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For Robinson, acting is a whole new ballgame
Tonight at 8, Frank Robinson makes his national acting debut on "The Cosby Show" on Channel 2 (WMAR-TV) The episode was taped in New York two months ago. Sun reporter Mary Corey spent the afternoon on the set, interviewing and observing the budding performer.
Early scouting reports were good. He'd managed to learn his lines, take direction and tie his shoes on camera. But an hour before taping, Frank Robinson was staring down a serious case of the jitters.
There he was on the set of one of TV's most successful sitcoms, four cameras pointed at him, 200 or so people waiting for laughs, as he warmed up for his new position as Frank "Payday" Potter on "The Cosby Show."
Granted, portraying a former ballplayer who bowls, swaps baseball stories and says lines like "I'm hungry. Let's eat" wasn't too much of a stretch for the 55-year-old Orioles manager.
But try telling that to a fidgety rookie.
"What I compare this to is three things: first at bat, opening day; first at bat at the [American League Championship Series], and the World Series," he said.
The episode -- "There's Still No Joy in Mudville" -- centers around a group of men who revel in sports and competition. Joe Black, a former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, also makes a guest appearance.
"It's about self-indulgence and who knows more about baseball," Bill Cosby said. His respect for these athletes, combined with their interest in the show, brought them all together.
"Frank's a great sport and has done an excellent job, given what his experience is," the cigar-smoking comedian said.
In between scenes, Mr. Robinson paced offstage behind a potted fern, his lips moving as he read aloud from his script, his acting coach Yolanda Snowball by his side.
Members of the crew offered support through their attire -- the stage director wore a Cincinnati Reds cap, while another assistant showed his true colors, orange and black, with a numbered Orioles jersey. (He was soon told, however, he was showing his support for the wrong Robinson. Brooks -- not Frank -- was No. 5.)
And between rehearsals, staff members proved to be as superstitious as many ball players. Sitting around the Huxtable kitchen table, while Mr. Cosby polished off a lunch of pea soup, bread and bottled water, they read aloud Mr. Robinson's horoscope for the day.
"Personally and professionally things don't seem clearly defined, but don't imagine changes and upheavals taking place are to your disadvantage."
Mr. Cosby interpreted that as a good sign and ranked Mr. Robinson's first appearance above those of other non-professionals who had been on the show, including Dizzy Gillespie, B. B. King and the late Armand Hammer.
Surely, though, he doesn't think the acting world has found its next Olivier?
"Noooo," said Mr. Cosby without a moment's pause. "But I'll put it to you this way, he's better than I was in my first 'I Spy' episode."
For Mr. Robinson, the week had its share of highs and lows. He found primping for the cameras about as much fun as losing an argument to an umpire. Rumor had it that after a stylist carefully fixed his hair, he went to a mirror and combed it himself.
"I don't like powder and stuff on my face," he said. "I was made up when I was born."
He also didn't like having his part expanded just a day before taping. "He complained that he's getting more lines and still making the same money," Mr. Cosby said with a laugh.
Aside from Ms. Snowball's help, he received no guidance about how to make a graceful transition from manager to actor.
How was he supposed to say his very first line? Was it: "Is he late again?" Or "Is he late again?" Mr. Robinson had to wrestle with those questions himself.
"Nobody said, 'Do this, do that. They threw it at us cold turkey. . . . Bill was saying, 'Be relaxed, be your self, be natural. Let it flow.' "
But having observed his style, camerawoman Donna Quante considered coaching unnecessary. To her, Mr. Robinson was a natural. "This isn't too much of a stretch for him," she said. "We see him acting every day when he goes out and argues with the umpire."
It was thanks in part to her that the two even teamed up. In addition to working on the show, Ms. Quante, who lives in Hampstead, is a camerawoman for Home Team Sports. She acted as a liaison between the men, who became friends when Mr. Cosby called Mr. Robinson to offer support during the abysmal 1988 season. Soon after, an Orioles jersey was exchanged for a Cosby sweater. Then talk turned to having the Hall of Famer guest star on the show.
"I admire people in this business," Mr. Robinson said. "I've always wanted to dabble in it."
After his first performance, though, he decided dabbling was all he ever wanted to do. Resting on the sofa in his dressing room, looking drained and tired in a blue bathrobe, he was already preparing for the barbs from players and other coaches.
"I won't hear the end of this," he said. "I know I'm going to catch it afterwards; you know, 'Stick with baseball.'
His thoughts were already turning to revenge.
"Bill has to manage the ball club now," he said. "I want to see how he does. I want to see his palms sweat when he has to make the decisions in the dugout."