Charles Dutton is ready to 'Roc' and roll live for every episode

July 21, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- "Roc" will make TV history next month when it becomes "Roc Live" and starts a full season of live telecasts. But Charles Dutton, the Baltimore actor who plays the Baltimore garbage man named Roc, was focusing on more mundane matters as he talked about going live yesterday as part of the fall preview press tour.

"People who tune into "Roc" are not going to see . . . a standardized, fixed show with polished performances," Dutton said. "The lights may go out. Someone might drop a coffee cup. Roc might have a coughing fit. In the middle of a scene, someone may have to go to the bathroom very badly -- those things that we go through in life.

"It will be up to the actors to be witty enough to pull it off. I don't think there will be a problem with lines, though. If there is, I'm just going to run outside, look at my script and then run back onstage as if Roc had to run outside and pick up some trash or something . . . I think we can do it."

If there is any group of TV actors capable of doing the first weekly live sitcom since the 1950s, it is Dutton and his colleagues from "Roc." They are arguably the best ensemble of actors anywhere on TV. Dutton was nominated for a Tony for his work in August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson." Ella Joyce, who plays Eleanor Emerson, Roc's wife, starred on Broadway in "Two Trains Running." Carl Gordon and Rocky Carroll, who round out the Emersons, also have Broadway credentials.

One of the reasons "Roc" is going live is that the actors are so good: Last year, there were reports that Dutton did not find TV challenging enough and might leave the show.

"I never approached Fox about going live," Dutton said. "To be honest, the idea to go live entirely came from Fox. Now maybe that had something to do with my boredom. I'm not really sure. Once it was proposed, though, to go live, I had misgivings. On the one hand, I'm saying I'm bored. Then, on the other, I'm saying, 'Oh, my God, we're going to go live every episode. What's going to happen?" But the more I thought about it, it really juiced me up, because it is a chance now to make history."

Television is never only about things as grand as history, though. There is also the matter of ratings. "Roc" finished the year 65th out of 102 shows nationally. Its average rating was a 9.4, which translates to about 9 million TV households each week. But during the one week last February when Fox experimented by doing a live broadcast of "Roc," the ratings shot up to an 11.3, which is about 11 million TV households. The difference is significant. An average rating of 11.3 for the year would have tied "Roc" with "Beverly Hills 90210" for 48th place overall. Live means more excitement for the viewers, and that means better ratings.

"Ninety-seven percent of the letters and calls we got from that show were from people saying we should keep it live," Dutton said. "They said they enjoyed the immediacy of it. In fact, hundreds of the letters we got were from people saying what they enjoyed was the fact that they saw actors perspire. They said that everyone on TV in every situation -- no matter how physical a situation is -- everyone is so fresh. Viewers really liked seeing actors actually perspire in situations that called for stress or exertion. . . . They liked seeing something more real.

"I still feel that most of America is not watching the show," Dutton said. "Demographically, it runs all colors and ages. Hopefully, we can get the folks in Montana and Iowa and Utah to tune us in this season."

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