J. August Richards is tall, good-looking, yet sees himself as a serious dramatic actor--"a character actor," he says, without sounding the least bit egotistical, "in a leading man's body."
A USC graduate who came to the school on scholarship, Richards landed guest parts in such programs as "The Practice," took acting workshops, met the right people. Nevertheless, he came through the 1999 "casting season," when actors seek roles in new television series, without landing a regular spot on a prime-time show.
Richards, who happens to be black, auditioned for numerous series that year, including several roles that didn't specify a black actor. "The pilots I did test for, I was the only black actor testing against white actors, for parts that were written white," he recalled.
With the networks promising to increase minority representation in front of and behind the cameras, the question lingered: Would the 2000-01 TV season be any different? The Times followed Richards' odyssey for nearly a year, from last summer through the casting process for the coming season.
The previous year's experience left Richards' manager, Janie Mudrick of the Braverman/Bloom Co., puzzled and frustrated. Admittedly biased, she was sure Richards was ready to break out--to become a mainstay on a prime-time series and eventually a star.
Then the headlines hit: "NAACP Will Fight Network TV Lineups," as The Times put it on July 12, 1999. NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called the fall season--with its dearth of roles for minority performers--a "whitewash." Networks found themselves on the defensive, issuing statements swearing that they would do better in the future.
Minority actors could only wonder whether this was mere lip service or if programming executives would make good on their pledges. The Hollywood trade papers soon carried regular stories about series being developed featuring black stars, but such announcements are as tangible as a strong wind, causing a momentary stir and just as quickly fading away.
Not surprisingly, Richards approached allowing a reporter to track his progress cautiously--reluctant to use specific names or say anything that could alienate a producer, casting executive or anyone else with the power to influence his career. Indeed, he even declined to divulge his age, which one Internet database puts in his mid-20s. Few things are so fragile, or subjective, as the fate of a still-unknown actor.
Retracing Richards' journey begins after the diversity headlines hit. Without a series to occupy him, he takes a part as a foulmouthed alien abductee in "Space," a play at the Mark Taper Forum. Rehearsals begin in August, and the play opens in October. Mudrick invites casting people from all over to come. The play itself is coolly received, but Richards earns positive mentions from critics and impresses a few of those Mudrick wants to impress.
Richards remains busy with guest work on television series. He goes to San Francisco in December, filming a bad-guy role (he's enthusiastic about that) on CBS' Don Johnson series, "Nash Bridges." An episode of the UPN situation comedy "Moesha" follows in January, as well as a small role in the TNT movie "Washington Slept Here."
The work keeps coming. A part on the Lifetime series "Any Day Now." An audition for a high-profile NBC pilot produced by director Steven Spielberg. A guest role on "NYPD Blue."
Projecting self-confidence, Richards is smooth and blends easily into different social situations--in part a by-product, perhaps, of having grown up as one of two black families in his neighborhood and attending a predominantly white elementary school. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Panama, and he was born not long after they arrived in Washington, D.C.
Richards says that the previous season had been "a good year" financially. There were parts on "Chicago Hope" and in the NBC miniseries "The Temptations." He even rather gamely tried out for a proposed Fox series called "Blade Squad," a futuristic concept about a group of roller-blading young crime-fighters, despite having never been on roller blades before in his life.
Most of the roles, however, were not particularly fulfilling, and Richards and his managers are convinced a series is in order--the requisite step to raise him to another level. "I want the calling card," Richards says in January.
Contemplating his options, Richards is concerned about tokenism, what he calls "he went thataway" roles--a cowboy sidekick reference, where the character gets a line or two each week, just enough to provide a little background color.
In early 2000 he auditions for three series prototypes, or pilots, as well as a part on "Angel," an existing WB network program about a 200-year-old vampire who looks 22 and spends his evenings fighting crime. (The WB is part-owned by Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times.)