Prime Time Takes Affirmative Action

TIME STAFF WRITER

Every season, producers add new characters to pep up returning series. This season is no different--except in one respect: Many of the new faces are those of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. And some are joining previously all-white casts, including "The Drew Carey Show," "Fired Up" and "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."

"I think it's about time," says African American actress Francesca P. Roberts, who plays the outspoken employment officer Mrs. Francis on NBC's "Fired Up." Roberts had such chemistry with series star Sharon Lawrence in several guest appearances last season that she was promoted to a regular this year.

"We are approaching the year 2000 and we are still dealing with those kind of limitations in the industry," Roberts says. "It's really frustrating."

For the past several years, the networks have come under fire from critics such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the National Hispanic Media Coalition for not depicting in their prime-time schedules the diversity of the American public.

Now Latino Jon Seda is joining NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," Asian American Lauren Tom has been added to ABC's "Grace Under Fire," African American Victoria Dillard is in ABC's "Spin City," African American Trina McGee-Davis is joining ABC's "Boy Meets World" and Latina Daisy Fuentes will be co-host of ABC's "America's Funniest Home Videos" when it returns at midseason.

But the producers interviewed who are adding minority actors to their series say they were not given any directive by the networks to do so.

At the ABC hit "The Drew Carey Show," for example, it was the star who came up with the idea of adding an upwardly mobile African American couple as his new neighbors, according to executive producer Bruce Helford. Keith Diamond and Rachel True will be introduced in the fourth episode.

The series is set in Carey's hometown of Cleveland, which, Helford points out, "is a city with a really large African American population."

The impetus also came from within at ABC's "Sabrina."

"We knew we were a very white show," says Paula Hart, executive producer and mother of the show's star, Melissa Joan Hart.

"We were also very low in the number of male actors on the show. It was mainly blond female and we felt we needed to mix things up a little bit." So they hired African American Alimi Ballard, late of "The Arsenio Hall Show," to play the Quiz Master, who will test Sabrina's witchcraft skills throughout the season.

Ballard says it is simply good business to diversify.

"People want to see themselves on TV," says the actor. "It's a reality. So one needs to cater to that market. ['Sabrina'] was doing OK with no lead African Americans on the show. But from a total perspective, [adding an African American] broadens the appeal of your show. Go for it!"

Despite its lack of minority talent, Hart reports "Sabrina" scored high in black households last season. The addition of Ballard, she says, "will only help us. It's not that we purposely left minorities out last year. [Female and white] was a direction we went [last season]. We could have given Sabrina a black girlfriend or an Asian girlfriend, but is that character going to be of any real importance? I don't think so. This is an important character, and it uses a minority character in a really good way."

In the case of "Fired Up," Roberts' role of Mrs. Francis wasn't written for an African American. "As we went about casting, we looked at different people," says executive producer Victor Fresco. "She's the one we liked."

Fresco says the series also needed to diversify and the perfect opportunity opened up when Roberts and Lawrence clicked.

"Our show is set in New York," he says. "Immediately, we feel like there should be a diversity of characters." But that often takes time when the core actors are white.

"You start with Sharon, who is white, and then we ended up with Leah Remini, who also is white," Fresco says. "Leah has a brother, so therefore he has to be white. You end up with a bunch of white people. Then you think, 'Geez. We want to get other elements here.' We do want to be able to do that."

Helford says they went through much the same process at "Drew Carey." The first priority, he explains, was "getting our premise off the ground"--although African Americans have always been cast on the series in guest and extra roles, and a recurring character of a security guard was played by a black actor.

"The first thing you are thinking of are your core people," Helford says. "You are trying to get all of their stories. Once the dust settles, you start looking at the bigger picture of what world you are representing on TV. That's when you start thinking about things like diversifying and making sure everybody is represented."

Asian Americans also will be popping up with more regularity this season. Former Miss Teen USA and Miss Hawaii USA Kelly Hu is playing the recurring role of no-nonsense police detective Michelle Chan on CBS' "Nash Bridges," a series that has had a multiracial cast since its inception. And Amy Hill is playing a Korean American photographer on NBC's "The Naked Truth."

Hu believes her character is a great role model for Asian American girls. "She's very determined and very capable and very American," the actress says. "I am glad I don't have to do some accent. You don't see a lot of strong Asian women in many roles on television, especially strong, able and sexy at the same time. I think [the producers] have managed to combine a lot of nice characteristics."

Hu, an actress for the past 10 years, says things have gotten better on TV for Asian American women. She's thrilled when she gets cast in parts that weren't specifically written for Asians.

"I have gotten a few of those roles," she says. "It's so nice to know you are getting cast for your work and not because of your race."

Like Hu, Hill has been offered roles where race isn't a factor. But that doesn't necessarily produce the best results, she cautions.

"There was a time when Asian American actors would walk in and be proud to say they had auditioned for a part that was written for a white person," says Hill, who played the lovable Korean-born grandmother on the ABC comedy "All-American Girl." "I actually don't want to pretend I'm not Asian. I want to celebrate being Asian American."

Her role on "Naked Truth" was originally written for a man. Hill had been hired for another part, but when it was eliminated for budgetary reasons, she was asked to audition for the male photographer's part. It suddenly became a Korean American woman.

The writers on "Naked Truth" are "bending over backward to make my character non-stereotypical," she says, adding that the character is still evolving.

"But what happens then is that there is no delineation," Hill says. "I could just be anybody, and I want to be somebody specific. So it is finding that fine line. ... What comedy is about is sort of taking the flaws--not flaws, but the parts of humanity of people that are actually universal. When you are specific it becomes universal."

Roberts agrees that that is easier said than done.

"I don't think there are a lot of black characters who are just written as great characters," she says. "I think they are written pretty stereotypical--[even on] a black show with black actors on it."

"Fired Up's" Mrs. Francis, Roberts notes, "is a fun character and has a certain dignity and a quality about her, a certain style. It makes it a lot easier for me spiritually to be able to do her."

Alex Meneses, who plays the recurring role of Mexico native school teacher Teresa Morales on CBS' "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," has found that being a minority actress carries a big responsibility.

She recalls taking flak from the Latino community three years ago when she played an oversexed South American maid on the Showtime series "Sherman Oaks."

"When you are a minority actor, you have a responsibility to your people," says the Chicago-born Meneses. "Not everyone has that. A blond actress doesn't have responsibility for anybody. She can be whatever she wants. I am not in that position. I thought [the part on 'Sherman Oaks'] was very funny. For me, I [was playing] a very strong character but, still, I didn't feel so great about doing that part. I can't help feeling some responsibility."

Meneses believes she's living up to her responsibility on "Dr. Quinn," a series that has always featured African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos.

"I am a woman from Mexico," she says of her character. "I come up to America and [become] a school teacher. I am an educated Latina. I am proud of that."

While these performers are pleased that more television roles are opening to minority actors, they say Hollywood has more work to do. "We haven't moved enough in the direction where we are actually embracing the different kinds of people we are," Hill says. We are moving into sort of a whitewash area where everybody is sort of the same."

"Fired Up" airs Mondays at 8:30 p.m on NBC. "The Naked Truth" airs Mondays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC. "The Drew Carey Show" airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC. "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on ABC. "Nash Bridges" airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on CBS. "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" airs Saturdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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