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Wayans Takes a Detour to the Gritty Side With ‘413 Hope St.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A drug-addicted teen mother with a hungry baby and a boyfriend who makes her turn tricks.

A despondent, HIV-infected youth who attempts suicide.

A no-nonsense administrator trying to cope with the shotgun slaying of his young son.

Murders.

Not the kind of scenarios you’d expect from a comedian known for his raucous characters and outrageous observations on “In Living Color,” particularly the bitter Homey the Clown and his defiant motto, “Homey don’t play that.”

But with Fox’s “413 Hope St.,” Damon Wayans is not clowning around.

Instead of chuckles, Wayans is displaying the tears of a clown in his new series about a teen crisis center in New York City. Wayans is the creator and executive producer of the one-hour drama, which premieres Thursday at 9 p.m.

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Although “413 Hope St.” does contain elements of comedy, those tuning in expecting to see a heavy dose of the trademark Wayans wit--or Wayans himself--will be in for a surprise. The emphasis is on the realistic and gritty, and Wayans--at least for the moment--is staying behind the camera.

“I’m curious what the response will be when people find out that this drama came from me,” Wayans said recently in his spacious office at the Canoga Park production warehouse where “Hope St.” is filmed.

Fox Entertainment President Peter Roth, who had pursued Wayans to star in a comedy, was dubious about the comedian presenting his dramatic concept. Damon Wayans starring in a sitcom was a hot commodity. Damon Wayans not starring in a drama he produced was not.

“When I first pitched Peter, I could see in his face that this was not a show he was willing to do,” Wayans recalled. “I said I would be in the first 13 episodes and then kill myself off if that gave him a comfort zone, but the fact that I really didn’t want to be in it, plus the content, really scared him.”

Said Roth: “It’s easy to understand and appreciate the value that Damon holds in comedy. When an extraordinary comedy performer pitches an emotional, serious drama, it gives a network head pause for thought. I was not as clear on the potential of the show.”

Even “Hope St.” star Richard Roundtree was hesitant when his manager first suggested he read for the show: “I told him I wasn’t interested in doing a comedy.”

But Wayans persisted, and the project moved forward. Weeks later, when Fox Chairman David Hill saw the pilot, Wayans said Hill called him and cursed him for “making him cry.” Roundtree, best known as the 1970s super detective Shaft, said his role as the center’s administrator “is the closet character to my personality and outlook that I have ever played.” And Roth called “Hope St.” one of the best dramas he’s seen in years, comparing it to “ER.”

“I would put it right up there,” Roth said. “It has every emotion possible in one of the most well-packaged shows that I’ve ever seen.”

Fox is planning an intense promotional push for the series, with premiere parties being staged in several cities. The network hosted a gala screening at the Museum of Television & Radio last Wednesday.

The series will need all the support it can get. “Hope St.” is slotted against TV’s top-rated “Seinfeld.” It is replacing “New York Undercover,” which had been the most popular network show with African Americans. (“New York Undercover,” which has not attracted a significant crossover audience, is scheduled to return to the Fox lineup later this season.)

The cast for “Hope St.” is predominantly black, and urban-based ethnic dramas on network television have not fared well for more than two decades, making some industry executives skeptical about whether such a vehicle can succeed. And “Crisis Center,” a similarly themed drama starring Kellie Martin, bombed on NBC last spring.

Wayans said he is confident “Hope St.” can overcome the odds. “The pressure is on the network as far as the time slot. I know we’re up against ‘Seinfeld.’ But I feel this show works on several levels. For one thing, it’s not a black show--there just happens to be a predominantly black cast. Our stories are universal--of betrayal, love, unity and trust.”

He added with a smile that he doesn’t feel pressure: “I’m a comedian. If it doesn’t work, I’ll just use it in my act. But I really believe it will work.”

Dana Walden, senior vice president of drama for 20th Century Fox Television, which is producing “Hope St.,’ said the studio is focusing on the show rather than the competitive factor: “We are not preoccupied with the competition but rather in supporting Damon’s vision of an incredibly compelling and provocative world.”

The series stars Roundtree as a wealthy businessman who quit his job and established the youth center as a way to remember his son. Helping him out is an enthusiastic attorney (Kelly Coffield), a sympathetic counselor (Shari Headley) and a handsome, troubled psychologist (Jesse Martin).

Wayans said: “I would really like to appear, but the show has to live or die without gimmicks, and I would be a gimmick right now.”

For Wayans, “Hope St.” represents more than just the spreading of his artistic wings or a return to his successful television roots after a steady but rocky road of film comedies such as “The Great White Hype,” “Celtic Pride,” “Blankman,” “Bulletproof” and “Major Payne.”

Much of the inspiration came from the Door, a neighborhood center he frequented while growing up in New York City. “A lot of my friends actually benefited from that program,” Wayans said. “I thought it would be interesting to explore the impact a place like that has on peoples’ lives.”

Two other principal factors drove his vision. One was his desire to see more meaningful and positive portrayals on television.

“When I turn on the television, I don’t see me,” he said. “You turn on these shows and you don’t see anyone you can relate to. I actually turned the satellite off at my house. Everything that was on was a waste of time. Not that ‘Hope St.’ is the cure for cancer. But at least I can relate to what’s going on.”

Wayans said the series is also his response to criticism leveled against his brothers Shawn and Marlon, the stars of WB’s “The Wayans Bros.” That comedy series came under fire earlier this year from the NAACP and other organizations for what leaders called degrading and offensive portrayals of African Americans.

Wayans said he felt much of the opposition to the show was due to the lack of variety in the portrayals of blacks on television.

He added, “Their show is from the perspective of a 19-year-old and 20-year-old, so boogers and farts are funny to them. That’s their frame of reference. Instead of someone silently pulling them aside and giving them constructive criticism, there were just all these negative write-ups. That’s not how you effect change. Otherwise, you just make enemies and put them on the defensive.

“My name is associated with my brothers, so this show will help balance the scales and my brothers can have their little show, which I think is very funny.”

Wayans is also developing a comedy starring himself and David Alan Grier, his former co-star on “In Living Color.” The comedy, in which Wayans and Grier would play undercover detectives, was originally to be developed in association with 20th Century Fox Television along with “Hope St.,” but Wayans and the company parted ways last month in a disagreement over Wayans’ control of the project. Wayans and 20th Century Fox Television are still in business on “Hope St.”

“The parting was amicable,” Wayans said. “It was a case of two people looking at each other and saying, ‘This is not going to work.’ I don’t want to say anything more because that’s starting a fire that doesn’t exist.” He said the project is currently with Carsey-Werner.

His pride over “Hope St.” has also caused Wayans to reflect on his film career: “I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done, but I see the mistakes I made. I tried to take sketch characters and turn them into 90-minute movies. I’ve done some funny characters, but it was hard to make an emotional investment in them because they were so extreme. I just decided to step back and analyze, and go back to an arena where I had success. The films will always be there.”

Wayans hasn’t totally abandoned his comic roots. “My first love is still stand-up,” he said. “In stand-up, you reveal your soul, but you better have a good punch line. With ‘Hope St.’ I can reveal my soul without the joke. Stand-up gives me the high. ‘Hope St.’ gives me the cry.”

* “413 Hope St.” premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on Fox (Channel 11).


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