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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : Life under Simon James' 'African Skies' is fair--save for a lion or two

July 04, 1993|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even when a little lion roars it can be frightening. It can be even worse when the little lion tries to bite your face off. Just ask Simon James, 20, who stars in the Family Channel's "African Skies," which is filmed in South Africa.

"The animals we used aren't trained at all," says James from his Winnepeg, Manitoba, home."They're wild. The trainers are actually just caretakers. It was really late and I was working with a lion cub, who was really tired and irritable. Plus, we had to put fake blood on its face and that annoyed it even more. I was supposed to chase after it, catch it and then look it in the face. Just as I was doing that, the trainer yelled to me to not get that close and the lion snapped at me, just barely missing biting my face off. After that, they started using a double for that kind of work."

James, a Canadian actor with a strong background in musical theater, plays Rory, son of Catherine Bach's Margo Wells and grandson to Robert Mitchum's Sam Dutton.

Although James starred in the Canadian TV show "Rockets" for four years, he says his agent was apprehensive about sending him out on more television work, since the bulk of his experience was the stage. When he auditioned for "African Skies"--the story of a Canadian family taking care of their company's African holdings--he was more excited than intimidated about working with the more seasoned actors.

However, he has yet to work in the same country with Mitchum, let alone in the same room.

"His stuff is shot all in Canada," James says. "I've had a lot of scenes with him, with us talking on the telephone or through a video-phone device, but I've never worked with him in person."

However, he has worked in South Africa for six months at a time, from July through January. While there, he lives in the heart of Johannesburg, where he was surprised to find it very beautiful with "nothing disturbing," he says. "Apparently things are a lot more relaxed there than it's been in the past. There was a time, I've been told, that if you're white and were seen in public with a black person, you were fined or arrested. My best friend there and on the show is black and he goes to clubs and bars with me and there is no problem. You don't see a lot of black people in mainly white places, just because of the way things have been, with the separation. I think the tide is changing."

James dated a black South African girl for awhile, he says, and "she would pick upon things that people were doing or saying that I didn't notice or think was a big deal. But for the most part, people really left us alone."

The cast and racially mixed crew--who James says get along famously--will shoot 26 more episodes.

While he can't work on other projects during the show's production, he's always on the lookout for more work, including parts in feature films.

Meanwhile, "I really enjoy working on this show," he says. "I also really enjoy the nightlife here and keeping up with music. I love listening to music--any kind--jazz, rock, alternative."

"African Skies" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. and repeats at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on the Family Channel.

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