Hit brings responsibility for 'Mr. Cooper'

May 19, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

NEW YORK -- Your horizons widen when you get to be a bi TV star, and now that Mark Curry's "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" has finished the 1992-1993 season as the most successful new show, he's looking around.

But there are a few things he won't do.

Take snakes -- please.

"Snakes scare me," says the 6-foot-6 black actor, lounging in his manager's room above Madison Avenue at the Helmsley Palace Hotel, probably miles from the nearest viper.

"I couldn't do a movie where I had to hold a snake. Indiana Jones -- I could never do that. Remember in Peewee Herman's movie, he had saved the pet store, and he picked up snakes? Ughhhh. Whewww. Never."

Another thought occurs.

"I guess if they were dangling 1 million, I could . . . do it."

Four years ago, if somebody had dangled a few thousand dollars, Mr. Curry might have done it. Doing stand-up comedy part-time, he still had his day job at an Oakland, Calif.,drugstore.

But there are some things -- many things -- he won't do, just on principle.

"They already asked me to do a Colt 45 commercial," says Mr. Curry, referring to the high-alcohol malt liquor.

"No, I can't do that. Nah. Man, I can't do a Colt 45 commercial.

"Colt 45 is directed at the black people. It's only sold in black areas, and it's a poison."

Billy Dee Williams sells Colt 45.

"Some people do stuff that they shouldn't be doing. I'm not naming any names, but I can see some names. And it's, like, 'My brother, you don't need to be doing that.'

"They need to check themselves. That's what I say. They need to check themselves. They selling poison to the people. That's my thing."

That's just a fraction of Mr. Curry's thing. But as he talks -- rapidly, assuming different roles in the conversation, using accents to vary the urban dialect that is the foundation of his speech -- he reveals that his stance against Colt 45 is characteristic of a broader attitude.

Mr. Curry's thing is responsibility, both to himself and to his audience. He carries it lightly on his big frame, but, like an arm, it doesn't seem as if it could ever fall off. It's also, as he might say, no big thing. It certainly doesn't interfere with humor.

When he was just plain old stand-up Mark Curry, responsibility meant things like making sure he looked neat and clean, making sure his comedy didn't hurt anybody.

But he's not just a comic anymore, and his responsibilities have grown. He's also Mr. Cooper. "Mr. Cooper's not a comedian on the show," Mr. Curry explains. "He's a teacher."

In fact, Mr. Cooper these days is the most prominent teacher on television. Mr. Curry has worked carefully to make sure he's a good one.

At first, he was an incompetent buffoon, and "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper," which had its season finale last night, was just another in the genre of exploitative black sitcoms, where the women are fat, absurdly sexy or both and the men dimwitted and out of control.

Mr. Curry acknowledges that, then adds: "If you notice, a lot of things on the show changed.

"In the beginning, I had less control over the kids, and we changed that because I felt that a teacher should have more control. . . . I always had a basketball in my hand. Now you see me with a computer. . . . I didn't know the subject when I walked into the classroom. Now I'm a master of all. You know I'm a teacher."

When you play the title character in a show that tied for 16th among 136 prime-time series, you can throw your weight around a little bit.

Does that bring anyone to mind?

"Roseanne throws her weight around because she can, because she has that power," says Curry.

"Mr. Cooper" benefited from its proximity to "Roseanne" on ABC last season (it came just before). Next season, the network is moving it to Fridays.

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