With a little less luck, T. Rodgers would be in jail right now, instead of producing a new reality-based TV show about life behind bars.
His resume could be a miniseries itself: pimp, crack dealer, gangbanger, a founding father of South-Central Los Angeles' notorious Bloods. But today Rodgers is behind the camera--a tribute both to his moxie and to Hollywood's long-running fascination with the criminal mind.
"This job description was written for me," said the jowly, sad-eyed Rodgers, whose brother is locked up for murder. "This is my life experience that's talking."
Rodgers' job, which comes with an air-conditioned office in Encino and a middle-class paycheck, is to interview convicts for a five-day-a-week, half-hour program called "Behind Bars," which has earned strong ratings in national syndication since its premiere last May. Negotiations are under way to bring it to Los Angeles by year's end.
The series--an occasionally riveting, sometimes hokey mix of documentary and dramatization--does seem tailor-made for Rodgers, who delivered flamboyant commentaries on Fox's short-lived newsmagazine "Front Page" and served as a consultant on the controversial gang movie "Colors."
His desk is stacked high with letters from inmates, who have heard through the grapevine that he's looking for good tales. Many call him collect from prisons around the country. Rodgers usually connects with them in the cool rap of the streets, but sometimes a hint of weariness also comes through, like a father figure who has seen too many of his wards go astray.
"I'm like a surgeon--I sit and look deep inside of their soul and anytime they come up with one of these b.s. lies, I check 'em," said Rodgers, who is in his late 30s. "I'm in your face until you deal with it. Because dealing with me is dealing with yourself. . . . I've been around forever."
In one of the series' most poignant episodes, Rodgers took advantage of his extraordinary access to interview one of his own homeboys, Michael Williams, who had just been slapped with a 13-year robbery sentence. At first, Williams appeared tough and defiant on camera, but then Rodgers handed him a funeral program from the 1988 murder of Williams' younger brother.
Suddenly, Williams' steely facade melted, and big tears rolled down his cheeks.
"We got feelings, but we got to maintain this image, see," Williams said as soon as he gained his composure. "Out of all the images that you maintain, you still got a heart. . . . All of these big rough people got hearts. They can all be broke down. I got broke down by a picture, a memory, a thought."
That's the kind of street-level intimacy that GRAB Productions was hoping for when it hired Rodgers to be one of two supervising segment producers for the series, which is now showing in about 20 medium-sized markets, including Seattle, Sacramento, Cleveland, St. Louis and San Antonio.
The show's gimmick is to package the jailhouse interviews around an issue: Should juveniles be tried as adults? Should white-collar criminals get more lenient sentences? Should inmates be allowed to study law? Viewers are then urged to cast their votes by calling a 900-number, the proceeds of which are earmarked for a victims' support group.
"It's entertainment and it's ratings and it's money, but I would certainly hope that we can affect people's lives, too," said Beth Humphreys, a segment producer and research director who learned the ropes working for "Rescue 911." "I think reality TV has a responsibility to educate, to find something redeemable."
To balance the generally sympathetic tone of the interviews, Rodgers' onetime nemesis, former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, was hired to host the show. But after the first 25 episodes, he was replaced by actor Paul Sorvino, who appeared in "GoodFellas" and "Law & Order."
Gates said he had no problem working with Rodgers, but thought some of the episodes were designed only to titillate, not illuminate. "There was one show about pregnant women in county jail--should they get medical treatment?--and I'm thinking to myself: 'This is the dumbest issue I've ever seen in my life,' " Gates said. "Sometimes it was hard to keep a straight face."
Executive producer Gary Bernstein said that Gates was a little too straight. "Some of the stations felt that they wanted somebody a little more polished," Bernstein said. "Daryl's not a professional actor."
Rodgers, too, has been thrust into an unfamiliar and not entirely comfortable world, where the fiercest battles revolve around office politics, and disputes get settled with memos, not guns. His baggy outfits and braided hair turn heads on Ventura Boulevard. At night, he usually races back to his South-Central apartment, fearful that police are more apt to stop his '77 lowrider custom-convertible truck if he's spotted in the San Fernando Valley after dark.
"T. is a young man with a lot of intelligence and personality who grew up with a lot of negative things around him," said former NFL star Jim Brown, who runs a self-help program for ex-convicts that employed Rodgers as its national spokesman until last year. "To come out of that and try to make a contribution to the system--and still remain true to yourself--that's a very difficult job."
The greatest irony of Rodgers' new job is that he has never been to prison himself--a fact that he attributes to a cadre of loyal homeboys who have taken the rap for some of his past transgressions. Lest he forget his debt to them, Rodgers has festooned his office door with yellow police tape--direct from a crime scene in South-Central.
"It reminds me of what I could have been," he said. "I know that tape could seriously be across my door."