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Focus : Gossett, P.I. : NBC MOVIE OFFERS A DETECTIVE WITH CHARM AROUND THE EDGES

May 08, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's a lot of Louis Gossett Jr. in Ray Alexander, the detective-restaurant owner he plays in "Ray Alexander: A Taste for Justice." The thriller, which also stars James Coburn and Ossie Davis, premieres this week on the "NBC Friday Night Mystery Movie."

Alexander is the owner of Ray's Backyard Cafe, an eclectic San Francisco restaurant. Though the establishment is Alexander's pride and joy, it's also a cash guzzler. To make money, Alexander takes on high-risk, high-profile private investigator jobs while Uncle Phil (Davis) manages the restaurant. Alexander does his PI work for noted San Francisco attorney Jeffrey Winslow (Coburn).

"All the things I love, I do in this," says the winner of an Emmy ("Roots") and Oscar ("An Officer and a Gentleman"). "I have my friends around. I cook. My dream is to have a restaurant. I think that's going to happen by the end of the year. I think it's going to be in Arizona. That's where I got my offer."

Pitching "Ray Alexander" to NBC was a piece of cake, says Gossett, who has a production deal with Viacom. "My partner is Perry Simon, who is the head of Viacom. He used to be at NBC. We went straight up to the main people and we pitched it."

Writer-executive producer Dean Hargrove ("Perry Mason," "Columbo") believes Alexander is a unique private investigator. "We think that he's a very engaging character," Hargrove notes. "There is quite a bit of humor. I came up with the notion and took it to him. He felt that it was something he was very comfortable with. We went from there."

Hargrove also wanted to create a character with whom everyone could identify. "Columbo is very much an Everyman," he says. "I wanted to get a character that people could relate to that has the same problems that everybody has."

Gossett fleshed out Alexander. "He really created a character as he got into it," Hargrove explains. "He gave the guy a lot of humor and a style--in terms of humor, the way the guy operates and the kind of moves he gives him in his performance."

The movie also explores Alexander's unique evolution into a PI. A social activist in the 1960s, Alexander was president of the Black Students Union at a fictitious San Francisco college. "The cops didn't like me, so they framed me," Gossett says of his character. "I was found guilty of killing a cop. I was in prison for four years and then a hotshot lawyer took my case and proved my innocence. I became a PI for him. He was one of those long-haired lawyers and now he's very famous and very rich. I saved up enough money for the restaurant, but I don't charge my friends. So we need money all the time."

Alexander's real interest, says James Coburn, is cooking. "I hire him to do some investigation, but he really doesn't want to do that. He would rather look for the perfect soft-shell crab recipe."

Coburn's Jeffrey Winslow is described as a high-octane defense attorney, "but what he turns out to be is kind of a wise-ass with a lot of charm and he seems to knew where everything is," says the former "Our Man Flint." "He's gone from being very idealistic to almost a cynic, but not quite."

Gossett and Coburn have been friends for nearly 30 years, but "Ray Alexander" marks the first time they've worked together. The men, Coburn says, have a great relationship. And so do Alexander and Winslow. "They have a relationship that has to do with understanding each other, where we can play up each other's faults and flaws and play with each other. That's fun because when you are working with a great actor like Lou, you just look at each other and have a smile on your face."

Violence is kept to a minimum in "Ray Alexander." "There's always a little action," says Gossett, who also is executive producer. "But there's more wit. More of his personality. My personality. I get a chance to be a little funny. I think it is kind of a breath of fresh air how he handles things."

Adds Coburn: "It's more using the mind rather than using the guns. If the characters are good, the audiences don't need all of this running around shooting, killing and stabbing."

At the moment, Gossett and company plan to make two more "Ray Alexander" movies for NBC's "Mystery Wheel." "If NBC wants more, it will be my pleasure," Gossett says.

At the conclusion of each episode, "we are going to have somebody famous sing in my restaurant," Gossett says. "We just finished with Ray Charles, so that is a nice little charm thing. We can get all of my friends in the music business to come through."

"Ray Alexander: A Taste for Justice" airs Friday at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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