Anthony Anderson was bent on bringing funny back this TV season.
A scene-stealer extraordinaire, Anderson -- big of voice, size and brash comic bravado -- had scored steady work for more than a decade in films such as "Kangaroo Jack," "Barbershop," "Me, Myself & Irene," "Scary Movie 3" and numerous other films and TV series.
Lately, he has largely put the jokes aside for more serious turns, winning raves for supporting roles in "The Shield" and "Hustle & Flow." His stock rose higher with a small but pivotal featured role in this year's Oscar winner "The Departed."
Though gratified with the response, Anderson longed to get back to comedy, especially since he enjoyed a recurring turn on Fox's " 'Til Death." Meeting months ago with Peter Liguori -- then the Fox entertainment president, now its chairman -- Anderson pitched a comedy based on his children and their values, compared with his values growing up in Compton.
Liguori saw something different for Anderson and asked how he would feel about starring in a drama set in ravaged New Orleans.
"I had really wanted to get back in the half-hour world and have some fun," said Anderson. "But it's hard to argue with the president of a network who wants to cast you as the lead of a drama."
Now Anderson is one of the most unlikely dramatic leads of the season with "K-Ville," playing a police detective dedicated to his recovering city as he struggles to hold his life, career and family together in the wake of the storm.
With "K-Ville," Anderson joins the ranks of other comedians such as Denis Leary, Michael Chiklis and Hugh Laurie who won newfound success with their dramatic turns on television.
"From my standpoint, if Anthony's good enough for Martin Scorsese, he's good enough for me," said Liguori, a longtime fan who worked with him on "The Shield" when he was an executive at FX. Liguori added that he has always been intrigued by comedians who take on dramatic roles, saying they usually bring a humane, relatable quality to the portrayals. The actor is pleased that he is once again shattering expectations. "I feel good about where I am," Anderson said recently during a stop in Los Angeles. "I knew I could do drama. People don't know that I've trained with actors like Avery Brooks, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis. I was just never given the opportunity before 'The Shield' to show what I could do. People just seemed to be myopic in their thinking when it came to me, and I knew it would someday come to a point where I wouldn't want to be that character anymore."
Though Anderson has appeared in several major films, including this summer's "Transformers," many of his roles were in cinematic throwaways such as "Kingdom Come," "Malibu's Most Wanted" and "My Baby's Daddy." And his last leading- man stint was in 2005's joke-deficient "King's Ransom," where he played an obnoxious millionaire who attempts to dupe his gold-digging estranged wife by staging his own kidnapping. Though he proudly called the film "my stepping-out party," the movie flopped.
Shawn Ryan, creator of "The Shield," was not that familiar with Anderson's comic résumé when he cast him. "Anthony just came in and auditioned and really showed us what he could do," said Ryan.
Said Anderson: "People were coming up to me, saying, 'Man, you really scared me on "The Shield." ' They couldn't believe it -- they said, 'You're that guy from "Kingdom Come." ' "
The two sides of Anderson were on display during a presentation of "K-Ville" at this summer's press tour for television journalists. After the screening of the show's solemn trailer, the lights came up and Anderson, sitting onstage with costar Cole Hauser, responded with a loud whoop and applause as if leading a cheer. But as the discussion commenced, Anderson expressed his dedication to helping the people of New Orleans and to the series. He and his family have relocated to the struggling city.
Still, comedy calls. He continues to be stung by the failure of "All About the Andersons," a semi-autobiographical WB comedy that he starred in and created.
"Comedy is who I am," Anderson said. "But I have to say I feel truly blessed and fortunate. There's not a lot of actors who get the opportunities that I'm getting. I've been working basically nonstop and have been in 30 films that have grossed over $2 billion. I'm just a little boy from Compton who had a dream and is living it."