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Furor Erupts Over Klan Joke on Set of 'E.R'

November 18, 1994|SHARON BERNSTEIN and VIVIEN LOU CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BURBANK — A controversy is swirling around "E.R.," TV's hottest new drama, after one actress complained that racist remarks were made on the set, but others--including the actor to whom the remarks were allegedly made--denied that anything offensive was said.

Thea Perkins, an extra hired to be in the background of a scene in the series broadcast by NBC, complained that one of the show's stars joked about the Ku Klux Klan during a break in filming at Warner Bros. studios in Burbank on Oct. 28.

Based on Perkins' allegations, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith sent a letter to the show's producer demanding an explanation and threatening action under the federal Civil Rights Act. The Screen Actors Guild, to whom Perkins also complained, has made inquiries as well.

But Barbara Bagliotti, spokeswoman for Burbank-based Warner Bros., which produces the program, said Thursday that a preliminary investigation of the incident by the studio's legal department has shown "that there is no substance to these allegations."

Perkins said she saw George Clooney, who plays Dr. Douglas Ross on the medical drama, pretending to be a member of the KKK and making a defamatory remark to Deezer D., an African American actor who plays an orderly.

But Clooney, Deezer D. and the studio deny that such an incident happened.

"I didn't say it," Clooney said through his publicist, Stan Rosenfeld. "I couldn't have. It goes against everything I believe."

Deezer D. said it was he, not Clooney, who mentioned the KKK in an attempt at humor. Clooney, he said, was clowning on the set and pulled a burn mask--a yellow hospital gown used to protect burn victims--up over his head.

"I said, 'Who are you supposed to be, the (expletive) KKK?' " Deezer D. said. "I joked around with it, and Clooney said nothing. It wasn't anything."

Shubi Kay, an Indian-born actor who plays a doctor on the program, confirmed Deezer D.'s account.

Clooney "was assuming different accents, mimicking actors in old movies, doing a running gag for about 10 minutes," Kay said. "We were all laughing heartily at it. In the midst of all, this there was one sequence, 10 to 20 seconds tops, in which, as he was horsing around, he sat on this wheelchair and raised his gown."

At that point, Kay said, Deezer D. remarked that Clooney looked like a Klansman.

"George laughed it off, and he went on to another act altogether," Kay said.

Perkins stuck by her story, saying that Clooney pulled a hood over his face and made an extremely ugly racist suggestion to Deezer D.

"I stood there, and I couldn't believe it," Perkins said. "I walked outside, came back in and said, 'This is ridiculous. There's no way I can put up with this.' "

Anti-Defamation League spokesman Randall Steinberg said his organization is continuing to investigate Perkins' allegations. Bagliotti said the studio plans to make all of the approximately 40 people who were on the set available to the civil rights organization.

Steinberg wrote to John Wells, the show's executive producer, that the alleged conduct by Clooney and the crew "created a hostile and intimidating environment for Ms. Perkins, who is African American, and others. Please contact me immediately to describe what actions you propose to take to ensure that future incidents of intolerance do not occur on the set of your television show."

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