The new kid on 'Roc' shows life, not laughs, in deadly Baltimore TURNED ON IN L.A. Fall Preview

July 15, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Los Angeles -- Roc's going to be a daddy come this fall.

Mrs. Roc -- better known as Eleanor (Ella Joyce) on Fox Broadcasting's "Roc" -- is going to have a baby.

And, after two seasons of adamantly refusing to allow children on the show, Charles Dutton, Mr. Roc himself, says he's delighted about the newcomer and some of the other changes in store for his show.

"Actually, we're going to be adding two kids to the show this fall," Dutton says. "We're going to add a baby on the show -- Eleanor's pregnant -- and we're going to adopt a kid.

"I'll be honest, for two seasons, I didn't want any kids on the show, because all the other sitcoms have them. 'Cosby' had 55,000 of them.

"And I didn't want an Urkel situation either," he says referring to the character of Steve Urkel on "Family Matters," the nerdy kid with the accordion whose breakout success drove the show away from its ensemble roots.

Dutton says he's especially excited about the potential for positive messages as a result of Roc adopting a 13-year-old girl in the season opener on Aug. 31. Her father has been sent to prison for killing a drug dealer.

"What we're going to have with the girl is a troublesome kid, a kid that's troubled," Dutton says. "But she's also a mathematical genius . . . We're going to give her that positive side, that gift.

"And, hopefully, when it's all said and done, what we'll be saying is that every kid should look for their blessing, for the gift that they have.

"Don't wait until you're 35 and say, 'Oh, my God, I can draw.' That's what I did. It wasn't until my twenties that I discovered acting. And I went through a life of turmoil to get there."

Dutton's real life -- from crime and prison in Baltimore to the Yale Drama School and triumph on the Broadway stage -- has become the stuff of legend in his hometown. It's a Horatio Alger tale not only for African-Americans, but for anyone who feels a calling to the arts.

Today, Dutton is both the star of "Roc" and an executive producer of the series about black family life in Baltimore. He is also executive producer of HBO's "Laurel Avenue," a miniseries about a working-class black family in St. Paul that debuted this month to universal acclaim.

He has become a poet laureate of the African-American family in a medium that for four decades dealt only in stereotypes when it came to that slice of the American pie.

"There have probably been other good dramas about black families written and sent to the networks and passed over for whatever reasons," Dutton says.

"I can't figure it. I don't know. Maybe, if you want to use the 'R' word -- racism -- to explain it, you can do so.

"But, in 40 years of television, why haven't there been more?"

Dutton says he sees "Laurel Avenue" -- which he expects to become a weekly series -- as "an effort to eradicate TV's Jim Crow laws: no black people after nine o'clock."

Despite his stature, Dutton says it's still a struggle to keep a show like "Roc" on the air without having it lose its edge and integrity in the assembly line of weekly TV.

"It's the same way in trying to make 'Roc' as a comedy with dramatic moments," he says.

"I mean, the show didn't get to be No. 2 in black households because it was yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk-yuk all the time. Obviously people saw something in it that had something to do with them . . . But you really have to fight and fight to keep those dramatic moments."

One of the best of those moments came during this season's finale when Calvin (played by Heavy D) shot and killed a drug dealer in Roc's neighborhood.

"The reason I insisted on the demise of the drug dealer and him going out like that in the final two episodes this year is that I'm from Baltimore," Dutton says.

"In that city, there are over 760,000 people. Forty thousand of them are strung out on heroin. . . Baltimore has one of the highest murder rates.

"So, to do a show set in Baltimore and not touch on those things is to just do a sitcom."

Dutton was disappointed that Fox didn't promote the episodes more.

"I can't bite my tongue on this," he says.

"Our show was the least promoted on the network. I wish we could have directly involved young people in that show with a 900-number or something."

Because Dutton doesn't bite his tongue when it comes to such complaints about the network, he has a lot more credibility than most performers and producers when he says nice things about the show. Dutton says that he's happy with the new time period "Roc" will get this season -- moving from Sunday nights to Tuesdays at 8 p.m. -- and that it will be on tape rather than live.

"I think we'll do well in that new time slot," he says. "And I'm glad we decided to abandon the live format and go back to tape . . .

"It's hard to promote a live show, because you don't have anything on tape to air during the week to show what's coming up. . . I think it's going to be better this year."

Either way, Dutton says he's going to keep fighting to keep "Roc" real. " 'Roc' is viewed as a comedy with drama," he says. "And certain people would rather that it be a comedy-comedy-comedy with just a little drama.

"Roc lives in a neighborhood where there's extreme drug dealing, extreme violence, extreme hopelessness. There are three bars on every block. There's extreme despair.

"But there are also hard-working people. There are also people trying to instill in their children a sense of self-worth. There's also the church -- all these things that make this a community.

"And for Roc's family to stay in that house and ignore all that is to do a fantasy show," Dutton says. "That's not what I signed on to do, and they know it."

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