A new family is coming to "Knots Landing." And the creative staff of CBS' long-running prime-time soap wants to make sure their arrival is significant by making sure that it isn't.
The Williams family joins the series tonight (at 10 p.m., Channels 2 and 8), moving into a home on the cul-de-sac in the fictional suburb of Knots Landing, Calif.
As it happens, the Williamses are black. As it happens, they are the first black principal characters on "Knots Landing" in its eight-year history. And, although ABC's "Dynasty" featured two major black characters several years ago, the Williamses also happen to be the only major black characters now featured on a prime-time soap.
Though very much aware that the Williams family represents a casting breakthrough of sorts for the show and the genre, David Jacobs, its creator and executive producer, says he and the show's writer-producers think the best way to make a statement in bringing in black characters is to say nothing at all about their being black.
"We decided to write it colorblind," Jacobs said. "It's just a new couple coming to Knots Landing, and here are their problems. We're not doing it this way because it's safe--we're doing it because it's good ."
Larry Riley, who starred on stage and in the feature film version of "A Soldier's Story," plays Frank Williams. Lynne Moody, whose credits include the TV medical comedy "E.R.," "Roots" and "Roots: The Next Generation," plays Patricia Williams. Kent Masters-King, a student at the Marlborough School for Girls in Los Angeles who has appeared in area theatrical productions and guest-starred on several TV series, plays their 12-year-old daughter, Julie.
Like "The Cosby Show," which features universal family problems rather than racial ones, "Knots Landing" will concentrate on relationships and a mystery plot involving the Williams family rather than stories involving racial prejudice or ethnic differences, Jacobs said.
Unusual circumstances will have forced the Williamses to leave their home, friends and professional lives behind to start over in Knots Landing--and lead Knots Landing residents to wonder why their new neighbors keep so fiercely to themselves.
"Knots Landing" producer Lawrence Kasha and executive script consultants Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Marie Latham agreed with Jacobs' colorblind philosophy, offering that an affluent black family moving into a predominantly white California neighborhood is not unusual in 1988 and realistically need not spur much reaction from the residents.
"It seems almost corny and old-fashioned to deal with (racial issues)," Lechowick said. "Our characters are not written black and white--all of our characters are gray."
Moody said she delights in her role as Patricia because it is one of the few parts she has been offered that makes no particular statements about racial issues. "That's what makes it special--I think it's going to be more universal in appeal," she said.
"It kind of takes us backwards in time, to have to back up (and do stories about racial issues) I think because visually we are a black family, that speaks for itself."
Richard Shapiro, an executive producer of "Dynasty," said that he felt the same way when his show introduced an extravagantly wealthy couple portrayed by Diahann Carroll and Billy Dee Williams in 1984. Carroll's character was eventually revealed to be the half-sister of "Dynasty" patriarch Blake Carrington. Both actors have since left the series.
" 'Dynasty' is a fantasy--we don't deal with social issues," Shapiro said. "I think our black audience liked that, appreciated it."
He said that the philosophy carries over to the show's bisexual character, Steven Carrington, whose homosexual affairs are treated like those of "any two people in love."
Willis Edwards, president of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, praised "Knots Landing" for its colorblind approach and for providing much-needed black representation in dramatic series, rather than just in situation comedies.
"What I hope the producer will do is add black writers to the show, and bring on different (minority) directors," he said. "If you're going to do it in front of the camera, do it behind the camera as well."
"Knots Landing" writers noted that a number of minority directors have worked on the show, but there have been virtually no minority writers. Kasha said he is more concerned with finding good writers willing to do enough research to write authentic characters of all races, rather than arbitrarily integrating the writing staff.
Kasha said that "Knots Landing" will not erase ethnic issues if they come up as a natural part of plot or conversation; Knots Landing residents, for example, will at first misinterpret the Williamses' secretiveness to the fact that they might be uncomfortable in a predominantly white neighborhood or perhaps had a bad experience in some other neighborhood.
"We try to have our characters behave as characters naturally behave," he said. As an example, Kasha said writers would not hesitate to write interracial love affairs--in fact, the character of Gary Ewing (Ted Shackleford) will soon develop a crush on Patricia--and said that "it would not be irregular" for another character to comment on such a relationship.
Although offering no explanation for why a black family was not part of the original cast, Jacobs and Kasha said the reason they waited until now to add black characters was a practical one: too many existing characters in the cast. Last season, for financial and story reasons, "Knots Landing" and other prime-time soaps downsized their casts, and made room for a few new characters.
Jacobs added that concern over lack of minority characters in integral roles in the past lead the staff to overcompensate by casting virtually all minor roles with minority actors. "There was never a white, Occidental doctor, lawyer or school teacher on our show," he said. "Our excesses may not have come across (to viewers), but to us it was beginning to look a little ridiculous."
While downplaying the fact that the Williams family is black in the story line, Jacobs said he felt strongly that "Knots Landing" should include a black family. "It isn't that I've always wanted to have a black family on the show, it's just that I've always been aware that there was not a black family on the show, and it's something that I've always felt really wasn't right," Jacobs said.
Although concerned about representing all minorities, Jacobs thought it was particularly important to bring in black characters. "We definitely thought black," he said. "Because, in a way, anything but black isn't black.
"A Hispanic family is fine, and an Oriental family is terrific. But . . . the relationship between white Americans and black Afro-Americans who are descended from black Afro-American slaves is very different from that between Hispanic Americans or Asian Americans and whites. When you're talking minorities, anybody else is in between. We might as well do it if we're going to do it."