For many African American actors, the goal has long been to get roles in which skin color has no bearing on casting, as well as to get parts that illustrate the diversity, richness and heritage of their race. But that has rarely been the case. Three actors--whose powerful performances in dramatic series are changing the landscape of TV--talk about what those roles mean to them as they return to three of the most popular and acclaimed ensemble shows on TV.
A waitress timidly approaches Eriq LaSalle, who is picking at his chicken pasta lunch at a corner table at a Beverly Boulevard bistro.
“ ‘ER’ is my favorite show,” proclaims the waitress with a smile. She thrusts a business card on the table. “It’s my friend’s birthday. Could you autograph this?”
LaSalle, an Emmy nominee for his role as the cocky, brilliant surgeon Dr. Peter Benton on NBC’s mega-hit, grins, exchanges some small talk and begins to scribble away. He gives the card back to the waitress. “Thank you,” she says happily and walks away.
“ER” has catapulted the intense, personable LaSalle into TV superstardom.
LaSalle has always heeded the advice his mother gave him as a youngster. “It’s not enough for you to be as good as your white counterparts; you have to be better to be considered equal,” LaSalle explains.
“That doesn’t mean I think I’m a better actor than anybody else in the show. The experience I’ve had in this industry is that I have to come in and do things that maybe some people take for granted. What has worked for me is presenting stuff that’s above and beyond the call of duty. It’s just like Benton is a perfectionist. He is not just a doctor, he is the creme de la creme, the elite. I am so committed to my job, but that goes against the image for years that black people are supposed to be shiftless and lazy.”
LaSalle points out that there has never been any mention of Benton’s race on “ER.” “There was no reference in the script of him being black” LaSalle says. “It has nothing to do with him being black. That’s what I love about the show. That’s how we make progress. I’ve found blacks have been polarized [on TV] where you either have this low-life decadent, oversexed, uneducated person or animal or you have this homogenized, generic, nonsexual, weak, castrated person. I’m always interested in what’s in-between.”
One thing he’s not interested in being is a “TV actor.” In fact, he turned down several movies-of-the-week he was offered during the recent hiatus from Michael Crichton’s fast-paced, emotionally charged medical series.
“I think there are literally a handful of decent TV shows on and that’s abnormal,” LaSalle explains, taking a bite of pasta. “That’s not the norm. If you look at the movies-of-the- week, nine times out of 10, they are really bad. A lot of times, you can get caught in a vicious cycle [of TV movies] because you get a little notoriety and people come to you. Then all of a sudden, you get typed into this sort of thing.”
LaSalle is interested in the big picture. “I look at everything as a career and not a job,” says LaSalle, who exudes Dr. Benton’s passion and ambition. “Everything is where I’m going to be beyond ‘ER,’ where I’m going to be next year. I’m on one of the hottest shows on TV. I have some proven success with that. Why would you want to go below that? That’s not going to help your career at all.”
But he believes directing will. As soon as “ER” concluded its first season in the spring, LaSalle directed “Psalms From the Underground,” a short film he wrote about a female black civil rights activist.
“I figured it was really a good time to do what I ultimately want to get into--directing,” says LaSalle, who has directed two other award-winning short films. “We want to put it in Sundance [Film Festival]. We want people from studios to look at it and, hopefully, turn it into a feature.”
LaSalle got into directing about six years ago when, at 26, he was fired from the feature “‘Love Field,” in which he was cast opposite Michelle Pfeiffer. “This was ‘ER’ before ‘ER’ for me,” LaSalle says with a tinge of bitterness. “This was the role that was going to give me a career.”
Two weeks into the shooting, LaSalle was given a pink slip. “The politically correct thing was, ‘You look too young to play her lover.’ I don’t think I am as cynical about it as I used to be. What ended up was you started getting many different reasons [for the dismissal].”
The “Love Field” incident made LaSalle realize “this is the career you have chosen. You are going to be subject to this type of thing for the rest of your career. That made no sense to me whatsoever. That’s when I went and took a film class in New York, just for a summer, because I definitely had to have more control over my journey. I’m one of those people who always tries to obviously find something good out of a bad situation.”
Which is exactly what LaSalle did, when, at 19, he was asked to leave the renowned Juilliard School in New York. “They said I didn’t embody the whole speech, diction thing,” he says. But everything “just came together” when he continued his acting studies at New York University. “When I was asked to leave Juilliard, it turned into one of the best situations for me because I went to NYU and I had the balance of this strict classical training and then a more contemporary training. For me, the combination was great. Then this thing with ‘Love Field’ forced me to realize you better start preparing for something, just have more control.”
He also finds directing to be empowering, especially as a black performer. “I realize the role of the black artist in this industry is always on some kind of borderline,” explains LaSalle.
“Black films come along in waves,” he says. “The message that sends to some people is you have to be the person who ultimately starts creating. If you are always reacting to trends you are always at the whim of someone else, of what this person deems important. I think all cultures’ stories are important, but if I’m in an all-empowering situation, I can decide what is important. I think we have gotten to the point where we learned not to buck too hard, not to confront and say, ‘We need to do something else.’ ”
“ER” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.