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Casting Call

Prime Time Takes Affirmative Action

This Season Many Shows Seek To Better Reflect The Diversity Of Their Viewer Audience

September 21, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIME STAFF WRITER

Every season, producers add new characters to pep up returning series. This season is no different--except in one respect: Many of the new faces are those of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. And some are joining previously all-white casts, including "The Drew Carey Show," "Fired Up" and "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."

"I think it's about time," says African American actress Francesca P. Roberts, who plays the outspoken employment officer Mrs. Francis on NBC's "Fired Up." Roberts had such chemistry with series star Sharon Lawrence in several guest appearances last season that she was promoted to a regular this year.

"We are approaching the year 2000 and we are still dealing with those kind of limitations in the industry," Roberts says. "It's really frustrating."

For the past several years, the networks have come under fire from critics such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the National Hispanic Media Coalition for not depicting in their prime-time schedules the diversity of the American public.

Now Latino Jon Seda is joining NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," Asian American Lauren Tom has been added to ABC's "Grace Under Fire," African American Victoria Dillard is in ABC's "Spin City," African American Trina McGee-Davis is joining ABC's "Boy Meets World" and Latina Daisy Fuentes will be co-host of ABC's "America's Funniest Home Videos" when it returns at midseason.

But the producers interviewed who are adding minority actors to their series say they were not given any directive by the networks to do so.

At the ABC hit "The Drew Carey Show," for example, it was the star who came up with the idea of adding an upwardly mobile African American couple as his new neighbors, according to executive producer Bruce Helford. Keith Diamond and Rachel True will be introduced in the fourth episode.

The series is set in Carey's hometown of Cleveland, which, Helford points out, "is a city with a really large African American population."

The impetus also came from within at ABC's "Sabrina."

"We knew we were a very white show," says Paula Hart, executive producer and mother of the show's star, Melissa Joan Hart.

"We were also very low in the number of male actors on the show. It was mainly blond female and we felt we needed to mix things up a little bit." So they hired African American Alimi Ballard, late of "The Arsenio Hall Show," to play the Quiz Master, who will test Sabrina's witchcraft skills throughout the season.

Ballard says it is simply good business to diversify.

"People want to see themselves on TV," says the actor. "It's a reality. So one needs to cater to that market. ['Sabrina'] was doing OK with no lead African Americans on the show. But from a total perspective, [adding an African American] broadens the appeal of your show. Go for it!"

Despite its lack of minority talent, Hart reports "Sabrina" scored high in black households last season. The addition of Ballard, she says, "will only help us. It's not that we purposely left minorities out last year. [Female and white] was a direction we went [last season]. We could have given Sabrina a black girlfriend or an Asian girlfriend, but is that character going to be of any real importance? I don't think so. This is an important character, and it uses a minority character in a really good way."

In the case of "Fired Up," Roberts' role of Mrs. Francis wasn't written for an African American. "As we went about casting, we looked at different people," says executive producer Victor Fresco. "She's the one we liked."

Fresco says the series also needed to diversify and the perfect opportunity opened up when Roberts and Lawrence clicked.

"Our show is set in New York," he says. "Immediately, we feel like there should be a diversity of characters." But that often takes time when the core actors are white.

"You start with Sharon, who is white, and then we ended up with Leah Remini, who also is white," Fresco says. "Leah has a brother, so therefore he has to be white. You end up with a bunch of white people. Then you think, 'Geez. We want to get other elements here.' We do want to be able to do that."

Helford says they went through much the same process at "Drew Carey." The first priority, he explains, was "getting our premise off the ground"--although African Americans have always been cast on the series in guest and extra roles, and a recurring character of a security guard was played by a black actor.

"The first thing you are thinking of are your core people," Helford says. "You are trying to get all of their stories. Once the dust settles, you start looking at the bigger picture of what world you are representing on TV. That's when you start thinking about things like diversifying and making sure everybody is represented."

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