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When Race Isn't a Factor : 'WE'RE NOT ONE THING ... WE ARE 150 THINGS'

August 27, 1995|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For many African American actors, the goal has long been to get roles in which skin color has no bearing on casting, as well as to get parts that illustrate the diversity, richness and heritage of their race. But that has rarely been the case. Three actors--whose powerful performances in dramatic series are changing the landscape of TV--talk about what those roles mean to them as they return to three of the most popular and acclaimed ensemble shows on TV.

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James McDaniel, who plays the solid, thoughtful and respected Lt. Arthur Fancy on ABC's "NYPD Blue," has a horrible summer cold. But even a runny nose and itchy, watery eyes haven't dampened his spirits.

"This is the most fun vacation I have ever had," he says gleefully. Dressed in blue jeans and a patterned shirt, McDaniel is relaxing in the lounge area at the ABC offices in Century City. Despite feeling crummy, McDaniel is easygoing and friendly.

"The day I wrapped 'NYPD Blue,' I flew to Houston to do a film [USA's "The Road to Galveston"] with Cicely Tyson, Tess Harper and Piper Laurie," he says. "I play Cicely's son."

McDaniel, who received an Emmy nomination last year as Fancy, has had a long relationship with "NYPD Blue" creator and executive producer Steven Bochco. "The first audition I ever had in Hollywood was for 'Hill Street Blues,' " says McDaniel, who played a militant cop in an episode penned by "NYPD" executive producer David Milch. "I have subsequently worked on pretty much everything they have done. I was a regular on 'Cop Rock,' I did 'Civil Wars,' I did 'L.A. Law.' "

Fancy, he says, was written for him, but originally "he was just a character to me." Though Fancy is depicted as a loving husband and father, those facets of his character were added as the season progressed. "I had to figure out how to flesh [him] out. It's funny. When they mentioned that I was going to be the lieutenant, my mind was doing flip-flops. How are we doing to do something different with a black lieutenant? I see myself running down the street chasing the bad guy or being the bad guy. I still feel that's usually my meat and potatoes. But all of a sudden, I'm a boss. I'm an authority figure."

Eager for insight, McDaniel met with various L.A. lieutenants and detectives. "They were all so different from me. Those guys were either Italian or Irish. They were like everybody's daddy you kind of didn't want to cross. I said, 'How do I put me in this picture?' "

Finally, McDaniel says, "I realized Fancy tries to keep himself pretty damn-near perfect and that would be a real pitfall too. That's where the drama lies. There's a problem when a little bit of [that perfection] gets chinked away."

McDaniel wasn't worried last season when series heartthrob David Caruso departed for a feature career and Jimmy Smits came on board. "I knew with the head start we had on the show, [the producers] were not going to blow this opportunity," he says.

McDaniel displays a real je ne sais quois attitude about the Caruso affair. "I said to myself, 'If it doesn't work, then hey, I'm back out on the street again.' How many times has that happened? You've got to keep going and be ready for anything. You always have to be ready to fall on your face."

Not that McDaniel ever has. McDaniel, who was "into horses" as a youngster growing up in Washington, D.C., was planning to become a vet. At 20, though, he quit the University of Pennsylvania to seek his fame and fortune as an actor in New York.

He says "stupidity" and youth spurred him to be so impetuous. "If I have to put a sock on a different foot now, it's like a major computation. You get so set in your ways, but in those days ... My parents raised me in a way that was basically, 'You can do anything you want to do.' "

As soon as he hit town 16 years ago, McDaniel landed a Pepsi commercial. "It kept me alive-- literally,' ' he says. Eighteen months later he made his Broadway debut in "A Soldier's Play."

"Things always just happened for me," he says matter-of-factly. "It's not like it was a bed of roses. I paid my dues." Still, "this is the only job I have ever had."

McDaniel has appeared in numerous plays off and on Broadway, including "Balm in Gilead," "Six Degrees of Separation" and "Someone to Watch Over Me." Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" and "Strictly Business" are among his feature films.

The only rough patch in his career occurred when he came to L.A in the mid-'80s to test the film waters. "This is a difficult town to be out of work in," he explains. "It's really hard because there's no support. It's like one of those old Western streets with the tumbleweed blowing down it."

McDaniel also found himself being offered typical African American stereotype roles of junkies and lowlifes. "I'm stupid in the way that I think everything is just a role," he says. "Then you start to notice there's a certain type of role that keeps resurfacing over and over again. It's a role that has no particular connection to you, but you could connect if it was good. But the stuff is not particularly well-written and is one-dimensional.

"This is going to be hard to put across, but my concept of stereotype is that basically everything is a stereotype," McDaniel says. "I'm a version of somebody and so is that guy and so is that guy. People of color have not been allowed to have enough stereotypes. We're not one thing, we're not six things ... we are, like, 150 things."

"NYPD Blue" airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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