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Eric Laneuville Works a Double Shift on 'St. Elsewhere'

November 08, 1987|Larry Kusnitt | Kusnitt is entertainment editor for the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.

Eric Laneuville leads a double life.

When not portraying Luther Hawkins, a street-wise hospital orderly-turned-physician's assistant on NBC's Emmy Award-winning "St. Elsewhere," he is calling the shots as one of the show's directors.

As much as he enjoys the challenges of acting, Laneuville, 35, sees himself becoming more employable behind the camera--mostly because of lingering typecasting problems that black actors face.

"For a black actor . . . who is not considered a sex symbol, for a black actor who is not considered a comedian, there is no future for me (other than directing)," Laneuville said in his office at the MTM complex in Studio City.

Laneuville relates to Luther because "we both aspired to other things and have moved on. I didn't want to be just an actor."

The shy, diminutive performer was attracted to show business as a child: "I wanted to be Eddie Munster's friend . . . I wanted to be the Beaver's friend," he said with a smile. By age 14, he had his own agent and was on his way to Hollywood from his home in New Orleans.

He was first drawn to directing in the early '70s while portraying a student on the classroom series "Room 222." He points to black directors Ivan Dixon and Sid McCoy ("they made a real connection for me at that point") as his inspiration.

"I became interested in directing when I was doing 'Room 222' but, because I was 15 years old, no one would take me seriously," Laneuville said. "And then again, I didn't have the initiative to go and say, 'Let me go to dailies,' or 'Let me sit in on editing.' "

So who finally motivated him to make the leap into the director's chair?

"Bruce Paltrow," said Laneuville, referring to "St. Elsewhere's" executive producer. "If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be sitting here probably as an actor or director.

"I was aware of Bruce allowing people to direct for the very first time . . . and I wanted to take advantage of the fortuitous circumstances."

With Paltrow's encouragement, Laneuville has directed 17 episodes, bringing with him his personal sensitivity and his actor's sensibility.

"The greatest development on the show has been Eric Laneuville," said Norman Lloyd, who plays Luther's mentor and friend, the kindly Dr. Auschlander. "He's a very, very good actor. He's relaxed and simple and very honest as an actor--there are no tricks."

Lloyd--an accomplished director and producer in his own right, having worked with Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock--said that Laneuville's simplicity and honesty are his assets as a director.

"He has not lost his very simple way of talking to you as a director. Sometimes people, as they get more confident, get more unpleasant--not at all with Eric. He is still most discreet when he talks to you about anything, and I have great confidence and faith in what he says.

"What I'm saying about him is," Lloyd said, "he's a good director."

Laneuville has recently branched out into TV movies, having directed the well-received "George McKenna Story" for CBS last year.

That is not to say that Laneuville the burgeoning director has not had his share of tribulations, however.

"The first few shows I directed, there was some trepidation (on my part)," Laneuville said. Directing experienced actors such as Lloyd, Ed Flanders and William Daniels--"sure, there was fear. . . .

"But this was the ideal circumstance to learn. I don't think I could've been in a better situation because I was working with friends; I was working with actors who respected me and actors who were pulling for me to succeed."

As Laneuville has become more confident and experienced, he's also developed an impressive filmic vocabulary. His camera angles--many times he shoots from the floor looking upwards or peering around corners--reflect a growing visual style, unusual in the cookie-cutter world of television production.

"I don't know if it's my own style," Laneuville said. "We all steal from each other (on 'St. Elsewhere'). . . . But there are certain things I like. I like discovering characters, and I like movement with the camera."

"St. Elsewhere" has entered its sixth season with the departure of Flanders' Dr. Donald Westphall, considered by many to be the core of the show, and the addition of Ronny Cox--fresh from his roles in "RoboCop" and "Beverly Hills Cop II"--as new hospital administrator Dr. John Gideon.

Although it has never been a blockbuster in the Nielsens--it ranked a less-than-sensational 67th out of the 104 prime-time series that aired last season--critics have championed the show for its realism, depth and dry wit. (On an episode last season, Dr. Westphall was walking into a hallway as a bed was whizzing by. Another character calmly said, "Donald . . . duck.")

Sometimes the jokes are either so self-referential or obscure that it makes you wonder if anyone is catching the punch lines.

"In fact, there's a couple I've missed--and I didn't realize it until I saw it on TV," Laneuville said.

Despite its small but devoted audience, the quality of the show remains high and the cast remains close-knit. "I don't know if other shows are this way . . . but on our show there's a lot of camaraderie. . . ."

Does working with a large cast mean working with additional constraints? "No, there's a lot more freedom," Laneuville said. "It's fun to mix and do different scenes with different actors."

Although the show is known for its strange plot twists, where a major character can suddenly get shot, develop AIDS, commit suicide or turn into a murderer, Laneuville is fairly confident that his character won't meet an untimely fate.

"The writers talk to us and consult us on which direction we'd like to go (with a character). . . . Of course, the ultimate decision is with them."

He gazed down at a thick notebook on his desk and laughed, "Hopefully, I won't pick up this script and find out that I'm dying."

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