TELEVISION : Drama of a Different Color : A CBS series aims to portray African Americans with a dignity often missing from the prevailing black-themed comedies. But will it make history by drawing in white audiences?


At first glance, the dramatic scene being filmed inside a nondescript pink warehouse in the middle of an industrial park here seemed simple enough.

Cameramen and technicians surrounded actor Joe Morton, who was wearing a robe and slippers as he stood with actress Vanessa Bell Calloway in a cramped stairwell of a “house” that had been built in the middle of the warehouse. Morton was playing a hardware store owner who had been confronted by two robbers and now was telling his wife how one of them had aimed a gun right in his face.

“The guy, he never took his eyes off me,” said Morton, acting shaken as Calloway stared with concern. “He never blinked. . . . His eyes were empty. I wanted to see hate or fear, or even pleasure, somewhere in him. Something. . . . He was a brother, and he didn’t give a damn what happened to me, or anyone. It was like facing an alien.”


“Cut!” bellowed director Michael Engler as he sat nearby, watching a monitor. “I want to try it another way.”

Morton and Calloway listened attentively to Engler as he worked through what is intended to be a pivotal scene in an episode of the new CBS series “Under One Roof,” a drama about a multi-generation African American family that premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

On one level, it was business as usual--the routine work on any set. But on another, Morton and Calloway--both seasoned performers who have been in numerous television series and films--confessed that they could not escape the feeling that this particular job was far more significant.

The series marks the first time in 16 years that a one-hour weekly drama on network television has centered exclusively on an African American family. Although many dramatic series have featured African Americans in starring or co-starring roles, few have focused on family units or have featured large African American ensemble casts, even though the number of African Americans on network programs has risen dramatically in recent years.

Instead, most of the network shows about blacks during the past two decades have been half-hour comedies--often with characters that scholars, sociologists and other African American professionals have decried as cartoonish, offensive or stereotypical.

The historical significance of “Under One Roof” and its effect on future television portrayals of African Americans have put extra pressure on executive producer Thomas Carter and the cast as they put the finishing touches on the episodes.

“This show is history, very much so,” Carter said. “No African American family with this kind of breadth and complexity has ever been shown on a weekly drama. Never has there been one with the amount of talent and experience that has gone into this show.”

Added Calloway: “All the time I’ve been filming, I’ve been thinking, ‘I’m part of a historical event.’ It’s very satisfying to be part of a show that people are going to have to take seriously.”

“We’ve all grown up with ‘Ozzie and Harriet,’ ‘Father Knows Best,’ ‘Eight Is Enough,’ ” Morton said. “White families have always represented the universal family. For the first time, we’re the universal family.”

Now Carter and Co. believe they must disprove the longstanding theory of many skeptics in the television industry: African Americans may yearn for a drama that reflects their experience in a positive, uplifting light not filtered through the aura of comedy or crime, but the mass television viewing audience--read: white --will not be receptive.

“The resistance has been (that) white America is not interested in taking a serious look at African Americans,” said Jannette L. Dates, senior editor of the 1990 book “Split Images: African Americans in the Mass Media” and an associate professor of communications at Howard University. “There are issues that rise up and overwhelm them--issues of slavery, segregation and prejudice. It raises feelings of guilt.”

Carter thinks it is more simply a case of decision-makers at the studios and networks being “white men whose friends and relationships are with other white men--their perceptions are colored by the limitations of their experience.” Nonetheless, he acknowledges:

“Yes, naturally, there is an extra weight attached to all of this, but I try not to think about it too much. I’m trying to remember that my primary responsibility is to make an honest, revealing and compelling drama. My belief is that if we do that, the American community will support the show.”

Boosting the series’ chances is its quality pedigree both in front of and behind the camera.

In addition to Morton and Calloway, the series features veteran stage and screen actor James Earl Jones as the curmudgeonly family patriarch. And Carter is one of the most respected directors in television: He won Emmys for best director of a dramatic series two years in a row for “Equal Justice” and also has directed for “Miami Vice,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Hill Street Blues” and “Midnight Caller.” He has directed two of the six episodes of “Under One Roof.”

Carter set the series in Seattle because he wanted the stories to be told in a city with a significant minority population but one that did not have the atmosphere or expectations that a location like Los Angeles, New York or Chicago might arouse with audiences.

Some stories will deal directly with racially charged situations: a black businessman’s options when a white client would rather do business with his white partner than him, and how a black store owner feels when a member of his race threatens his life during a robbery. But the majority of “Under One Roof” will deal with the enormity of the events in everyday family life that have nothing to do with race.

Carter said he knows he must appeal to more than black viewers.

“I want this family to be not just a black family but the modern American family,” he said. “I want people to watch and say, ‘Hey, that’s the fight I had with my wife last night. That’s what my child said to me this morning.’ ”

The middle-class Langston family of “Under One Roof” is going through a variety of crisis and conflicts:

Former U.S. Marine Ron (Morton) is trying to adjust to civilian life as he starts running a hardware store with a white partner (Terance Knox). His wife, Maggie (Calloway), is preparing to re-enter the work force after 20 years as a military wife and full-time mother. They have a 10-year-old son, Derrick (Ronald Joshua Scott), who is diabetic, and a self-absorbed 15-year-olddaughter, Charlie (Essence Atkins).

Living in the other unit of their duplex is Ron’s father, Neb (Jones), a widowed police officer; Neb’s 16-year-old foster child, Marcus (Merlin Santana), a troubled youth with a background of child abuse, and Neb’s adult daughter, Ayisha (Monique Ridge), who serves as a mediator between the two.

“This is an African American family that debunks the myth that the way we love our wives, the way we raise our children, the way we pay our bills is different from white people,” Carter said. “Audiences from different cultures will see that we have so many things in common.”

The pilot for “Under One Roof” received a rousing ovation when it was screened in June for the Black Filmmakers Foundation, a national nonprofit group composed of industry professionals.

“Everyone just loved the fact that it was a positive portrayal of black family life,” said Karen Horn, director of the group’s Los Angeles chapter. “Not to put down the other black shows that are on, but most of them are comedies. This showed a family that stuck together no matter what. It was produced and written beautifully. A show like this is long overdue.”

Yet since the series was placed on the midseason schedule, some television insiders have questioned CBS’ handling of the show.

Instead of launching “Under One Roof” with large fanfare at the beginning of the season, CBS has slotted it as a replacement show in the middle of March in a tough time period--Tuesdays at 8 p.m., where it will do battle with established comedies: NBC’s “Wings” and ABC’s “Full House.” Only six episodes have been ordered.

Peter Tortorici, president of CBS’ entertainment division, said he believes that the concerns about the show’s treatment are groundless.

“That time slot is being won by a 7-year-old show that has been moved four times, so it’s not an impenetrable fortress,” he said, referring to “Wings.” “We ultimately want to put ‘Under One Roof’ in a time period where we would like to perform better. Also, lots of good shows have been launched in March. And a six-episode order is not unusual. ‘The Nanny’ had a six-episode order. ‘Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman’ had a six-episode order. ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’ had a six-episode order.”

Carter believes his series is getting less than the best opportunity.

“We would have loved to have been on the fall schedule,” he said, “and we felt we deserved it based on the response we got from the Black Filmmakers Foundation and the creative community. ABC was interested in the show.

“In the final process, CBS made another decision. But they have shown enormous support. I don’t think you can say anything bad about CBS’ treatment of the show without saying this: CBS has put it on. Others have not. They have to be credited for putting the show on.”

The project came about when Tortorici and Carter talked last year about bringing an African American drama to the network.

“I thought we needed to have broader diversification on what our shows and characters were, so we could diversify who was watching us,” the CBS executive explained. “I wanted the effort to be distinctive and to make a statement.”

Yet Carter said the project was not embraced by all of Tortorici’s CBS colleagues: “There have been executives in New York, some in marketing, who have questioned the show, partly because it was their preconception that, with a show about an African American family, it’s harder to get viewers to tune in. We hope to debunk that myth.”

Despite the popularity of “Roots” in 1977 and the mam moth success of “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s, television dramas featuring ensemble black casts have been few and far between.

One of the last network attempts came in 1990 with “Brewster Place,” a spinoff of the 1989 television movie “The Women of Brewster Place.” Even with Oprah Winfrey starring, it lasted only a few weeks.

Another failed effort came almost exactly 16 years ago when “Harris and Company” premiered on NBC on March 15, 1979. The show starred Bernie Casey as a widowed Detroit assembly-line worker who tries to start a new life with his five children in Los Angeles. It garnered low ratings and was canceled in less than a month.

A few other dramatic series have dealt with black issues or have had dominant black characters--such as CBS’ “Palmerstown” (1980-81), ABC’s “A Man Called Hawk” (1989) and the current “The Cosby Mysteries” on NBC and “In the Heat of the Night” on CBS--while many ensemble dramas have included African Americans in workplace, not family, settings (“The Mod Squad,” “Hill Street Blues,” “ER”). But most either had major white characters or were told from a white point of view.

“The networks believe you have to have a white lead in order for the audience to have a handle on the show, to have their point of view,” Carter said, adding that he had a personal perspective on the situation: He was a co-star in 1978-80 on “The White Shadow,” a CBS series about a group of urban high school basketball players coached by a white ex-professional player (Ken Howard).

That situation happened in reverse this season with “M.A.N.T.I.S,” a Fox series about a black superhero. Between the time the pilot film aired and the series arrived, many of the black supporting characters were replaced by whites.

“It’s OK to be a fly in the buttermilk; you can have one black in a series filled with whites,” educator Dates complained. “As long as a show with black characters is integrated with white concepts and a white mainstream focus, it’s all right. But when the African American presence is dominant, that’s where the line is drawn.”

So Carter worries what conclusions will be drawn if “Under One Roof” fails to draw respectable ratings.

“There’s a certainty that they will say black shows don’t work if our show doesn’t catch on,” he said of network and studio executives. “That will be a totally counterfeit deduction on their part. If a white show is done and it doesn’t work, they don’t say you can’t do white shows anymore. They do it again. If this show doesn’t work, it’s because I didn’t produce a good show and/or CBS didn’t get the show to be sampled by the audience.”

CBS’ Tortorici agreed: “I think people who make those kinds of judgments about black drama not working deserve the consequences they get. If this show doesn’t work, it should not been seen as a blanket statement about anything.”

If the cast and crew are feeling pressure, it was not obvious during the last week of production. The actors easily joked and laughed with each other. At one point, Jones put his hands on the shoulders of Ridge, his television daughter, and was led off the sound stage as she shouted, “Move aside! Old man coming through.”

Later, in his trailer, Jones, who previously starred in three television series, all short-lived, said he was not concerning himself with the audience reaction to “Under One Roof” or the show’s significance to the future of African American drama.

“I don’t believe in getting into all this discussion about racism in television and what all this really means,” he said. “It’s really irrelevant and frustrating, a masturbatory exercise that robs you of your energy. Racism is insanity, and there can be no legitimate conflict based on insanity. All that matters, and what is really relevant, is telling good stories.”

Morton agreed: “My whole career has been a landmark. So I don’t think about the pressure too much. I just go out and do, because I believe in it.”

Atkins, who plays teen-ager Charlie, said she has confidence that “Under One Roof” will connect with all audiences: “I feel optimistic. I believe in my heart it won’t fail.”

And Carter voiced cautious optimism: “I don’t expect this to be a blockbuster TV show, although I would love it if it was. But I do expect it to be very successful. Hollywood is always interested in making money. There’s no doubt in my mind that if ‘Under One Roof’ clicks with audiences in a big way, it will be mimicked on another network.”

* “Under One Roof” premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).