Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Black To The Future: Film, TV & the L.A. Times

Chris Rock will make showbiz history as the only cast member of POOTIE TANG to host the Oscars more than once.  It was announced that, early next year, the comedian/actor returns to host the Academy Awards show -- or, as some of us call it, "Hollywood Prom Night."  I bet Rock's second time around will be better than his first.
With calls for racial and gender diversity making big news in the entertainment industry this year, it'll be interesting to see how how he lampoons that in his host act.  Did you see his comedy film, last year's Top Five?  It has lots of laughs and plenty of bite.  In his satire, Rock plays an comedian out to make the transition to serious actor like the late Robin Williams did. He has to deal with critics, family, an industry that seriously needs to embrace racial diversity and a fiancee who wants to use their wedding for reality show ratings and TV fame.  Top Five has laughs that are just so wrong and makes social points that are just so right.  Especially the part about black performers striving to get some equal opportunities in film and TV.  Equal opportunities and attention.
October 21, 2015 was Back To The Future day.  NBC's Today Show paid more attention to that 30 year old popular time travel comedy than it did to this year's huge box office hit, Straight Outta Compton.  In August, I wrote in a post about this.  NBC is attached to Universal.  Today did features on three Universal releases over the summer -- Jurassic World, the animated Minions and the Amy Schumer comedy, Trainwreck.  Then came Universal's rap music biopic, Straight Outta Compton.  It was number one at the box office for three -- THREE consecutive weekends.  Did we see in-studio celeb interviews of cast members or a profile of the director on Today?  No.  Did Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Carson Daly, Willie Geist and Al Roker dress up like this shot from the movie?
No.  But the network morning show dragged us on hoverboard down memory lane for Back To The Future segments.
Back To The Future, by the way, was a Universal Pictures release.  Why couldn't Straight Outta Compton get some love from Today?  It's part of the NBC company -- a Universal production.  How many times in Hollywood history has a black filmmaker directed a major studio release that was number one at the box office for three consecutive weekends?  Was there no one on the Today production staff to mention that? I'd have pitched booking director F. Gary Gray as an in-studio guest.

Black gay and bi-sexual actors got attention this week in The Los Angeles Times.  An October 19th article by Tre'velle Anderson called "In their own words, actors on being black and (openly) gay in Hollywood" is worth reading.  In the article, actress Dalila Ali Rajah said this about casting:  "People go with what they know and a lot of the people who are in casting and positions of power at networks, their world vision is surrounded by by a lot of white people.  For them, New York looks white.  Look at 'Friends,' which never had a black person for most of its run..."

She's got a point there.  But it's less people in casting -- especially the women -- and more the men who are producers and agents, in my opinion.  Rent the excellent 2012 documentary CASTING BY to see how the late, great Marion Dougherty championed racial diversity in casting.  Other women in casting did too.  A female casting director gave me a part in an episode of The Sopranos.  In the script, the reporter was described as "a young, willowy blonde."  The casting director had seen my audition for another part a year earlier, remembered my audition and thought outside the box in casting.  I'm in the Season 3 episode, "Employee of the Month."

When I was a regular on Fox5's Good Day New York, we had a new executive producer for a spell.  A very nice, very Caucasian guy named Mike.  He was offered an opportunity for me to do one of my remote broadcasts with a celebrity. I could've done live segments with...Chris Rock.  This was around the time he had a comedy show on HBO and was in Lethal Weapon 4.  Mike told me honestly about it.  He turned down the chance for me to be live with Chris Rock on Good Day New York because he didn't know who Chris Rock was.  And he was our executive producer.  To make it up to me, he booked me a live interview with a celebrity whose work he knew.  Remember Body by Jake?
I had to interview him.  The minutes flew by like hours.  He was one of most annoying, arrogant  boneheads I've ever been seen with on television.

Let's get to something I saw referenced accurately in Chris Rock's Top Five and an issue I raised in a live special broadcast on KNX Radio, an all news radio station in Los Angeles connected to CBS.  I've been a Screen Actors Guild member since 1988.  I've taken meetings with agents from 1988 to 2008.  Most agents -- especially broadcast/TV agents in top companies -- turned me down for representation claiming they wouldn't know what to do with me.  For the record, I was daily national talent on VH1 from 1987 to 1990.  I had my own celebrity talk show, a show that got a rave review in The New York Times and got my photo on the front page of the paper's Sunday Arts & Leisure section.  But agents turned me down.  It wasn't that they didn't know what to do with me.  It's that black performers were not seen as "marketable."  And if the black talent can't get work, agents cannot get a 10% of the talent's paycheck. I discovered...if TV host or acting opportunities come across the agent's desk, we minority performers would not get submitted for auditions unless the script says "black" or "Latino," etc. I've been a network TV celebrity talk show host.  I've done some acting.  If there was a role in a TV episode for an actor to play a witty, articulate and knowledgable celebrity talk show host, I would not get submitted for the role unless the words "race unimportant" were included in the casting info.  Otherwise, agents would see that casting call and immediately think "white male actor."  Why? Because as the actress said in the L.A. Times article, "their world vision is surrounded by a lot of white people." Listen to Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner in Casting By reveal how Marion Dougherty forced him to expand his vision and consider Danny Glover for the role he planned to give to Brian Dennehy. Black actors, gay and straight, are marketable if agents submit them for roles that can be played by any race.  Don't wait to specifically see the words "Latino," "African-American" or "Asian" before submitting actors/TV hosts of color.

I've had meetings in major agencies in New York and L.A. over the years.  From 1988 to 2008, I have seen only one African-American agent who represented actors.  Only one.  Joan Fields was at William Morris in 1990 and left that same year,  I believe.  In the agencies or departments that handle broadcast hosts such as myself, I've never seen a black agent.  So...when my liberal white buddies ask me why I'm not making money like a Carson Daly, Tom Bergeron, Billy Bush or Rosie O'Donnell with all my credits, it's because I do not get the same TV & radio opportunities they get.  I don't hear about the auditions they do or get the meetings they do.  I've got to hustle up my own stuff.  In Top Five, Rock's character is represented by the only black agent in a major Manhattan agency.  And he has to get info from the Latino dudes who work on the agency's maintenance staff. Kevin Hart played the agent.

That scene broke me up.  I had meetings at three agencies in 2008.  It never fails.  The black or Latino person working at the reception desk knows my work, can tell you where I've worked and is a fan of my work.  Then I meet the Caucasian agent and I'm asked, "Have you  ever done any on-camera TV hosting?"  That happened in 2008 when I met with an agent.  At the time, a weekly show I hosted on Food Network was in its sixth year of airing.

If there were more people of color working as agents in the top New York City and Los Angeles agencies, that would be a great help in the much-needed racial and sexual orientation diversity in casting opportunities. The lack of color in the area of theatrical/broadcast agents is a story just aching for a good investigative entertainment reporter to cover.  When I raised that point on KNX radio early this year, one of the guests enthusiastically agreed.  He was the head of a Hispanic Arts organization.  I grew up in L.A.  It is ripe with Mexican-American talent.  But, as the gentleman on KNX said, white agents rarely travel outside of their Hollywood or Beverly Hills comfort zone to attend indie theater and such in L.A. neighborhoods where that talent performs.

The part of Anthony on Designing Women was not written to be a black character.  Nor was Annalise on How To Get Away With Murder.  Nor was the older detective that Danny Glover played in Lethal Weapon.  Nor was the local reporter I played on The Sopranos.  In each case, someone thought outside the box and took a chance on pitching a black performer.  And none of those people who did the pitching was an agent.  Look up that article in The Los Angeles Times.  When black actors are told they're not marketable because of sexual orientation, I bet they were told that by white agents.  I also bet that Harvey Fierstein, Ellen DeGeneres, Andy Cohen and Neil Patrick Harris don't hear that from their agents.

We need more agents of color in top agencies.  And some of these TV news program producers need to widen their vision too.

Here's a trailer from Rock's Top Five.  Keep it in mind as a weekend rental.

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