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Grace Under Fire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jonelle Allen’s character on “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” has never had it easy.

Grace has suffered the emotional pain of infertility, battled racism as she and her husband struggle for acceptance as blacks in 1870s Colorado, and now this: the death of her son.

The boy’s death culminated the emotionally charged episode of the CBS drama that kicked off the November TV ratings period. “Dr. Quinn,” now in its sixth season, consistently wins its 8 p.m. Saturday time slot, though it’s only 58th on the current Nielsen list.

As the sweeps continue, so will Grace’s “downward spiral,” Allen said.

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At a recent filming of an upcoming episode on the “Dr. Quinn” set in the Santa Monica Mountains, the actress sat beneath the sprawling, centuries-old oak tree that shades her character’s outdoor cafe. She wore a deep, swollen gash on her forehead, courtesy of the makeup department.

It seems that Grace tries to dilute her grief with an alcohol-based “health tonic.” Her friend Dr. Quinn, played by Jane Seymour, stitches her up after she hits her head in a drunken fall.

It’s a nasty cut.

“It is realistic,” Allen said with a laugh between takes of the scene being shot in Quinn’s clinic. “And I did my own stunt.”

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This season’s tumultuous story line underscores the increasing complexity of the strong, sometimes feisty, sometimes humorous Grace, the first major black female supporting character in a prime-time western.

“I think that Grace’s character is wonderful because she’s a black woman at a time that black women didn’t often get to do what she was doing, the same as Dr. Quinn,” said Seymour. “Grace has her own business. She’s her own woman. And she can’t have her own child, but she adopts, and she loves a child that nobody else is looking after. She’s really a great role model.”

For Allen, one word sums up Grace: survivor.

A few days earlier, a decidedly different-looking Allen had appeared for a morning interview at the 1990s version of Grace’s restaurant--the front patio of Cafe Zinc in Laguna Beach. Free of her plain work uniform of a floor-length pioneer dress and bib apron, the bubbly Allen wore a white tank top, a short black skirt circled by not one but two silver-studded western-style belts, and her favorite black velvet hat on which she has woven colorful scarves designed by a friend. A wrist full of gold bracelets, several rings and an antique crucifix hanging from her neck completed the outfit.

Allen moved to Laguna with her now ex-husband in the early ‘80s. She makes a habit of stopping by Cafe Zinc for an “espresso boost” before heading up to an Irvine gym for her workout. And she’s been a regular at a San Juan Capistrano stable since a “Dr. Quinn” episode called for her to ride.

“I never thought I’d be on a western, and I never thought I would love riding horses,” the Harlem-born actress said.

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Despite “Dr. Quinn’s” heavy taping schedule, Allen is also working on her first solo record--a dance single for the European market--and a cookbook of her family’s recipes, “Grandma’s Kitchen.”

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She recently completed an independent movie, “Next Time,” in which her leading character develops a relationship with a young white man (Christian Campbell) she meets in a coin-operated laundry a month before the 1992 Los Angeles riots. (It’s due in theaters in March.) And on Nov. 27, Allen will co-host “The CBS Thanksgiving Day Parade” in Detroit.

Just back from a trip to Mexico and the Grand Canyon with her fiance, Richard Grimmon, a local foreign-car salesman, Allen planned to spend the afternoon and evening studying her script. Because it’s a particularly intense one, she said, “I put it off and put it off, so I have to do my homework and get into that emotional place that Grace has been going to.”

The next day, she’d leave home at 4 for a 5:30 a.m. makeup call at the Paramount Ranch. Rather than make the long commute to the Agoura Hills set when she’s working consecutive days, she spends nights in a nearby hotel.

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Allen has been in show business almost her entire life. A talent scout spotted 3-year-old Jonelle in a Fred Astaire Dance Studio and signed her to appear regularly on a New York children’s TV show, “The Merry Mailman.”

She made her theatrical debut two years later in a revival of “Wisteria Trees” with Helen Hayes, Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis. An impressed Hayes advised Allen’s mother, “Keep this child in the theater. She has a natural gift.”

Allen experienced a professional lull as a teenager, then at 18 landed a role in the original 1967 “Hair” with Joseph Papp’s Public Theater.

In 1971, her performance in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” earned her a Tony nomination, the Drama Critics Award, the Drama Desk Award, the Theater World Award and the Outer Circle Award. She also earned critical acclaim for her roles in “George M!,” “Someone’s Comin’ Hungry,” and “For Colored Girls: Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”

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In the ‘80s, she co-starred in the Norman Lear/Alex Haley series “Palmerstown” and appeared in another short-lived series, “Berrengers,” set in a New York department store. Before landing her role in “Dr. Quinn” in 1992, she spent two years on the NBC soap opera “Generations,” playing a most un-Grace-like wealthy femme fatale.

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Allen praises “Dr. Quinn” producer Beth Sullivan for creating her role and that of Grace’s blacksmith husband, played by Henry G. Sanders.

The actress knew from reading black history that African Americans helped settle the West. “Unfortunately, if you saw stories [in films and on television] that were dealing historically with the West, you only saw one perspective of it,” Allen said. “You saw African Americans around the Civil War time when they were being freed as slaves and then they sort of disappeared.”

But on “Dr. Quinn,” she said, Grace and Robert E. have been integral players “and our story lines were our own story lines.

“That’s been very important: developing us and having us interacting not only within the town but going into our home and seeing what we’re about as people.”

For Sanders, Allen’s dramatic high point on the series came not when their son (Brandon Hammond) died but when Ku Klux Klan members terrorized Grace by cutting off her hair.

“She walked around before we started shooting [the scene] and she was a mess,” he said, “so by the time we got to shooting it, the guys in the crew, just watching her, were mesmerized. Oh man, it was wonderful.”


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