CBS' 'Miss Daisy' runs into controversy

August 21, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

Robert Guillaume, like many actors and actresses, is not a big fan of watching himself on television.

But he says he has no problem watching his performance as Hoke Colburn, the patient and helpful chauffeur, in the series pilot of "Driving Miss Daisy," a television comedy version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play and the Academy Award-winning film airing Friday night on CBS (at 8 p.m. on Channel 11).

However, a coalition of media watchdog and minority groups has launched a protest, casting a cloud over the pilot's airing and, possibly jeopardizing its chances of making the CBS lineup as a mid-season replacement.

Leaders of the Media Image Coalition for Minorities and Women, which is endorsed and staffed by the Los Angeles County Commission of Human Relations, said the pilot is "dangerous" because of its depiction of what they called a weak and powerless black man waiting on an elderly white woman.

Group members said they formed their impression of the pilot through the reading of the script, which is filled with Southern black dialect of the 1940s and '50s.

The airing of the pilot, they say, could have "serious social consequences" in the aftermath of the unrest in Los Angeles following the verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating trial. They have sent a letter to advertisers asking them not buy commercial time for the show.

The opposition has distressed the producers of the pilot and Alfred Uhry, the author of the play and the film who also wrote the pilot. They said they do not understand the uproar, especially when those who are making the accusations haven't seen the finished product.

Harvey Shephard, president of Warner Bros. Television, which produced the pilot, said, "No one anticipated getting this kind of reaction."

Mr. Guillaume, however, said he is not totally surprised by the protest.

"I cautioned that there would be a reaction of some sort in the black community," the actor said during an interview this week.

"All the white people I talked to said, 'Oh, this is a wonderful idea,' " said Mr. Guillaume, who starred in "Benson" from 1979 to 1986. But black people he spoke with about the project "were more skeptical."

He said blacks were afraid of examining historical periods where they were slaves or servants.

"Black people have an open sore and we can't accept that past," he said. "It's unfortunate that it happened to us, but it seems to me to be our badge of honor. We did overcome a hell of a lot. We as black people cannot afford to have significant periods of our history erased because we are too afraid to go back and check it out."

He said stories such as "Driving Miss Daisy" need to be told, especially since Hollywood has historically portrayed blacks during those periods in an insensitive manner.

"I know that these people yearned for freedom," he said. "I did not know anyone of the caliber of Hoke Colburn who did not want a better life for his children. These are the very people who put through college the Thurgood Marshalls. We cannot afford to disown these people by letting the record that Hollywood has put out on us stand."

Richard D. Zanuck, who produced both the film and the TV adaptations of "Driving Miss Daisy," added that the pilot was embraced by all-black audiences in two test screenings.

"There was nothing but praise," Mr. Zanuck said. "Not one person registered a complaint. . . . It had substance and humanity, and that's what they loved."

Mr. Uhry said he was upset by the controversy. "It was my intention to write an accurate depiction of what my childhood fTC was like," he said. "I'm sorry if people are offended. That's the last thing I intended."

About the portrayal of Hoke and the dialect in the script, Mr. Uhry said, "Nobody can tell me I didn't love my grandmother's chauffeur. I thought he was the most beautiful, most elegant, dignified man I ever met. That language was the way he talked. It was rare and rich and beautiful."

Mr. Zanuck said the show could help heal wounds opened before, during and after the riots.

"It's a love story about these two people who come from completely different places in life who come to have great admiration for each other," he said. "It's all about coming together, and that's what's needed now, especially after the riots."

In the pilot, which, like the film and play, is set in the 1950s, Hoke (Mr. Guillaume) has been hired by Boolie Werthan (Saul Rubinek) to drive for his widowed, crotchety mother, Daisy Werthan (Joan Plowright).

Zara B. Taylor, coordinator for the various groups in the Media Image Coalition, called "Driving Miss Daisy" a "situation comedy about a situation that isn't funny, just like the Holocaust is not inherently funny."

She said the "Driving Miss Daisy" film was not targeted by the group because it did not see the script before its release. She added that the relatively young organization was focusing most of its energy toward television images.

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