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TV, one of their nine lives

Actors like to diversify their roles and producers want punch in new shows, so some familiar faces are appearing this fall in unexpected places.

October 27, 2002|Kevin Maynard | Special to The Times

In television, the prime-time genres tend to stay the same -- cop and FBI dramas, family and single-girl sitcoms -- so in many cases what makes shows stand out is surprising casting. Actors reinvent themselves, and with successful shows, it's often a matter of producers who look for ways to counter expectations. So as has been the case in previous years, some not-so-fresh faces are turning up in unanticipated places this fall.

Mykelti Williamson knows a lot about reinvention. After working steadily in small guest roles on television shows ("Hill Street Blues," "China Beach"), he had to fight to get an audition for the film role that made him famous, Southern hick turned unlikely entrepreneur Bubba in the 1995 blockbuster "Forrest Gump." "I threatened to leave my agent," he says. "I only got it through persistence and putting my foot down."

Since then he's worked regularly in film ("Waiting to Exhale," "Heat," Don King in "Ali"). After two unsuccessful returns to network television (the short-lived television show "The Hoop Life" and "The Fugitive"), it seemed as if the 42-year-old actor was destined to stay in films.

"With television, you can start out with great creators, and all of a sudden they're so hot they're getting other offers and spreading themselves so thin they bring in other people to cover for them. And you end up doing a show that wasn't what you signed up for. And that's the fear of television. It could evolve into this other monster."

But Williamson reconsidered when he was offered the idiosyncratic role of "Fearless" Bobby Smith, a Desert Storm vet turned cop in "Boomtown," NBC's edgy new cop drama from creator Graham Yost ("Speed," "Band of Brothers").

"He is so talented," Williamson says of Yost. "And he's with us every single day. If he's not on the set, he's in the office prepping upcoming episodes and punching up story lines. But he's there. He's accessible. And this is the first time where I've been with a television cast where no one's groaning. Everybody's cool."

Another draw for Williamson was the way "Boomtown" accurately depicts the realities of being a black man in Los Angeles. In a coming episode, Fearless is off duty and gets pulled over by cops in another district simply because of his skin color.

"We're going to deal with Fearless' concept of freedom," the actor says.

"I got stopped earlier this year [by the police] and fortunately they recognized me. But they had no reason to stop me. They just pulled me over because they saw me black in a nice neighborhood."

TV and the working girl

IF Williamson seemed set for a film career, Sara Rue appeared to have a career staked out as a cliched best friend-sidekick. Instead the 25-year-old supporting actress from the cult series "Popular" has the title role as a sweet, single working-girl temp who gets promoted to a permanent position in ABC's "Less Than Perfect." Rue got the part after waiting 2 1/2 months from her initial audition. "They auditioned everyone in Hollywood for this part," she says. "They had every girl with every different body type, every age."

It's easy to see why they went with Rue but also something of a surprise. She's as cute and charming as one of the "Friends," but she's not a size-0 stick figure. "It doesn't hurt for you to watch me walk," Rue jokes. "Like you don't worry I'm gonna break. My character doesn't want to look like the Calista Flockharts, like my character on 'Popular' did. She's self-deprecating like everyone is, but she has her own style and her own spirit. And I think that's good for young women. Not everyone looks like a supermodel, and not everyone wants to."

Still, Rue admits starring in a sitcom has made her all too aware of media scrutiny, like a review that called her "plus-sized." "I'm a size 10. That's not plus size! I just have to remember in real life outside television I'm average if not smaller than most women in America."

Rue also says she's having a positive experience with ABC, a network that paradoxically housed "domestic goddess" Roseanne for nine years but put Gen-Xer Margaret Cho on a harrowing diet regime while making her short-lived series "All American Girl." Cho chronicled her experience in her stand-up concert "I'm the One That I Want." "I'll never forget when she said she felt like [the network] had a big poster of her body and a pointer going, 'These are the problem areas!' " says Rue. "I think she was ahead of her time."

Across the pond

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