CONSIDER THIS idealistic premise: Producers should not automatically think "white" when casting. Unless race has an intrinsic bearing on the piece, actors of all colors should have equal opportunity, based on talent.
Let's digress for a bit. The last episode of "Maude" finds Maude Findlay arriving in Washington to fill out the term of a deceased congressperson. She inherits an experienced staff. The episode is extremely well received. Beatrice Arthur wants to rest after working in a series for six years. But the concept is strong and the supporting actors fresh and good, so CBS asks that the same show be done with a new lead.
Now, back to that premise: Let's test it. We recast the white actress with a black actor. We give the congressperson a background: college educated, athletic, founder of a construction company that specialized in low-income housing for poor people. We make him idealistic, high-principled, morally upright. And then we do virtually the same script, line for line, that we did with the white actress. Surely we have done something special here: We have given a black the lead in an important TV series solely on the basis of talent.
Now, let's get some reactions from members of the Congressional Black Caucus: "A racial stereotype9" "A reversion to the Stepin Fetchit syndrome." "Portrays blacks in a demeaning manner."
As Napoleon is said to have remarked on the boat ride to Elba, "Something went wrong."
The show was "Mister Dugan." On March 8, three days before its debut on CBS, Alan Horn, the president of TAT Communications, announced that "Mister Dugan" wouldn't be delivered to the network. He and Norman Lear, the company's founder, had flown to Washington to screen the first episode for the 15 members of the Black Caucus. After a conversation that consisted chiefly of words like "abomination," "disgusting" and "sickening," Norman and Alan concluded that the show had "fallen short" in presenting a black congressman "as a positive and accurate role model."
I was the producer of "Mister Dugan" and one of its creators. I watched Norman and Alan agonize over their decision. I was consulted. In their position, I may have reached the same conclusion. I agree that the show probably wasn't strictly "accurate." But what the hell, this is television. If the news isn't accurate, why should the comedies be?
However, I disagree with their conclusion that we were not portraying a black congressman in a positive way. I think we were. I didn't personally endure the reactions of the black congresspersons. I only read the graceless remarks that some of them made after they got waht they wanted-after Alan Horn, as a matter of conscience, withheld a show that he legally owed to a network, thereby infuriating one of his three customers, eating almost a million dollars in losses and giving up a time slot (between "All in the Family" and "Alice" on Sunday nights) that any production company would kill for.
So how did all this happen? Rather innocently. After Beatrice Arthur decided to take a rest, we realized that the lead could be played by a man or a woman. Lear thought of John Amos, who played the father on "Good Times." (The company released Amos halfway through the series because of various disputes, but apparently, bygones were bygones.)
Last October, we taped the show again. Again, CBS was enthusiastic. Amos gave a strong performance. In December the network picked up the series as a midseason entry and gave it that choice time slot on Sunday nights. Shortly after that Amos and TAT parted company because of "creative differences."
Some media accounts claimed that Amos left the show because of his disenchantment with its racial aspects. The fact is, however, that it was not racial. He suddenly demanded creative controls.
At any rate, we began our search anew. We talked with more than 40 black actors. By "we" I mean myself and a rather select group of TV comedy writers-Arthur Julian, Bill Davenport and Sy Rosen. When we didn't find the combination of qualities we were looking for, we began to consider white and Hispanic actors.
At that point, I received a call from Derrick Humphries, a public relations man for the Black Caucus, who offered to be of assistance. I told him that we were not so sure the congressman would be black. Later, I received a call from Bill Lane, an official of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He accused me of "toying with" black actors, then hiring a white. He was emphatic in his demands that the congressman be black. The tone of his voice was threatening. Lane repeated his demands in an interview in Daily Variety. The article also mentioned that the Black Caucus would be disappointed if a black weren't chosen for the role. The caucus and the NAACP had joined forces. It looked like we'd be in for it if we didn't come up with a black, quick.
We did. On Feb. 14, the same day the Variety article appeared, Cleavon Little, a black comedy actor whom we'd been interested in all along, was released from his contract with NBC. The very next day, he began his duties in "Mister Dugan." We re-did the pilot, for the third time, on Feb. 20. Then we began the weekly production of the rest of the shows.
Then, on Feb. 28, an amazing thing happened. The NAACP and the Caucus joined forces again, this time with a new twist. The headline in Daily Variety read, "Black Caucus Vows to Crush CBS' 'Mister Dugan.' "There were Bill Lane and Derrick Humphries denouncing "Mister Dugan." Humphries called the series "trash" and said it was part of a "systematic effort to erode the power of black officials around the country." If the show aired, the Caucus threatened to introduce legisation for government control of the networks. The NAACP said it would join the Caucus in an "apt national censure" of the series. These were chilling reactions-especially since no one at the Caucus or the NAACP had seen the show. On Feb. 14, they demanded that the congressman be black; on Feb. 28, they denounced the fact that the congressman was black. I thought I noticed the gaslight on my wall go a little dimmer.
The members of the Caucus, realizing that condemning a show that none of them had seen might not be the best way to portray themselves as thoughtful politicians, backed off a bit and invited Alan Horn and Norman Lear to screen "Mister Dugan" in Washington. I was against screening it. The Caucus had already denounced the show publicly, so how could they change their opinion now? The first three installments of "Roots" couldn't pass that test.
I should mention, we had a black consultant on our show-Marguerite Archie, assistant to former California Rep. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. We originally hired Ms. Archie for the Beatrice Arthur version of the show, not because shw was black but because she was good. Ms. Archie's guess was that a few members of the Caucus would hate the show, but others would see how it was valuable. She was in error. In fact, the Caucus voted (along racial lines) 16 against, zero in favor.
Norman Lear and Alan Horn did not, in fact, react to pressure from the Caucus. Instead, they decided that it wasn't really fair to depict, in a TV comedy, a group of 16 people struggling for respect and authority in Congress. That's a position anyone can understand. But there are also some arguements to be made against it.
CBS executives seemed conviced it was a hit. Had "Mister Dugan" aired, it might have meant that week after week adults and children, black and white, would see a black man in a suit and tie, in a position of authority, with white and black people working for him. There's a lot to be said for that when you look at the other images of black men on TV.
"Mister Dugan" was a comedy. It was not, however, Jimmy (J.J.) Walker in Congress. This was a literate, college-educated person. In tone, Cleavon Little's interpretation of Mister Dugan reminded me of Bob Newhart's interpretation of Dr. Bob Hartley on "The Bob Newhart Show": a bit vulnerable but likable and thoroughly respectable. John Amos' version was more like how I imagine a Peter Boyle would play the role: tough, unbending. In any evnet, if either Bob Newhart or Peter Boyle were playing the role, the show would still be on the air.
Should blacks be in TV comedies at all? Comedies do, after all, dwell on human frailties. The frailties of blacks have been exaggerated and lied about for years. Maybe we should just give them a break. But if you ignore honest-to-goodness human frailties, you can't depict blacks at all. Or else, you get a show like "Harris & Company," which recently premiered on NBC. It's about a black man and his five motherless children-a family, as one reviewer put it, "much too noble to be entertaining...the kind of family that never needs a bathroom."
Perfection is a rough burden to carry, if you're black or white. Rep. Mickey Leland, a Black Caucus member, publicly called Mister Dugan a "buffoon." He wasn't. A buffoon would do something like call for government takeover of the networks because of a TV show he hadn't ever seen; Mr. Dugan would never do anything like that. And don't we know, when we see Rep. Leland at a podium speaking to a distinguished gathering, cloaked in dignity, don't we khow, in our hearts, that at least once in his life, he's cleaned out his ear with a bobby pin? Comedy lets us all be human. That's all.
Many Caucus members made mention of the fact that Mister Dugan was "pushed around" by his white staff (ignoring the fact that one of his three staff members was black). That means you couldn't do "The Bob Newhart Show" with a black Bob Hartley, because his white therapy group would push him around. You couldn't have a black Mary Richards, because a white Lou Grant would push her around. You can have all-black shows, like "What's Happening!" or " "The Jeffersons." You could probably even have an all-black "Laverne & Shirley," but you couldn't have a black Laverne and a white Shirley, or vice versa, because one would push the other around. You definitely could not have a black Mork.
Is that the way we want it? I don't think so. I side with Bill Cosby on this one. Pauline Kael said his performance in the movie version of "California Suite" evoked "jungle humor." Jack Weston, a white, did the same kinds of things in the stage version. Cosby said black actors have the right to do what white actors do. He said we have as much right to a black Charlie Chaplin, as we did to a white one.
I am temporarily whithdrawing from the fray, however, I'm doing a new pilot for NBC. There are four major characters. They are all dogs. None of them is of a discernible breed.