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A Mad Dash for Diversity

Television: In wake of controversy, ethnic actors are in big demand by networks. But some say it's just a short-term solution.

August 09, 1999|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wendy Davis has portrayed many people--a grief-stricken probation officer in the police drama series "High Incident." A detective in the gritty street saga "EZ Streets." A femme fatale in the upcoming BET movie, "Rendezvous."

But even with her curly hair, blinding smile and striking features, imagining Davis as a Swedish scientist has to be considered a stretch for the African American actress.

Swedish scientist, however, was suddenly what Davis found herself in the running for in a recent audition for an upcoming TV movie and proposed series called "Y2K." Davis, who was not getting many calls for work just a few months ago, says these days her phone won't stop ringing, and the days that she's not auditioning are rare.

Her experience illustrates how fortunes and opportunities have dramatically increased for ethnic actors in the wake of the recent controversy surrounding the lack of diversity in the new fall season's prime-time shows. After initially unveiling their dramas and comedies in the spring--the major networks faced a tidal wave of criticism and have been in a mad scramble to quickly insert a black face here, a Latino or an Asian American face there in what was an almost completely white landscape of characters.

In the past few weeks, network executives have voiced a commitment to diversity, announcing the addition of several minority performers to comedies and dramas including ABC's " Fox's "Manchester Prep," and NBC's "The West Wing." By the time the new season launches on Sept. 20, at least eight of the 26 new shows that were introduced by ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox expect to have added an ethnic actor to their casts. Even veteran shows are adding minority actors including Jon Huertas, a Latino who joins the cast of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," and Ming-Na, an Asian American actress who is joining "ER."

Scott Sassa, president of NBC West Coast, said in a recent interview, "Things have really changed. There is a much higher awareness of the situation. If there's even a 10% difference in what's going on, that's great."

Davis is just one of hundreds of other actors and actresses in the minority talent pool of Hollywood to feel the trickle-down effect, though thus far black actors are benefiting in greater numbers than Latinos or Asian Americans. "Now I'm auditioning every day, which is certainly rare and is certainly not what was happening before [the backlash]," said Davis last week. "It's like night and day. I've even been auditioning for roles that I'm completely wrong for, like this Swedish scientist. She is supposed to have a Swedish accent . . . I mean, they would have to totally rewrite the role."

The actress said she and her acting colleagues trace the change in studios' and networks' interest to a May 28 report in The Times that detailed the absence of minorities in leading roles in the new network series.

The report sparked an attack and threatened legal action from the NAACP, which denounced what they called "a virtual whitewash in programming." A national coalition of Latino groups, protesting the dearth of Latino faces, has called for a viewer boycott Sept 12. A local coalition of community groups has also vowed to protest the trend when the season starts.

The networks have moved quickly to respond to the protests that followed what one executive termed the "white world on television."

Doug Herzog, president of Fox Entertainment, said incorporating diversity into the network's programs "will not be a short-term, knee-jerk thing. It's clearly a much bigger problem and it needs a thorough and long-term strategy. As a corporation, we're looking at long-term things, and ultimately change will come from having a more diverse workplace inside."

Herzog added that shows such as "Time of Your Life," a spinoff of "Party of Five," and "Manchester Prep," set at a ritzy New York prep school, would have minorities in their cast. Referring to "Manchester Prep," which was criticized for having an all-white cast, Herzog pointed out, "We didn't need the NAACP to bring that to our attention. We had always planned on diversifying the show if we picked it up."

For now, though, increased opportunities for minority performers has not resulted in increased opportunities for minority writers, according to Sharon D. Johnson, head of the Writers Guild of America Committee of Black Writers, and Julie Friedgen, head of the Latino Writers Committee of the Writers Guild.

"There doesn't seem to be a rush to bring us on as writers," said Johnson. "The powers that be can increase the number of performers, because that's a very visible move. But I don't think the situation with writers will be addressed because that's harder to police."

NBC, however, has just announced development deals with Keenen Ivory Wayans ("In Living Color" and his short-lived, self-titled syndicated talk show) and with Yvette Lee Bowser ("Living Single" and "For Your Love").

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