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On View : Of Fathers and Sons : NBC MOVIE TELLS A STORY OF ABANDONMENT AND RECONCILIATION

April 18, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Louis Gossett Jr. and Blair Underwood belong to a mutual admiration society.

"Hey!" Gossett yells out when Underwood, who plays savvy attorney Jonathan Rollins on NBC's "L.A. Law," arrives at a Century City restaurant. The two hug warmly and sit down at a corner table to discuss their movie, "Father & Son: Deadly Relations," premiering Monday on NBC.

"I always wanted to work with that man," Gossett says enthusiastically. "And I still do. I saw him in 'L.A. Law.' I saw him do 'Heat Wave' on TNT. He made such an impression on me."

Underwood beams while the Emmy- and Oscar-winning star of "Roots" and "An Officer and a Gentleman" talks about him.

"This is a trip because I got a call from my agent one day and he said, 'Lou Gossett wants to pitch an idea to you,' " Underwood recalls with a smile. "First of all, Lou Gossett--he is one of my heroes. Whatever he wants to do, I am there. Just tell me when."

A few years ago, Gossett read a newspaper article about a father being reunited with his son in prison. "It opened my mind about the problem of these gang-bangers and how they became gang-bangers," says Gossett, who also is executive producer of "Father & Son."

"Their fathers are gone," he says. "Either they are on drugs, in jail, dead or irresponsible in the street. What they have done is left a pregnant woman or a woman who just had a baby. Fathers and sons are in prisons and jails all over the place. It is a national problem."

Gossett only had an idea for the film when he met with Underwood in 1991. That there wasn't a script yet didn't matter to Underwood, who is the film's associate producer. He recalls Gossett asking him how he felt about doing the project. "I think I told Lou, 'When and where?' We took it to NBC."

In "Father & Son," Gossett plays Leonard Clay, a man serving time for a murder he insists he committed in self-defense. Underwood's Jared Williams is a gang member and new hotshot in the prison. When Clay learns that Jared is his son, Jared rebuffs his friendship, saying he lost his claim years before when he abandoned him and his mother. The two must learn to forgive and understand each other when the parole board forces them to live together as a condition of their parole.

The prison scenes in 'Father & Son" were shot soon after the L.A. riots last spring at a correction facility near Valencia.

"It really was an uncomfortable feeling in that prison," Gossett says. "It is overpopulated."

"Half the people you see in the film were actual inmates," Underwood adds.

Gossett became aware of some statistics that shocked him during production. "There are more African-Americans and Latin American men in prison than there are in college," he says. "If I had hair, my hair would stand on end."

The prisoners, though, respected the two actors. "It was a strange thing," Gossett says. "There was a kind of love for us. It was a very uncomfortable love. They are desperate and they see us on TV."

"This is a completely different world than what we are used to," Underwood says. "Before we walked in, I know some of the guards said to me to be careful: 'These guys are con men. They will con you into anything.' You try to balance the whole thing and be safe at the same time."

A number of prisoners had been convicted of murder; many were gang members. "There were also some guys in there that were there for curfew violation from the riots," Underwood says. "I kept thinking, 'That could have been me.' I was running around after curfew. Most of them were brothers or Latinos."

Unlike their characters, both Gossett and Underwood's fathers have played important parts in their lives. "I had my father and six uncles," Gossett says. "They were all my heroes. They died kind of early, but instilled in me a kind of strength, a continuance. I have two sons. Hopefully, they will continue on."

Underwood recalls his father telling him growing up: "Anybody can make a baby. Any punk can make a baby, but a man is going to be someone who takes responsibility for that child and raises that child."

That's why Underwood loves the message behind "Father & Son."

"Here is a man who makes a mistake and who admits to it," Underwood says. "But he is also trying to drop the knowledge on his son not to do the same thing, not to make the same mistake. Hopefully, the film can be some kind of a message to young brothers watching that it is not cool" to abandon children.

To gang members, manhood means having as many babies, money and gold as possible "and to die before you are 21," Gossett observes. "The only reason that is the motto is because there are no fathers to tell them."

The movie's message, he says, is: "Fathers, go back to your babies. I don't care what condition you are in, go back to your babies. To go back, you continue the generation. Otherwise, the generation is over, out the window."

"Father & Son: Deadly Relations" airs Monday at 9 p.m on NBC; "L.A. Law" airs Thursdays at 10 p.m on NBC; repeats of "L.A. Law" air weeknights at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m on Lifetime.

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