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Gregory Hines Taps Into Right Sitcom

September 21, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tony Award-winning actor, singer and tap dancer extraordinaire Gregory Hines is having no problem adjusting to life on a sitcom.

"It's a breeze," the 51-year-old Hines says enthusiastically.

Hines, who starred on Broadway in the musicals "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Sophisticated Ladies" and in such films as "Running Scared" and "Waiting to Exhale," headlines "The Gregory Hines Show,' which premiered last week on CBS.

In the comedy, which airs Fridays as part of the network's new family night, Hines plays publisher Ben Stevenson, a charming widower who finds himself entering the social scene at the same time as his 12-year-old son (Brandon Hammond).

"Some people on the set, they'll say to me, 'Are you holding up under the grind?' " Hines relates. "Grind? Eight shows a week [on Broadway] is a serious run. I had to gear my whole life around the show. [Doing a sitcom] is an unheard-of notion in show business: It's a steady pay check. I get a week off every month, a three-month vacation every year. Whoever had a job like that in show business?"

Hines also is enjoying the "payoff" of doing a sitcom--he gets to rehearse all week and then perform in front of an audience. "That's my audience," he says. "My roots are on the live stage."

Like his TV character, the carefree Hines has charm to spare. Holding court in his small trailer at Culver Studios on a hot, muggy afternoon, Hines treats his visitor as if they've been best friends for years. He's especially happy, he says, because his 14-year-old son Zach is due for a visit on the set later that afternoon.

"It was very exciting," says Hines, who is married to theatrical producer Pamela Koslow. "A couple of days ago, when my son came on the set, he wanted to meet Brandon. I talk so much about my son, Brandon wanted to meet Zach. As soon as they got together, they started talking about videos and movies and girls. I could see that they are contemporaries in a sense."

The Hines clan, which also includes a grown daughter and stepdaughter and a grandson, is based in New York. For the first year, Dad will fly home one weekend a month and for his one-week hiatuses. The family will pay a monthly weekend visit here.

"If I see we're definitely going to be picked up for a second season, I will start looking for schools for Zach [here]," he says.

It took seven years for Hines to find the right sitcom vehicle. He had deals over the years with NBC, Fox and ABC, but "I was never able to come up with anything good," he says.

Hines wasn't having much more luck at CBS, where he was developing a comedy in which he would have played a lounge singer. "It was OK, but it would have been a real push to get it to even go to pilot," he says.

He was beginning to get discouraged when Les Moonves, CBS Entertainment president, sent him a script for a sitcom called "Square One."

"As soon as I started reading it, I began to get nervous," Hines recalls. "I'm thinking, 'The next page is going to fall apart or the next page is going to get corny.' It was so good. Within six weeks or seven weeks, we were shooting the pilot. It came together very quickly."

The premise, he acknowledges, is "like 'The Courtship of Eddie's Father' in that I am a single father with a young son. But beyond that," he adds, "it's right for the millennium because it's a very sophisticated, mature 12-year-old and a father who is actually learning from him. I'm learning from him as parents will do if they just listen. I have no skills with women. And [my son] is starting to be attracted to girls. So we're in the same boat."

Very little was altered from the original concept once Hines was aboard. One change was the addition of Ben's father, played by Bill Cobbs.

"I love the fact that we have my father in my show, which is based on my father [entertainer Maurice Hines]," he says. "I said I want a father character in there and I want Bill Cobbs to play him. I had done a pilot presentation piece about a year ago for CBS and Bill played my father."

Fans of Hines the hoofer needn't worry that he has hung up his dancing shoes because of the series. "I am going to have a dream sequence where I dream I am a great tap dancer and I challenge Savion Glover [of "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk"] to a tap duel and win. In a sitcom you can take that kind of liberty. I am calling all my favors in. I am going to try to get everybody [on the show] from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Jeff Goldblum."

He's especially proud that his character doesn't have all the answers, especially when it comes to women. "So often in films, African American men are portrayed as always being so cool. They know exactly what to say to get what they want from a woman. They are just so skilled. I feel so thrilled to be playing an African American man who is not like that."

In fact, Ben Stevenson has a lot in common with Hines' role as the kind, loving Marvin, the widower who fell in love with an overweight woman in "Waiting to Exhale."

"In these times, I was happy to be the black man who said sweet things to a black woman. I was happy to get that opportunity," Hines says of that film.

"Waiting to Exhale" has turned him into a sex symbol with the plus-size set. "Listen," he says with a smile, "I can be in an airport and a 300-pound black woman will come over to me and say, 'You know, the apartment next door to mine is vacant.' It's so sweet. I love it!"

"The Gregory Hines Show' airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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