Not too long ago, Sergio reminded us of the 1973 NBC Mystery Movie series Tenafly, which featured a black actor, James McEachin, as its lead. In his post on the experimental-for-its-time monthly program, Sergio remarked, “Maybe it’s my imagination [but], compared to what we have today, there seemed to be a lot more black TV series back in the day.”
Sergio went on to say, “And there was a diversity in them too, from sitcoms to dramas. Not all of them were great (not even remotely) or were hits, but at least they were there.”
That got me wondering about what other forgotten TV shows there are out there that many of us have forgotten, or never saw, and may never have a chance to see again.
Before famed TV show creator Steven Bochco gave us TV classics such as Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, he created a police drama series in 1979 for CBS called Paris, which featured none other than acclaimed stage/film actor James Earl Jones in the lead role of Detective Capt. Woodrow “Woody” Paris. As Paris, Jones played a veteran LAPD captain who led a team of newer, younger detectives. Paris also moonlighted as a university criminology professor, and was married to a nurse.
Paris featured a diverse supporting cast that included actress Lee Chamberlin, as Paris’ wife Barbara; and actor Michael Warren, as Det. Willie Miller. Rounding out the cast were Hank Garrett, Cecilia Hart, Frank Ramirez, and Jake Mitchell.
In 1979, I was a child, so I obviously never saw an episode of Paris. But I’ve watched a lot of TV since then, and I’d be hard pressed to name another TV series, led by a black actor, with a similarly diverse supporting cast, that has aired on CBS since then.
In my quest to learn more about CBS’ Paris, I also learned that the ABC network had attempted similar programming a year prior with the airing of The Lazarus Syndrome, starring Louis Gossett, Jr. in the lead role of Dr. MacArthur St. Clair, a medical doctor caught up in a web of deceit and adultery at the hospital in which he resided.
Actress Sheila Frazier starred as Gossett’s wife on the show, Gloria St. Clair, with the two characters stuck in a tumultuous relationship.
Not surprisingly, however, both shows suffered the same fate of being stuck in a crummy weekly time-slot, which led to their eventual cancellations.
Getting back to Paris, however, there are some interesting nuggets to digest . . .
First, James Earl Jones provided a frank interview, printed in the Lakeland Ledger, in which he revealed that his main reasoning for taking the role of Paris was financial:
“It’s very difficult for an actor to earn a decent living just from the stage,” Jones explained not long ago. He was doing TV, he implied, because it was time to make a few bucks, make an investment for the future, and some fun doing it in a show nobody need be ashamed of doing.
. . . Now 48 Jones openly admits he’s turning to TV because, “I want some potatoes, too.” Though his name lends instant prestige to whatever project he joins, he never has been a box office attraction in the movies, where the big money awaits. As a result, his career has been a long and successful one artistically, but a struggle financially.
Also, despite the fact that others thought Jones’ casting as Paris was an important achievement as a black actor, Jones felt differently about the issue:
Jones is aware of the importance some critics have put on the fact Paris is one of the few black heroes in the history of series television, but he’s not involved with the show for sociological reasons.
“I don’t think I want to go with the social dramas,” he says.
For one thing, Jones has done more than his share of those already. His major concern now is doing a high quality weekly series, not finding a vehicle for racial commentary.
So there you have it– two show’s from TV’s past that were groundbreaking in their lead casting, even if only for the dramatic subject matter each offered. And with the exceptions of a few past attempts that come to mind, like ABC’s two 1989 dramas, Gideon Oliver (Louis Gossett, Jr.) and A Man Called Hawk (Avery Brooks); or the more recent offerings, such as BBC America’s airing of the Idris Elba-starring drama Luther; NBC’s failed attempt at the Gugu Mbatha-Raw & Boris Kodjoe-led Undercovers; and Shonda Rhimes current ABC hit, Scandal, starring Kerry Washington (and maybe we can even count ABC’s Taye Diggs-led Day Break, though that was more science-fiction than drama), Paris and The Lazarus Syndrome are two types of shows that we haven’t seen here in the U.S. since they were taken off the air back in the late 1970’s.
Maybe Sergio was correct in his assessment that 30+ years ago, TV was more diverse than it is today. And if that’s true, that’s really pathetic. Because one would think that by now, in 2013, it should be pretty clear to all of the major networks that U.S. TV audiences are more than capable of digesting more palatable offerings than the same old bland crap we are routinely fed.