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Boot Camp, Hollywood Style : Actor-director Bill Duke trains aspiring African Americans to achieve the same success he's had in Hollywood. The graduates of his demanding program are finding out that he's a tough act to follow.

MOVIES

November 01, 1998|ERIC HARRISON | Eric Harrison is a Times staff writer

Five years ago, Shamar Moore was working the late shift at a New York City coffee shop, waiting for his lucky break. "I was an unknown," he says. Just another pretty face scrounging for modeling work.

Had he pursued acting, his chances of success would have been slim not long ago--opportunities for African Americans were limited. But in today's Hollywood, Eddie Murphy and Will Smith are among the most popular of stars, Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington among the most respected. The casting of a dark face in television and film productions, even if often for marketing reasons, has become almost de rigueur.

Moore got a lucky break--producers called him after seeing his picture in a magazine. Today he is seen by millions on the daytime soap opera "The Young and the Restless." Young girls squeal at mention of his name. "I'm the darling of grandmothers everywhere," he says and laughs.

But overnight success comes with a price: "When I got into acting," he says, "I heard voices over my shoulder; I kept looking back. I felt like I had fooled somebody. I felt like the day would come when they would see through me and see that I wasn't good enough."

Probably every actor feels that way deep inside. Uncertainty is the nature of the business. The doors of opportunity that allowed an unprecedented number of black actors into the industry swings both ways. That is why, in recent months, a group of African Americans who made it through the door has been meeting in a rented Hollywood rehearsal space. They want to make sure that they not only manage to stay inside but also make their presence felt.

They range in age from their early 20s to their mid-30s. Most of them are actors, but some want to write or produce. Some are unknown, but others are familiar faces such as Tempestt Bledsoe from the old "Cosby Show," Tisha Campbell from "Martin" and the "House Party" movies, Kelly Williams from "Family Matters" and Chris Spencer, the first host of the short-lived talk show "Vibe." What unites them is dedication to their art and the help and good graces of Bill Duke.

The actor and director of such films as "A Rage in Harlem" and "Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit" has become a godfather of sorts for a segment of young Hollywood that is still finding its way. "He taught me a lot not just about filmmaking and producing but also about how to live and [specifically] how to live in this business, how to have your soul secure in this business," says Paul Eckstein, a filmmaker Duke mentored. Eckstein and his writing partner, Chris Brancato, had tried for years to get the movie "Hoodlum" made. Duke agreed to direct the film and took the younger men under his wing as co-producers, teaching them about the business at every step. "He's just a great man," Eckstein says.

Last March, Duke began twice-weekly meetings with a group of 35 people. Ostensibly they came to study acting and industry survival techniques, but his 10-week "boot camp" became, among other things, a sort of industry encounter group in which participants wept, hugged and shared secrets. At the end, no one wanted to walk away, so they formed a theater company, one with both high hopes and influential friends. (Washington, Maya Angelou and Charles Dutton as well as Duke are among the benefactors.)

It didn't stop there. Even before serious work began on their first play ("Dangerous Liaisons" set during the Harlem Renaissance), the newly christened Epiphany Theater Company/Griot Players added movie production to its raison d'e^tre. Few of the participants even read the trades when the meetings with Duke began. Now they are pursuing investors, building a board of directors, developing projects.

"Probably by the end of 1999 we will have produced our first feature film as a company," says Lalanya Masters, the actress who originally brought the group together. "We'll make baby steps at first, but what we're hoping to have with our company is to become a studio. Not a production company--a studio on the order of Paramount, Warner Bros. and Disney."

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These are grand ambitions, but Duke taught his students to dream big. "Bill always stressed creating your own opportunities, getting control of your own career," says Benjamin Brown, an actor involved with the group.

"He told us that he no longer wanted us to refer to ourselves as actors," says Masters. "He said we should think of ourselves as entrepreneurs looking for funding for our next project."

Duke speaks proudly of his proteges. "All over town actors are bitching about how difficult, how racist the industry is, yet they're not doing anything. This group isn't crying and complaining about the racist system. They don't have time for that. They're building something. . . . By hook or by crook," he says, "they're going to make it happen."

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