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This Is Certainly Better Than Repairing Typewriters

Movies* Bill Cobbs, co-starring in 'Sunshine State,' has taken odd jobs and some roles for money. This isn't one of them.

June 21, 2002|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Cobbs divides his acting gigs into two categories: the jobs he takes out of necessity to make a living and those that are labors of love. "It is almost like going to work for an artist or going to work for a businessman," says Cobbs, who has appeared in more than 60 movies, including Jennifer Lopez's latest, "Enough," and countless TV series.

Although Cobbs, 67, is too diplomatic to mention the projects he took out of economic necessity, he's quick to point out that his latest film, "Sunshine State," which opens today, was an artistic endeavor.

In John Sayles' sprawling ensemble drama, set in Florida, Cobbs plays Dr. Lloyd, a pillar of the dying African American community of Lincoln Beach who is trying to stop white investors from buying up homes and property.

The drama also stars Angela Bassett, Mary Alice, James McDaniel, Edie Falco, Ralph Waite, Jane Alexander, Timothy Hutton and Mary Steenburgen.

"This was a wonderful experience," says the lanky and distinguished-looking actor during a recent interview. "When John Sayles picks you to do something, he really trusts you to do it. Also, he has a good idea of what he wants so you don't find yourself doing things over and over again."

"Sunshine State" marks the second time Cobbs has worked with the independent filmmaker. Eighteen years ago, he appeared in "Brother From Another Planet" as a neighborhood philosopher named Walter. Although Sayles didn't write Dr. Lloyd specifically for Cobbs, the director says the idea of using the easygoing actor came to him once he finished the script.

Cobbs always has been impressed with how well Sayles understands the machinations of other groups such as African Americans in "Sunshine State," "Brother From Another Planet," and "Passion Fish" (1992), and Latinos in "Lone Star" (1996) and "Men With Guns" (1997).

"He has lived with people of all races, and because he understands their dialogue, when he writes dialogue, I don't have any trouble saying it," Cobbs says. "Not that many white people can do that. It's not a put-down, it is just the way it is. He has this incredible respect for other people that he takes the time to learn about them. The characters are very true to life."

Dr. Lloyd is a stalwart defender of the legacy of Lincoln Beach and regrets changes in the community brought about with the end of segregation. When black professionals and businessmen were allowed to integrate into previously segregated communities, Dr. Lloyd tells a former resident (Bassett), they left the enclave and took the community's livelihood and respect with them.

What happened in the fictitious Lincoln Beach, says Cobbs, has happened to many African American communities. "We were forced into the environment, we made it special for ourselves and we had a good deal of pride," says Cobbs. "As kids, we grew up with professional people. We grew up with doctors and lawyers and people who owned their own business. So as kids we were influenced by that.... Now that is lost because the powerful people moved away. Outside influences come in and bully people and essentially take away what we had."

For Sayles, Cobbs' great strength as an actor is that once he gets into character, he stays there. "So no matter what he does--and each time it is a little different--it is something you feel that the character might do," Sayles says. "I think he just brings a lot of wit and intelligence to it, whatever he is given to do."

Cobbs was very popular with the cast and crew of "Sunshine State," which was shot on an island off Florida. "I think Bill is such a personable guy," Sayles says. "He can live in a place for a weekend and he's going to know 20 people. He'll kind of close the local joint down."

Started Acting at 36

During the past 30 years, Cobbs has developed into one of the busiest working actors in Hollywood. Among his film credits: "Random Hearts" (1999), "Air Bud" (1997), "Ghosts of Mississippi" (1996), "That Thing You Do!" (1996), "The Hudsucker Proxy" (1994), "The Bodyguard" (1992), "The Color of Money" (1986) and "The Cotton Club" (1984).

Although Cobbs acknowledges that he's not a household name, "people have seen my face" and always approach him on the street. "Very often, they don't know how they know me," he says. "Many people think I have gone to school with them. I have had people think I am related to them."

The Cleveland native didn't start his life as a professional actor until he was 36. When he graduated from high school, he joined the Air Force and worked for eight years repairing radar equipment. During that time, he tried to do stand-up comedy on an amateur basis. "I tried singing," he recalls, with a laugh. "I tried playing a musical instrument. I really wanted to be a musician but I never could quite pull that off. I liked entertaining, but I was always drawn to some kind of technical work--some kind of honest labor."

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