By Nick Chiles
Three decades after Bill Cosby became the first serious black male television start in I SPY, three dynamic brothers - Chi McBride of Boston Public, Steve Harris of The Practice and Jesse L. Martin of Law & Order - have assumed roles that add much-needed depth to the nation’s understanding of Black Men.
For the moment, they are just three striking black men strolling down Third Avenue in New York City on a clear spring day, joking, laughing and sparkling in the afternoon sun. Boston Public's Chi McBride, The Practice's Steve Harris and Law & Order's Jesse L. Martin are members of a tiny African-American fraternity - leading actors on enormously popular network television dramas - and it's obvious that they share an easy comfort with each other. They receive curious glances from pedestrians and a few prolonged stares from people passing in cars, but the trio is mostly oblivious to the attention - until they walk by two black women. The women, who before spotting the celebrities had been deep in conversation, quickly go into start shock, immediately wearing stunned and giddy expressions.
"Hello Ladies, "Harris says in his deep rumble, giving them a nod and a smile. He gets a gasp in return "Is there a movie premiere going on or something...?" one of the women asks, her voice trailing off as the guys keep moving.
These three actors represent a remarkable emergency of black manhood on prime-time television. Though they all bristle at the suggestion that they are sex symbols, there's no denying that their intense, layered character portrayals have added to the nation's understanding of the professional black man. For several seasons now, McBride, Harris and Martin - along with Eriq LaSalle, formerly of the top-rated NCP Drama ER, Michael Beach of Third Watch and a few others - have consistently shown that strength, competency, sensitivity and sexiness can come in a black male package.
One thing is clear: These brothers are actors - not comedians clowning over a laugh track or rappers scowling their way to the bank. They're pros, studying and refining their craft, and breathing true African-American life into their words. McBride, 42, whose off screen personality is about as naturally hilarious as fellow Chicagoan Bernie Mac (Harris also hails from that city), is among the few black male lead actors in a dramatic network series. He portrays Steven Harper, the gruff but sensitive high school principal, on Fox's BOSTON PUBLIC. Harris, 36, the most intense of the three, has hypnotized viewers of ABC's The Practice for almost seven years with come of the most compelling and electrically charged scenes on television as the principled-to-a-fault defense attorney Eugene Young. And Martin, 33, imbues NBC's Law & Order detective Ed Green with a cultural sensitivity, even on a show that is perhaps network television's most rigidly structured and valuable series, the Microsoft of prime time.
David E. Kelly, the prolific executive producer, has been instrumental in the careers of all three men, and they aren't shy about giving him his props. They say Kelly offers black actors much lead way in shaping their characters' cultural identity. In code: He lets them decide how black they want to be. "David writes for humans," Martin says. "He doesn't necessarily write for black people or white people or Asians."
"Everything doesn't come down to race with me and everything doesn't come down to race with David," McBride adds. "He's about to do things without address [race]. For example, Kelley cast Jesse as Ally McBeal's love interest and never addressed the fact that he was black. Give him credit for it. If you're going to make a lot of racket and carry a bunch of sings and placards when things don't happen, I think it's just as important to acknowledge when things are happening."
On the flip side, some observers still comment that not even these characters have been able to crack the last bastions for black TV characters: being in love or having a family "Surely an African American male's sexuality could be presented as one component in a fully developed personality," writes author and processor Donald Bogle in PRIME-TIME BLUES: AFRICAN AMERICANS ON NETWORK TELEVISION (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). "A black man could be intelligent, sensitive, emotional and sexual."
Still the characters represented by McBride, Harris and Martin mark significant steps in the evolution of the black male TV personality, which began 37 years ago when I SPY first offered viewers an intelligent black man, played by Bill Cosby, in a role equal to his white counterpart. Venise Berry, associate professor at the school of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Iowa at Iowa City, says what she likes most about these three actors is that they have made their characters grounded in their culture. "They are a part of American society," says Berry, "But who they are is dictated in each of their roles by where they came from."
FUNNYMAN – Chi McBride
With his husky 6-foot-5-inch frame, Chicago native Chi McBride fills a room just by walking through the doorway. But he doesn't stop there. McBride takes over a room - teasing, challenging, cajoling and amusing everyone within earshot. His personality is as big as his frame. But what viewers see is quiet strength. Writer-producer David Mills says McBride's performance is a testament to the actor's skill. "He's hilarious, and the fact that he can play such a restrained character and still be compelling shows what a hell of an actor he is. Even though it doesn't look like he's doing much, he's doing a great deal."
McBride took up acting much later in life than most who eventually earn starring TV roles. He was working as a phone company rep when, at the urging of friends, he headed to Hollywood at 31 years of age. He was lucky enough to land a spot on NBC's THE JOHN LARROQUETTE SHOW in 1993 and also got fairly regular movie work. McBride says he has never studied acting but has had plenty of teachers, including Larroquette, Laurence Fishburne, Bruce Willis, Nicholas Cage, Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson, whom McBride says still answers his questions about acting. "I really love talking to him, " McBride says. "It blew me away when I met him, because he comes up to me and says, 'You’re doing really good work on that show.' I looked at him like he had two heads and one was oozing puss. I said, 'You watch my show?' He said "Yeah, muthaf______, I watch television. I even have a television set.'"
But McBride first gained national attention for being at the center of a storm -as President Lincoln’s fictitious butler, the lead character on the controversial Civil War -era sitcom THE SECRET DIARIES OF DESMOND PFEIFFER, which aired briefly on UPN in 1998. The show sparked outcries from the NAACP, which said the sitcom made light of slavery. It was all too much to overcome, and PFEIFFER died after only 10 episodes. McBride, who maintains that because of the controversy Jet still wont include his name in its weekly list of blacks on television, remains unapologetic and refuses to feel like a representative for his entire race. "I don't take that one on. I don't think anybody's qualified to do that," he says. "Trying to please everybody isn't on my list of priorities."
MR. INTENSITY – Steve Harris
Steve Harris, 36, is still waiting for a call from Hollywood. After six seasons of celebrated work on THE PRACTICE (including 2 Emmy nominations), Harris says if he gets movie work at all, it's because he went in search of it. "Ain't nobody offered me a role," he says, shaking his head. "I got offered this made-for-TV thing about Ali. I played [Sonny] Liston. But I have to go in and audition, just like when I was out here in New York. The only strange part about it now is people say , 'I see your show, I love your work, you're fantastic, the best cat on the show - now let's get through this audition.' If I was a comedian or had an album out, it would be different."
Veteran filmmaker Warrington Hudlin, producer of such hits as HOUSE PARTY and BOOMERANG and president of the Black Filmmakers Foundation, says Hollywood is making a big mistake by not milking the star power of black TV actors. "Casting television actors is to the filmmaker’s advantage," he says. "You have guaranteed name and face recognition. And they might not be as expensive as someone who's a movie actor. The failure to [cast them] is a missed opportunity."
This past summer Samuel L. Jackson blasted the trend of casting rappers instead of trained black actors in Hollywood films. Does this bother Harris, who received a master's degree in drama from the University of Delaware? "Look, it's a business," he says. "They were doing that with Elvis Presley, with Sinatra, because those cats sole millions of records. I don't care. I just wish they could act."
Harris is a former linebacker from Northern Illinois University, and the competition fire that made him a standout on the field is still abundantly evident. The brooding countenance seems to come to him naturally. Since his role as Wesley Snipes' bodyguard and best friend in SUGAR HILL a decade ago, Harris usually has been cast as the bad guy, the heavy. His agent, thinking he was not right for the part, didn't even want to send him to audition for THE PRACTICE. (Make that Harris' FORMER agent.) "However you want to look at me, your first thought may not be 'lawyer,'" Harris says. "I like playing the bad guy, don't get me wrong. But I wanted to do this because [I] always want challenges."
Many don't know that Harris has a keen sense of humor. He and McBride can be relied on to keep folks in stitches with their one-liners and Chicago-homeboy banter. (Martin, who grew up in the mountains of Virginia, seems content to stay in the background.) But there's a hard edge beneath Harris' esprit. He does not mind making people laugh, but his patience is short. Going into the show's seventh season, Harris is concerned that his menacing presence has evolved into the angry black man stereotype - glowering and physically intimidating. "[At first, the intensity is what] made my character different from everybody else, gave you something you could hold on to," he acknowledges. "What you don't want [the show's writers] to do is go overboard; they had me put my hands on people. If you step over that line too much, then you're a hoodlum."
THE COUNTRY BOY-Jesse L. Martin
Introspective and friendly, with a hint of a drawl, Jesse L. Martin possesses none of the airs typically associated with celebrities. Though smolderingly handsome, he's also quite approachable, like the self-described country boy that he is. Martin's career took off four years ago when Kelley's wife, Michelle Pfeiffer, saw him in the Broadway play, Rent. She was so impressed that she told her husband about him. Kelley offered Martin a role on Ally McBeal - the popular FOX drama Kelley created - as the doctor boyfriend of the lead character, played by Calista Flockhart. Initially Martin didn't give the interracial casting move much thought - until he hit the set. "And then I just remembered, Oh yeah, this is a white girl," he recalls. "The reason I took the role in the first place [was] because David didn't make an issue of it. He was like ‘ya’ll are just two people who met, who like each other and want to hang out. I'm not going to make an issue out of the interracial couple thing.' Both me and Calista were psyched about that."
Eric Deggans, a television critic for the St. Petersburg Times, says Kelley may be the most vital force for racial change in television today: "Not many producers would have the courage to cast black males as sex symbols on a mixed-race cast."
Martin does not deny that the interracial aspect of the relationship, even in these times, is still likely to rankle some people of both races. "But it doesn't have to ban an issue all the time. If we dont' make a big deal out of it, hopefully people won't see it as a big deal, and I hope there's some value in that," he adds.
Martin says the shooting schedule is so rigorous on Law & Order that he doesn't have any time to pursue a romantic relationship. (Ladies, he's currently unclaimed.) He isn't sure how he feels about all the sex symbol stuff, but says "it's better than being called the ugliest person on TV....I am truly flattered, and if that's the reason I keep working, I'm down with that, too." Martin adds, 'You gotta take that stuff with a grain of salt. I don’t hate it. Hopefully it will help me find that lady in my life."
Like Harris, Martin hopes his Law & Order gig will lead to movie work. "I'm not one of those actors who needs to be in the latest blockbuster film," he says. "As long as I have a job where I'm comfortable doing what I'm doing, I'm cool."
Martin's dream role? "I'm dying to do Marvin Gaye."
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