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Laying Down His Own Law

Paris Barclay's resume includes musicals, films, TV, even advertising. But after an Emmy for directing 'NYPD Blue,' he's finally getting recognized for what he does, not who he is.

January 31, 1999|PAUL BROWNFIELD | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer who covers television and comedy

Paris Barclay lights a Kool cigarette and sits down at the piano in his Hancock Park home. It hasn't taken much coaxing to get Barclay to play the two songs he's written for a planned Broadway musical version of Alice Walker's novel "The Color Purple," a show for which he's vying to do the music. It's a weekday midmorning, the sun drenching the spacious living room in his circa-1920s home. For Barclay, this is a stolen, peaceful moment; there's a beeper affixed to his belt that at any moment might summon him from his cocoon to his other world, the relative universe of Steven Bochco Productions and "NYPD Blue."

Back when he thought it his destiny to write musicals for a living, Barclay put together a show called "On Hold With Music," based on his experiences in the advertising game. At the time, Barclay was in the ASCAP Musical Theater Workshop in New York, studying with Stephen Sondheim and Charles Strouse. Sondheim called Barclay's show "terrible but not untalented" and, as Barclay remembers it, the composer advised him to shift his focus to musicals about "the black experience."

"Unfortunately," Sondheim said, "you're writing musicals with white people, which means you're competing with me and everybody else who's white."

Cut to some 20 years later. Against Sondheim's advice, Barclay is still working with so-called "white" material--it's the reason people say, "Oh, really?" when you tell them that the guy who won an Emmy last year for directing ABC's "NYPD Blue" is black. You get another "Oh, really?," the eyebrows arching a little higher, when you tell people he's gay, too. It's a worrisome issue to Barclay but only to a point; his pride of identity has its pragmatic side. He seems intuitively to understand that you get furthest in life not beating any drums.

Now 42, Barclay is gradually shedding the role of anomaly, of token, of overachiever--of whatever well-meaning part anyone else has put on him.

"Every time you mention [that] a director is black it gets a little boring and frankly in the way," says Thomas Carter, an Emmy-winning television director and producer (HBO's "Don King: Only in America") who has had to outrun some of the same stigmas.

For Barclay, as for Carter, the work, finally, is speaking louder than those voices. Next year Barclay becomes a co-executive producer on one of the most lauded police dramas of all time. But more significant are the "side projects" on Barclay's menu. He may direct a miniseries in development at HBO based on David Halberstam's book "The Children," about the early years of the civil rights movement. And then there is the possibility of "The Color Purple." That's not to say Barclay couldn't do all these things and fall flat on his face. But he appears to have the versatility of talent, not to mention the confidence, to pull them off.

Barclay says his ultimate goal is television show creator power. Not black show creator, not gay show creator power. Just show creator power. He'd like, he says, to have an Ed Zwick-type career, referring to the writer-director-producer who segues back and forth between movies ("Courage Under Fire") and television ("thirtysomething"). And if Barclay is one of only a handful of black directors in television, you practically fall off a cliff looking for black "Ed Zwick types."

"There are no black people who are in a position to really run a show of influence in the country," Barclay says. "OK, maybe Oprah Winfrey."

And so, until his day comes, Barclay gives to Democratic causes (there's a framed picture of the Gores in his office, a framed photo of President Clinton in his Hancock Park home), serves on Directors Guild of America boards and committees, and last year won Project Angel Food's Founders Award for his work with the L.A. organization that delivers meals to people facing AIDS. And while he speaks his mind on race and sexual orientation, he isn't about to pull a DeGeneres / Heche--you know, decry the hypocrisy toward homosexuality in Hollywood, then repair to a villa in Ojai, waiting for the entertainment community to catch up to him.

Besides, Barclay has known how to succeed as an outsider since leaving his Harvey, Ill., neighborhood at the age of 14 to attend the exclusive all-white prep school La Lumiere in La Porte, Ind. More fish-out-of-water experiences followed: at Harvard, where he majored in English, wrote musicals and roomed for three years with Arthur Golden, best-selling author of "Memoirs of a Geisha"; in New York, where Barclay was a self-described "token to be shown off at meetings" in the white world of New York advertising; and finally as supervising producer and director at "NYPD Blue," where he has been behind the camera for some of the series' most go-for-broke episodes, including this season's farewell to Det. Bobby Simone, played by Jimmy Smits.

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