

On the comedy front

               On the comedy front, Mr. Grier, the former In Living Color star, plays a Secret Service agent assigned to a vain first lady (Delta Burke) on NBC's DAG. NBC also has moved Tim Meadows from Saturday Night Live to a sidekick on the Michael Richards Show, and hired Wendell Pierce (Waiting to Exhale, Bullworth) as Steven Weber's best friend on Cursed.

        UPN has the fall's only completely African-American show, the Girlfriends comedy starring Tracee Ellis Ross (singer Diana's daughter), Golden Brooks (Linc's Place), Persia White (The Last Action Hero) and former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader Jill Jones.

        The bawdy Sex and the City-style comedy, which debuted Sept. 11 on UPN's Monday minority comedy block (with Moesha, The Parkers and The Hughleys), is being produced by creator Mara Brock Akil (Moesha, The Jamie Fox Show), who is African-American, and Tristate natives Dee LaDuke and Mark Alton Brown, who are not.

        Mr. Brown, a former Designing Women writer, said he had difficulty finding African-American staff writers for Girlfriends because “everyone from Frasier on down wants African-American writers.”

        The NAACP agreement with NBC, for example, said the network seeks “diverse writing staffs on all shows.” NBC also promised to fund an additional writing position on every second-year show to help achieve diversity, and to “hire qualified people of color as directors.” These people eventually may move up to become producers and series creators.

        “Obviously, if there were more African-American show runners, we wouldn't be here,” Ms. LaDuke said from her Girlfriends office.

Should do more

               Network executives admit they should do more so that the prime-time picture more accurately reflects all American people.

        CBS filmed a Latino drama pilot with Edward James Olmos called American Family last spring, but it has been scrapped.

        “American Family was not as strong as the shows we were putting on the air,” CBS Television President Les Moovnes said. “Our chances for success with it were not as good as the ones that we did put on the air. It was as simple as that.”

        NBC's prime-time shows will have 17 percent more minority characters than last year, said Scott Sassa, NBC West Coast president.

        “It's a start,” Mr. Sassa said. “And we're still committed to continue to move the ball forward with diversity again because we really think it's good business for us to have diverse casts, and diversity behind the camera, too.”

        What he didn't say was diversity was good business for NBC a decade ago, when The Cosby Show was America's No. 1 show, and A Different World was No. 4.

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