If you liked "The Piano Lesson," you'll love "Roc."
No, that's not quite right. Let's try again.
If you loved "The Piano Lesson," you'll like "Roc."
There. That's better.
But either version could turn out to be the case. And for TV viewers who have not heard of "The Piano Lesson," let alone seen it -- and that could be a lot of viewers -- it might be enough simply to say that "Roc," starring the dynamic Charles Dutton, promises to be one of the best in the crop of new sitcoms hitting the small screen this fall.
A Fox offering, "Roc" gets a double-dose launch this week, with the pilot episode airing Sunday at 7:30 and again Thursday at 8:30.
Theater-goers who saw August Wilson's play at the Kennedy Center or on Broadway will find the parallels between the play and the sitcom surprising. Like "The Piano Lesson," the sitcom centers on a working-class black man with aspirations for a better life. And as in the play, he's surrounded by family.
Dutton's riveting performance as Boy Willie in "The Piano Lesson" won a Tony nomination (he lost to Robert Morse) and the attention of the TV production community.
People at HBO Independent Productions saw the play and figured Dutton could become a star on the small screen. That had happened before.
"I had a development deal in '84 to do a comedy show" after he'd performed in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," he said. "It didn't work out. I lost my zest for it."
This time, things were different. Dutton recalled meeting Stan Daniels (creator of "Taxi," writer and producer of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"), who'd been enlisted once again to turn a gifted stage actor into a TV sitcom star.
"Stan was brought in by the HBO producers," Dutton recalled. Daniels "was not interested in doing TV any more either, but he saw 'The Piano Lesson' and wanted to create a series for me. Stan asked if I was ready to commit five years of my life to television. My statement was that if we got the cast I wanted, I was ready. If I had my complete druthers, I'd take the entire 'Piano' cast."
Dutton came close to getting his druthers. Two members of that cast join him in "Roc": Carl Gordon plays Roc's father, a man who does not bite his tongue, and Rocky Carroll is Roc's son, Joey, who is as irresponsible as his father is steadfast.
While the fourth key cast member did not appear in "The Piano Lesson," Ella Joyce, who plays Roc's wife, also has an August Wilson connection: She played the female lead in his drama "Two Trains Running" at Yale Repertory Theatre.
"I was lucky to get two of them," said Dutton.
Employing "Piano's" core cast "would afford a level of camaraderie and ensemble," he said. "People wouldn't have to get to know each other, their timing. There was some early resistance by Fox -- 'Transform stage actors? They're not comedians.'"
Those shallow thinkers lost the argument, and besides, they probably hadn't seen "The Piano Lesson," a show that has its share of humor amid the drama. According to Dutton, there figures to be a bit of drama in this sitcom.
"My stipulation for doing TV comedy was that it had to be a show that allowed me to act -- the full range -- and that the style of the show had to entail elements of the dramatic as well as the comedic. So far, the first three episodes, including the pilot, have the flavor of 'The Piano Lesson' in terms of what I did -- I can be out on the limb in terms of comedy, the farcical, and I can turn it around. When it gets serious, it's serious for real; when it gets dramatic it's dramatic for real; when it gets dangerous, it's dangerous for real.
"If I was going to curtail my stage career and put off a film career, I wanted those elements to be in place."
Dutton, of course, will be able to do movies between TV seasons. He worked on "Aliens III" before starting work on "Roc," enlarging a film resume that includes parts in "Crocodile Dundee II," "Q&A," "Pretty Hattie's Baby" and "Mississippi Masala."
Daniels sees a broad range in Dutton's work. "There's a threatening quality about him as well as his comedic talent, which a lot of actors have -- Brando, De Niro, Pacino -- that have that certain frightening quality about them. I think Charles has it too.
"I suppose with him it represents something more in terms of a series -- I don't think we've seen that in TV, a black man who's imposing, threatening, with a certain rage underneath it all ... Frustration is there, ready to break out."
Daniels, the show's creator and now its creative consultant, could hardly have done more to shape the show to fit his star. Dutton obviously got his preference in casting. The sitcom is set in Baltimore, Dutton's home town. Even the show's title is Dutton's nickname.
"We talked about what the show was going to be," said Dutton. "The original idea was sort of a black 'Honeymooners.' A lot of people in Hollywood said my performance in 'Piano Lesson' reminded them of Jackie Gleason. We talked about getting away from that because of the expectations it would create and wanting to do our own thing."
Their own thing was to put together a sitcom family headed by a Baltimore garbage collector, a hard-working man dreaming the American dream, befuddled in the pilot by the appearance of his ungrounded brother and trying to figure out how to spend more time with his night-nurse wife.
"He's a noble man, an American worker," Dutton said of Roc. "In my life it took me many years to respect that."
Indeed. Dutton's bio recounts a youth spent on the wrong side of the law, with time in reform schools and, after a manslaughter conviction, the Maryland state penitentiary. Following parole, he was returned to prison on a weapons offense. Dutton's own dramatic turn-around came when he read a book of plays -- while in solitary confinement.
He started an inmates' drama group, then earned a bachelor's degree from Towson State University following his release in 1976. There was Baltimore theater work and in 1980 he was accepted at the Yale Drama School. Thus began his association with August Wilson, the man and his work.
And there he was last year, with his wife, actress Debbi Morgan, watching Morse accept the Tony but receiving an honor of another kind from one of Broadway's legends. "Charlie," said Morse, holding his Tony, "Mr. Dutton, you're a remarkable man."
"In my early years," said Dutton, reflecting on his character and his character, "I could not conceive of myself working hard for a living. As I grew and matured, I have nothing but the highest respect and regard for workers.
"I happened to luck up and have talent to fall into a well-paying career. But I look at people who work in hotels, in services; I have this new-found respect and awe for breadwinners. These people work as hard as I do for eight hours a day and don't make near as much. I think about that a lot as I approach a script. Roc is a man who works physically hard for his money."
And who can be funny. As in a scene in the pilot, which may be trimmed for time, when Roc dispenses encouragement to a young colleague lamenting that girls are turned off when they find he's a garbage man.
Garbage is nothing to be ashamed of, says Roc. "Everything's destined to be garbage. Even us. They call them cemeteries -- but they're really nothing but garbage dumps for people."
"This doesn't compare to August Wilson or Shakespeare," said Dutton considering the material at hand. "But at the same time it's definitely a craft to write this stuff, to hone it down to where it's funny and in 22 minutes to get some meat into an episode. I respect these writers. They have a task to crank these things out every week."