From an Oscar to a Felix

Times Staff Writer

An Academy Award can open doors for a performer. Starring roles, directing deals, their pick of projects in a multitude of mediums.

But Jamie Foxx, who scored a best actor Oscar in 2005 for his memorable portrayal of legendary musician Ray Charles in "Ray," made what may seem like an unusual choice for a man who can claim Hollywood's greatest honor. He cashed in a bit of his A-list clout for a seat on the D-list.

The actor is diving into the low-rent arena of celebrity-based reality television, often considered to be one of the last stops on the way down the ladder of fame. His new show, which premieres on MTV tonight, is called “From G’s to Gents” and represents a hip-hop flip on "My Fair Lady."

The competitive series centers on the would-be transformation of 14 young "G's," or self-proclaimed "gangstas," into old-fashioned gentlemen. The winner, who must exchange his streetwise bravado for a polished persona, is judged by Fonzworth Bentley, a former personal assistant to Sean "Diddy" Combs. Guiding the young men in their quest for refinement -- and a cash prize of $100,000 -- are other hip-hoppers, including Master P and producer Irv Gotti.

The Oscar winner, who will make an appearance on the show, said that, even though the show fits in the often outrageous mode of reality TV, he still thinks viewers will connect with the emotions and the heart of the aspiring Gs.

"It goes beyond entertainment or making money," said Foxx, who is executive producer of the show. "What we found was that these guys are really sincere, and they will touch you with their stories."

Foxx teamed up with Cris Abrego, one of the key creative forces behind "Flava of Love," "I Love New York" and other popular "celebreality" series whose treatment of race and gender drew its share of critics who complained they promoted offensive stereotypes.

Though enthusiastic about the show, one of Hollywood's most high-profile actors seemed a bit out of place last week at the Television Critics Assn., a semiannual gathering of reporters and critics who write about television. He appeared during a presentation of other upcoming “celebreality” series from MTV Networks featuring several stars no longer ready for prime time, including singer Bobby Brown, actresses Maureen McCormick ("The Brady Bunch"), Sean Young and Vivica A. Fox, actor Lorenzo Lamas ("Renegade") and singer Carnie Wilson (Wilson Phillips).

Rather than being a step down, Foxx countered that his association with the potentially tawdry reality program represents a "natural fit" for his sensibilities. Foxx's path to acting was blazed in part by his sometimes outrageous comedy routines both as a stand-up and on shows such as Fox's program "In Living Color."

"I think people give me a pass on things like this," said Foxx, who admitted he is not seen in the same light as other African American Oscar winners such as Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. "I'm a little different than them. After I won the Oscar, I skipped the Vanity Fair party and went to a club party. The Oscar was a complete surprise, something we hadn't planned for. I'm different because I have the comedian thing going on."

Foxx certainly has walked to the beat of his own drum since collecting his golden statuette. He showcased his singing skills in 2006 with the album "Unpredictable," which went to the top of the charts. And he earned lots of buzz -- and more than a few barbed jokes -- when he smooched "American Idol" Fantasia Barrino during a duet at the 2006 BET Awards.

How much his new venture will focus on etiquette -- or on the earthy behavior that is typically so integral to most reality series -- is uncertain. MTV has not made episodes available for preview and provided only a short trailer to television critics last week that showed the program's young men alternately swaggering and then being vulnerable and emotional.

Abrego said the show will have much more of a positive spin than most of his previous projects, which also include "The Surreal Life" and "My Fair Brady."

"I really wanted to go in a different direction than I've gone with some of the other shows," he said. "This is more uplifting, intense. These guys see Jamie as someone who came from the kind of background they did and made it."

The series marks MTV's second venture with African American Oscar winners. The first was last year's "Adventures in Hollywood," featuring Three 6 Mafia, the rap group that won a 2006 Oscar for its anthem "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from "Hustle & Flow." The show focused on the Memphis, Tenn., group's efforts to build on their Oscar momentum and become Hollywood players.

Foxx is also not the first Academy Award winner to dip into the reality TV pool. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, honored in 1998 for their original screenplay for "Good Will Hunting," were executive producers of HBO's aspiring filmmaker series, "Project Greenlight." In addition, Steven Spielberg served an executive producer of Fox's "On the Lot," which featured a filmmaker competition.

But Foxx said he wasn't interested in giving anyone a career break. Instead he's intent on improving someone's life.

"It's all about the positive," he said.


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