The Golden Age Of Blacks
The Late 1960s
"Golden Age" is a term to label that period in the history of a nation, movement, artistic medium or the like during which its greatest achievements were realized. It is not an absolute term since it does not intend to describe the best possible epoch. That being the case, there can be no doubt that for African Americans in television, the last half of the 1960s was a Golden Age.
Speaking in July 1964, Frank Stanton, president of CBS, called upon broadcasters to launch a "mighty and continuing editorial crusade" in support of civil rights. In an address to the National Broadcast Editorial Conference of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Stanton called for commitment and advocacy. President Lyndon B. Johnson having recently signed the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1964, Stanton spoke now of the "pivotal point in our history" and of the need for television to utilize its "editorial strength boldly, imaginatively and with insight and wisdom."
This was a significant speech for it revealed the sensitivity and involvement many TV executives felt toward the civil rights movement, and toward the fact that the government and the nation supported racial reform. Stanton suggested this when he directed broadcasters to "use their 5,000 voices heard on 156 million radio sets and 61 million television sets, in a mighty continuing editorial crusade to make this new law work."
In part, the changing complexion of TV in the late 1960s was a reflection within the industry of the changes wrought by the great social and legal movement that was the push for civil rights. Until this date there had been few sponsored network shows headed by black actors. Serious entertainers such as Billy Daniels in 1952 and Nat King Cole in 1956-1957 had failed to gain or maintain popularity. The only successful programs, Beulah and Amos ‘n’ Andy, may have amused enough people to keep them viable for several seasons, but they resurrected minstrel-show stereotypes thought by many to have been abandoned following World War II.
1960s Series Featuring Blacks as Stars, Co-Stars, or Continuing Characters
Sing-Along with Mitch (1961-1966)
The Lawrence Welk Show (1964-1971)
I Spy (1965-1968)
Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1970)
The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show (1966)
Star Trek (1966-1969)
Mission: Impossible (1966-1973)
Cowboy in Africa (1967-1968) N.Y.P.D. (1967-1969)
The High Chaparral (1967-1970)
The Outcasts (1968-1969)
Gentle Ben (1968-1969)
Peyton Place (1968-1969)
Daniel Boone (1968-1970)
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-1973)
The Mod Squad (1968-1973)
The Leslie Uggams Show (1969)
Land of the Giants (1969-1970)
The New People (1969-1970)
Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971)
Room 222 (1969-1974)
The Protectors (The Bold Ones) (1969-1970)
The Flip Wilson Show (1970-1974)
Matt Lincoln (1970-1971)
The Storefront Lawyers (1970-1971)
Make Room for Granddaddy (1970-1971)
Barefoot in the Park (1970-1971)
The Young Rebels (1970-1971)
The Young Lawyers (1970-1971)
The Interns (1970-1971)
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1973)
The Silent Force (1970-1971)
Now, in the second half of the 1960s, there were more than two dozen programs featuring black actors as leading characters, or in prominent, regular supporting roles. As in most of commercial TV, many of the series achieved limited success and were quickly canceled. Several programs, however, were ratings favorites and lasted for years. It is important, too, that relative to their counterparts in earlier decades, the shows in this period were practically free of racial stereotyping. The above list indicates the scope of network programming featuring African-American stars in this Golden Age.
As it affected the history of blacks in American television, the most crucial series in the latter half of the 1960s was I Spy. The program premiered in 1965 and co-starred Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. It was clearly intended to capitalize on the popular interest in espionage dramas created by Sean Connery's success in several James Bond feature films, and by The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a successful TV series of the previous season. I Spy related the exploits of two secret agents operating around the world to protect U.S. national interests.
But unlike other spy shows on network TV—Honey West, The Avengers, Secret Agent, as well as The Man from U.N.C.L.E.—this program mixed its international intrigue with a slight touch of American wit. This was because of the presence of Bill Cosby.
I Spy was the first network dramatic series to star a minority actor. Not since the demise of Harlem Detective in 1954 had television attempted to feature a black detective hero. And Harlem Detective, of course, was a local show in New York City, not a network production. When I Spy premiered, NBC officials seemed pleased that only three stations—in Savannah and Albany, Georgia, and Daytona Beach, Florida—refused to carry the show. It was seen, however, on 180 other stations covering 96 percent of the country.
The casting of Bill Cosby was a bold decision by producer Sheldon Leonard. While Culp came to the series as a veteran television actor who had starred in a Western program of moderate success, Trackdown, Cosby was a story-telling comedian whose greatest exposure on TV had been on Johnny Carson's Tonight program. Cosby was not only an unknown dramatic quantity, his role could have been played by a white man. Casting Cosby as Alexander Scott, the tennis trainer and traveling companion of Culp's character, fellow agent Kelly Robinson, broke the color line as had no series in TV history.
Cosby proved uniquely qualified for the part. His talent for subtle comedy was matched by a dramatic skill which allowed him to range with apparent ease between emotions of patriotism and self-doubt, romance and intrigue. Cosby was successful in the series. During the three seasons I Spy was on the air, he won three Emmy awards as the most outstanding actor in a continuing dramatic role. And he was popular with audiences. According to a TVQ performer-study by the Home Testing Institute in 1966, Cosby was one of the most popular stars in video—ranking first with children twelve to seventeen years of age, third with those eighteen to thirty-four years of age, and tying for eighth with the total audience.
Ironically, the program's ratings did not match Cosby's triumphs. Credit must go to NBC for maintaining the series for three years when its highest seasonal rating was twenty-ninth place, a position attained in its second year. During the other two seasons, it failed to finish among the top thirty-five.
As well as being the first network drama with an African-American star, I Spy was a landmark program for blacks in other respects. Alexander Scott was placed solidly beyond the borders of the United States, swept up in the dynamics of world affairs. Often filmed in foreign locations, the weekly drama unfolded in places like Hong Kong, Kyoto, and Mexico City—and in countries like Morocco, Greece, and Italy. In one program shot in Greece, the picture of Bill Cosby walking amid the ruins of the Parthenon, symbol of the Western democracy first nurtured in ancient Athens, was a powerful testimony to the nature of the entire series. For black and white viewers, it was an educational experience to see an African-American hero operating constructively abroad in the service of the United States.
Cosby's character was always equal to his encounters with foreign agents, heads of state, beautiful women, and would-be-murderers. He was unlike Shaft, Superfly, and other exaggerated "superspade" characters developed in the so-called "blaxploitation" films of the early 1970s. Alexander Scott was a real, mature human character—able to feel and express emotions historically forbidden to black characters in mainstream entertainment media. In an early episode, Cosby actually kissed a Japanese woman, a revolutionary act that was well beyond the historic perimeters established for blacks in television.
More intimate still was Cosby's part in the episode, "Laya," aired September 25, 1967. Here Alexander Scott fell in love with an enemy agent portrayed by Janet MacLachlan. While mainstream film, radio, and TV traditionally ruled out physical expressions of interracial romance, embracing, kissing and other demonstrations of affection were also proscribed between black men and women. Thus, when Scott romanced Laya, touching, caressing, and kissing her, another barrier to black social and artistic expression was shattered.
I Spy was also an important program for other black actors. Many African-American performers played dramatic roles in the series. Among them were Eartha Kitt, Barbara McNair, Greg Morris, and Nancy Wilson. These guest stars often appeared in nontraditional parts. Diana Sands, for example, portrayed an Israeli agronomist. Ivan Dixon and Cicely Tyson played African royalty caught up in the propaganda war between East and West. And Leslie Uggams was an active part of a Communist conspiracy in Italy.
Directions in TV programming tend to relate to the values popular in American political life. To a great degree the slow but inexorable folding of blacks into television in the early 1960s was a reflection of President Kennedy's activist and reformist mentality. And as Kennedy found support in public opinion, out of their need to placate government and please audiences, network and production executives began to respond with relevant programming.
During the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson the cause of civil rights gained further governmental support. Succeeding the assassinated East Coast liberal Kennedy, Johnson was the first American president from a Confederate state (Texas) since Andrew Johnson a century earlier. Yet, LBJ was even more supportive of civil rights than his predecessor.
Johnson envisioned a "Great Society," a reordering of social values to ensure minority rights and economic opportunity through the massive intervention of the federal government. New bureaus were created, and new programs were enacted in Johnson's "War on Poverty." New measures to protect black voting rights in the South were passed by a Congress that the president seemed to control. As an heir to the legacy of American Progressivism, Johnson was forging his Great Society with the same fervor and vision with which Franklin D. Roosevelt had shaped the New Deal.
This was a time of intense reevaluation of racial attitudes. From the outpouring of white support for civil rights legislation to the self-realization experienced by many African Americans, the late 1960s was a time of "black is beautiful." There were academic expressions of the new era, from black studies curricula and the rewriting of history to include strategic African-American personalities, to the training and employment of great numbers of black instructors.
Culturally, the reevaluation was noticeable in such matters as the new sense of brother- and sisterhood among blacks, increased participation by blacks in intercollegiate and professional sports, the creation of a "black handshake," and the disuse of the terms "Negro" and "colored" and the substitution of "black" and "Afro-American" and, eventually, “African American.” It was in this atmosphere that the Golden Age was achieved by blacks in television.
Not all productions featuring African Americans were successful in TV. Unlike I Spy, for instance, The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show was a disaster. As innovative as was Bill Cosby's dramatic series, Davis’ series was the first musical variety program hosted by a black entertainer since The Nat King Cole Show was canceled a decade earlier. Certainly, headliners such as Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte had hosted specials since then, but in January 1966, Davis fronted his own program on the NBC network. And although it lasted only four months before being dropped, it established a model for programming later filled with varying degrees of success by Flip Wilson, Redd Foxx, Pearl Bailey, George Kirby, Bill Cosby, Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen, The Jackson Five, and Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.
In critical terms, Davis' program was a failure. From the beginning Davis was hampered by contractual problems emanating from a previous arrangement with ABC. The rival network allowed him to host the premier show, but then compelled him to miss the next four telecasts. The show also lacked a national sponsor and was scheduled on Friday nights opposite such hit series as Gomer Pyle, USMC (the second most popular show of the season); Hogan's Heroes (ranked number nine that year); and The Addams Family.
Although the program later improved its presentation, reviews of its premier telecast on January 7 were less than complimentary. Variety panned the program for its "shoddy production values—ranging from dull, cheap sets to sloppy editing and dubbing—or unimaginative scripting, feeble scoring and a weak song catalogue." And Cleveland Amory in TV Guide later criticized the program for its undistinguished production values, adding that "though there were many things wrong with this show, there are many more things right with it—and it is getting better every week."'
In its short run The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show opened the door for many black entertainers to gain national exposure. Some, like Diana Ross and the Supremes, Nancy Wilson, Leslie Uggams, and Diahann Carroll, were already well known because of TV and phonograph records. Others, such as the Nicholas Brothers and the Will Mastin Trio, were vintage performers seldom seen on television. And Davis introduced new talents—Lola Falana, Johnny Brown, George Kirby—whose careers would later flourish.
Ultimately, The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show failed because of the inadequate ratings it received. In the ratings and share-ofaudience figures—the guideposts by which television achievement is measured—Davis' program was unimpressive. While the show did attract millions of viewers, it did not appeal to sufficient millions to remain viable.
This is not to suggest, however, that such measurements were accurate indicators. Various minorities and social groups often criticized A. C. Nielsen, Arbitron, Pulse, and the other market research companies which supplied the ratings. Among other charges, it was frequently suggested that these companies did not measure African-American viewers adequately, since an insufficient number of minority households was included in the measurement. While companies were quick to defend their figures and methods, by the end of the 1960s they did take steps to insure a broader representation by blacks and other racial minorities.
Whatever the shortcomings of the industry ratings figures, they remained the criteria by which popularity and continuance were decided. And in the case of several programs with black stars, they revealed an unprecedented popular approval. Never in video history had three shows with black central characters enjoyed success simultaneously. But by the end of the decade the ratings showed this to be the case with Julia, The Bill Cosby Show, and The Flip Wilson Show.
There is an aspect to most black performance in popular culture which is unique. Because there is comparatively little minority representation in radio, film, and television, and because each performance by an African American is regarded as a chance to make a statement about black social realities, each appearance takes on added weight. Since few African Americans have as yet enjoyed the recurring exposure granted to the stars of hit TV series, when the black actor does achieve such success he or she is vulnerable to special criticism.
If a role seems too accepting of white social dominance, the star as well as the character he or she portrays may be attacked as too acquiescent. If the role is one of a middle-class suburban black, it may be assailed as too bourgeois and unsympathetic to inner-city "brothers" and "sisters." If the role involves no racial politics, it may be censured as not "black" enough. And if it is critical of social injustice, it may be assailed as hostile, radical, or heavy-handed.
In effect, whenever a black entertainer appeared in the late 1960s, he or she was expected to represent all African Americans, embodying the panorama of black life from ghetto to suburb. Because of its patent failure to do this, no successful black series was more controversial than Julia.
As played by Diahann Carroll, Julia Baker was the most assimilated black character ever to appear in the U.S. mass media. Beyond the stereotyped mammies and maids of early TV, Julia was everything that Beulah, Sapphire Stevens, Madame Queen, and Oriole were not. She was middle-class and beautiful. She spoke English perfectly. She was a liberated woman, a self-supporting professional nurse living in a racially integrated apartment building. As a war widow, moreover, she was responsibly raising a wholesome "little man" son in a homey environment.
Julia made no pretense of dealing with contemporary social issues. Indeed, it studiously avoided them. A weekly visit with the Bakers involved the same simple problems encountered for decades on such shows as I Love Lucy, Family Affair, and The Donna Reed Show. Although Julia eventually coiffed her hair in an Afro and had black boyfriends played by Paul Winfield and Fred Williamson, the series refused to be topical. If there were racial references, they were one-line gags such as the question by her employer, a white doctor: "Have you always been a Negro, or are you just trying to be fashionable?" More typical of the series was the following telephone dialogue between Julia and her seven-year-old son, Corey, played by Marc Copage:
Corey: It's me, Mom.
Julia: And just who are you, sir?
Corey: Your son.
Julia: Mr. Corey Baker?
Corey: He's the only son you've got, aren't I?
Julia: Can you prove you're Corey Baker?
Corey: Just a minute, I'll go check in the mirror. [musical interlude] It's me all right.
Julia: Are you sure this is the very same Corey Baker who's going to get on a plane tonight with his mother and fly all the way to Kansas for a vacation?
Corey: Yeh, and I just wanted to know if Earl J. Wagedorn can come with us.
Julia: Oh, Corey.
Julia could not have emerged at a less fortuitous time. With racial frustrations at a peak and with urban police often in a veritable state of war with inner-city rioters, the comfortable image of black success on Julia was in stark juxtaposition to the images seen on local and national newscasts. There was no H. Rap Brown, or SNCC, or Poor People's March in the world of nurse Baker. Instead, in the words of Carroll, Julia Baker was a "white Negro," the overly good, overly integrated fantasy projection of white writers acting, they felt, in a manner sensitive to decades of TV prejudice. Carroll best summarized this situation when in 1968 she told an interviewer:
With black people right now, we are all terribly bigger than life and more wonderful than life and smarter and better—because we are still proving. For a hundred years we have been prevented from seeing ourselves and we're all overconcerned and overreacting. The needs of the white writer go to the superhuman being. At the moment we're presenting the white Negro. And he has very little Negroness.'
From the time it premiered in the Fall of 1968 until it was canceled in mid-1971, Julia was the focal point of criticism. Blacks ascribed a range of negatives to the series. Because the central character was female and husbandless, some felt it continued the matriarchal stereotype—the emasculating anti-male pattern of traditional prejudice. Others felt it was unrepresentative of social reality and, therefore, subversive to the aims and methods of the civil rights movement. To others the program was a sellout intended, now that Richard M. Nixon was President of the United States, to assuage white consciences and make the curtailment of social programs and the repression of riotous ghetto dwellers palatable to white society.
Many whites also felt uncomfortable with Julia. Because it was produced by whites, the series seemed patronizing to blacks—a saccharine projection of the "good life" to be achieved by those blacks who did not riot, who acted properly, and worked within the system. Producer-creator Hal Kanter might protest that "this is not a civil rights show. What we're driving at is escapist entertainment, not a sociological document." But the fact remained that given the added social implications present in all black performance, Julia could not be just another situation comedy.
Despite all these conflicting pressures, Julia was well received by viewers. It was the first black-starred series since Amos n' Andy seventeen years earlier to score well in the Nielsen ratings. It was the seventh most popular show in its premier season. In its second season it was ranked twenty-eighth. During its best year, Julia weekly reached an average of more than 14 million homes.
Sharing much of the same formula as Julia was The Bill Cosby Show, which ran for two years, 1969-1971. It, too, featured a unmarried black character as its lead, as Cosby portrayed Chet Kincaid, a high school track coach and a bachelor. Similar to Julia Baker, Kincaid was middle-class, professional, and educated. Like Julia, moreover, The Bill Cosby Show placed its central character in an integrated environment.
Nonetheless, Cosby’s series was obviously different. From the opening credits which featured Quincy Jones' earthy rhythms as background to Cosby's own soulful groans and jive lyrics, viewers were assured that although the show projected life in racial harmony, this program was extracted from the black experience, and possessed an esoteric quality African Americans alone could understand.
On the surface Chet Kincaid handled the problems faced by other heroes of situation comedy: helping a friend to quit smoking, trying to settle an argument between an aunt and uncle, helping an intoxicated magician rearrange his life, dealing with personal jealousy over a coy girlfriend, trying to recruit a promising athlete to join the track team. Kincaid shook hands in a traditional way, never spoke in slang terms, and seemed equally at ease with wealthy whites and poor blacks.
But there was a black ambiance to The Bill Cosby Show that was missing in Julia. Rather than a "white Negro," Kincaid was black and self-confident. He might be pictured with a Ray Charles record album, or with a photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the wall of his apartment. He courted attractive black women and worked with underprivileged children. White characters on the program were frequently stereotyped, as were his teaching colleagues—the sloppy and absent-minded Mr. Cutter and the intractable Mrs. Drucker, a shrewish woman hostile to male assertiveness.
From the jazz musical score which occurred throughout the show, to the Afro coiffure and casual dress which typified Kincaid's appearance, the series was a statement about black life, an endorsement of the middle-class, educated black man who has not deserted the inner-city but moves gracefully between both worlds. Through his character, Cosby served to defang the contemporary familiar image of riotous blacks. He also suggested to minority viewers still in poverty that they were not forgotten by those who had obtained an education and credentials to operate in the wider, primarily white society.
The Bill Cosby Show was not a "black" show in the sense of attempting to project the harsh realities of African-American life. During its first season, while Cosby did much to bring minority workers into the craft and labor unions servicing the program, only one episode was written by a black writer. Further, because it was necessary to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, the program could not hope to show a discomfiting image to its viewers. So, with a cast integrated with blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos, Cosby told an interviewer that the series sought to tell "an American story." According to Cosby, who was also executive producer of the series: "I'm aware that the show will have a negative meaning for people who are really militant about any story with a black person in it—black viewers included. But you can still pick a guy's pocket while he's laughing, and that's what I hope to do."
Despite the pattern of success established by I Spy, Julia, and The Bill Cosby Show, not all series featuring black stars were widely accepted. Barefoot in the Park was a black situation comedy which lasted only thirteen weeks in the fall of 1969. It starred Scoey Mitchlll and Tracy Reed as a young middle-class couple living in a New York City apartment and struggling through the first years of marriage. The series had adequate supporting characters played by Thelma Carpenter and Nipsey Russell, and it was based on Neil Simon's hit Broadway play and motion picture. Nevertheless, Barefoot in the Park was a TV failure. Even before it premiered, trade papers reported dissension on the set between actors, directors, and producers. Further, the comedy in the series was uninspired, and the image of an attractive young couple kissing and joking their way through married life was already an overused format.
Equally ill-fated was The Leslie Uggams Show, a musical variety program that failed in the fall of 1969. The show featured Uggams as a singer, dancer, and host to guest stars. She also appeared weekly in a running skit called "Sugar Hill," in which she and Lincoln Kilpatrick played a middle-class black couple putting up with each other—as well as with her mother, brother, and sister. Intended by CBS as a replacement for the controversial and canceled Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the variety show lasted only three months. Its demise was due in part to Uggams' limited experience. As a singer on Sing-Along with Mitch for several years she was a creditable performer, but she was neither a compelling comedy actress nor a variety show host. Further, resentment generated by the cancellation of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour practically guaranteed failure for whatever program replaced it.
As well as those programs featuring African-American stars as central characters, by the late 1960s there were several important series with blacks in co-starring or supporting roles. Clearly responding to the political, social, and economic dynamics of the time, the networks and production companies in unprecedented fashion brought black talents into highly visible roles in television. These roles covered a broad range of characterizations, some familiar, some inventive.
One of the major developments of the period was a return to the African locale as a setting for continuing series. Not since the days of Ramar of the Jungle and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle—both children's shows from the early 1950s—had a program set its white champions in the jungles and savannahs of Africa. Daktari concerned the activities of a white veterinarian working in East Africa to protect indigenous animal life. During the three-year history of the series, Hari Rhodes played a zoologist and assistant to the central character. Cowboy in Africa dealt with a white American rodeo star hired to bring modern ranching techniques to a large ranch in Kenya. The only black recurring character in this program was a ten-year-old native boy portrayed by Gerald Edwards.
These programs shared a familiar theme: the superiority of technological Western civilization over the backwardness of African society. Since the imperialistic nations took up the "white man's burden" in the nineteenth century, the image of civilized white people encountering black "heathens" who were "half-devil and half-child" was familiar in literature—and later in film and radio. In TV in the late 1960s, it reached its greatest realization in Tarzan.
Tarzan was an anachronism. In the midst of the African-American movement toward fuller civil rights, here was a picture of a Caucasian hero single-handedly bringing peace and justice to the "dark continent." At a time when former African colonies were independent and influential nations, the picture of actor Ron Ely in a loin cloth walking as the white champion among dark-skinned natives was racially disparaging and patronizing. Certainly, the program gave employment to talented but rarely utilized black actors, including William Marshall, Roy Glenn, Woody Strode, Brock Peters, Raymond St. Jacques, and Yaphet Kotto. But there was something unsettling about distinguished African-American actors speaking in broken English or wearing Hollywood conceptions of native African clothing.
Nowhere was this misuse of talent more visible than in "The Convert," a Tarzan episode that aired January 12, 1968. The story concerned three Roman Catholic nuns, played by Diana Ross and the Supremes (Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong), who attempted to persuade a stubborn village leader, portrayed by James Earl Jones, to allow construction of a hospital to serve his jungle tribesmen. The plot allowed the popular rock-and-roll group to sing two songs—"The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves" and "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." Predictably, the story ended on a happy note. In the final scenes Jones announced that he had changed his mind and would allow the hospital to be built. Then, Ross and the Supremes joyfully began to teach him and his tribesmen to sing "Michael." Knowing that another African problem had been solved, Tarzan walked off into the jungle with a smile of satisfaction.
Ironically, even in its fictional entertainment network TV could present a more accurate image of Africa. "The Third Choice," an episode of The Name of the Game telecast March 7, 1968, exemplified this. The program depicted Ossie Davis, Janet MacLachlan, and Roscoe Lee Browne as deeply involved in African revolutionary politics, caught between the West and the East in an emerging new nation. From the opening scenes filmed in Lagos, Nigeria, this program was at odds with the simplicity of Tarzan. Viewers saw a modern Africa epitomized in a large coastal city with high-rise buildings, factories pouring out smoke, large ships in the harbor, modern bridges, railroads, and automobiles. The political dimension of the story also projected a more authentic interpretation of African society than that seen in the struggle between the Supremes and James Earl Jones. Stories like this—and others seen intermittently on adventure series such as Mission: Impossible and It Takes a Thief—suggest that U.S. television was capable of escaping outmoded stereotypes when dealing with third world nations and peoples.
There may have been examples of network and producer insensitivity, but the fact remains that in this Golden Age blacks were used frequently—often in roles unfamiliar to African-American actors. In the wake of Bill Cosby's success in a dramatic series, several blacks appeared in police and private-detective series. Where in the past they might have been portrayed as victims or perpetrators of crime, blacks were now part of the law enforcement process. Whether it was Clarence Williams III as Linc Hayes, the reformed Watts rioter, now an undercover police officer on The Mod Squad, or Gail Fisher as Peggy Fair, the secretary and helper on the private detective series, Mannix, audiences rarely had seen blacks in so flattering a light.
And African-American heroes worked for all types of legal agencies. On Mission: Impossible, Greg Morris portrayed Barney Collier, an electronics expert and member of the team of CIA-like agents who roamed the world thwarting evil developments in foreign governments. In N.Y.P.D., Robert Hooks was a police detective operating in New York City. In Hawk the location was also New York City, but here Wayne Grice played Detective Carter, the partner on the night beat of a police lieutenant of Iroquois ancestry, John Hawk (Burt Reynolds).
Hari Rhodes abandoned his lab gown and zoologist's role on Daktari, and appeared now as a big-city district attorney on The Protectors, one of three programs composing NBC's The Bold Ones series. Related to this format also was Don Mitchell's characterization of Mark Sanger, the assistant and bodyguard to Raymond Burr's police consultant heroics on Ironside.
By the late 1960s, it was apparent that to be representative and appealing to a wide audience, TV series required black characters. This was most obvious in programs which spotlighted groups of Americans confronting various types of conflict and misunderstandings. Ivan Dixon played Sgt. Kinchloe, one of the soldiers held humorously in Stalag 13 on Hogan's Heroes. The New People—a short-lived series about a group of young American men and women stranded on a deserted island and forced to establish a new social order based on their 1960s values —featured David Moses as one of those struggling to make reality out of theory.
The evening soap opera Peyton Place was integrated during the 1968-1969 season, when Percy Rodrigues and Ruby Dee, as Dr. and Mrs. Harry Miles, and Glynn Turman as their son joined the cast. And the ill-fated Matt Lincoln program, starring Vince Edwards as a psychiatrist, featured two blacks, Felton Perry and Chelsea Brown, as his assistants.
Blacks also entered genres traditionally closed to them. Angelo Rutherford's role as the young black friend, Willie, on Gentle Ben took blacks into family-oriented adventure programming. In the science fiction series Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols was the only recurring female and black member of the cast. Her role as the attractive Lt. Uhura, the communications officer of the starship Enterprise, was a sexual as well as racial breakthrough. Similarly, a black character was included in the science fantasy series, Land of the Giants. Struggling to survive in a world where everything except the crew of an American spaceship was twelve times larger than on earth, Don Marshall played the copilot of the aircraft which had crash-landed on a foreign planet in the year 1983.
During the flowering of the Western in the late 1950s and early 1960s, blacks seldom appeared on the scores of series on television. In less than a decade, however, matters began to change. During the fall of 1965, Raymond St. Jacques appeared as Simon Blake, a drover on the faltering Rawhide series. St. Jacques appeared for only four months before the seven-year-old program was canceled. Between 1967 and 1970, however, Frank Silvera portrayed Don Sebastian Montoya, a distinguished Mexican nobleman and father-in-law of John Cannon, the central character on High Chaparral. In 1969, moreover, Roosevelt Grier, the former football star for the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams, became a regular on the last season of Daniel Boone. Cast as Gabe Cooper, Grier portrayed a runaway slave who lived with the Tuscarora Indians and was accepted by them as Chief Canawahchaquaoo.
Considerably more significant, however, was the co-starring role of Otis Young on The Outcasts. During the 1968-1969 season, Young played Jemal David who, with a white partner, Earl Corey, played by Don Murray, was a bounty hunter in the post-Civil War wild West. Of all TV series featuring African-American actors, The Outcasts was the most intense and explosive. David was no socially adapted Chet Kincaid or patriotic Barney Collier. Bitter about the slavery experience and hostile to racism and the brutalization of blacks, he was sensitive and combative.
While the series was set in the frontier days of the nineteenth century, its attitudes were clearly reflective of racial sensibilities in the late 1960s. David's distrust of whites occasionally included even his partner Corey. In an episode entitled "Gideon," aired February 24, 1969, those feelings exploded after Corey met and reminisced with an old ex-slave, Gideon (played by Roscoe Lee Browne), who was once owned by Corey's father. The shuffling and servility shown by Gideon was offensive to David. And Corey's apparent pleasure in meeting the old man triggered a hostile scene between the partners.
David: Listen, Corey, I don't need you to stand up for me. I can fight my own fights.
Corey: What's the matter with you today? You're touchier than a lizard with sunburn. First you start pickin' on old Gideon, then you start callin' me "Massa Earl," like some endman in a riverboat show.
David: It wasn't meant to be funny. I just ain't interested in hearin' about him or any of your other used -to-be darkies.
Corey: And I'm not responsible for what a man calls me.
David: Oh, is that a fact? He just dreamed it up all by himself one day, decided that "Massa Earl" sounded better than "Mr. Corey" or "Earl" or any other way a man talks to a man.
In many respects The Outcasts was revolutionary. It challenged the traditional formula of the TV Western, treating innovative themes such as the place of black cavalry units—the so-called "Buffalo Soldiers—in the history of the West; the brotherhood between two oppressed racial minorities, blacks and Indians; racial prejudice on the frontier; and life on a chain gang controlled by brutal and bigoted guards.
Furthermore, never had TV projected a tough black champion in the Old West. But as such, David was forced to face such soul-searching issues as being falsely accused of having killed a white woman; coping with a hooded night rider intent on pillaging the countryside in revenge for the Confederate loss in the Civil War; and temporarily becoming the sheriff of a racially prejudiced town.
The series also broadened the expression of black manhood on television. In one episode, David risked his life to save a white child from death. In another, he fell in love with a black woman, only to discover she was involved in a robbery scheme masterminded by a white man. In still another episode, he was compelled to deal with an old black servant who became angry when David ate at the table with whites and "acted like a white man." The old man later explained that his own son had been murdered for acting like a white man.
One of the most revolutionary scenes in the entire series occurred in "Gideon." It showed a black man unwrapping a long hunting knife and calmly plunging it into the chest of a white bounty hunter. Several years later a black writer, James Oliver Killens, recalled the impact of this incident upon one black viewer:
One of the best shows I used to like was The Outcasts, and it wasn't too long before they cast it out and off the air. It had a feeling of truth to it somehow or other. I especially liked that time when Roscoe Lee Browne was on that show and killed that White man. That was beautiful.
While film historians have spent much energy pointing out the emergence of the strong, macho black character so crucial to the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, Otis Young as Jemal David was clearly the first modern black hero to lash out at white society when he felt it to be oppressive or unjust. Long before the aggressive feature films like Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song (1971) and Shaft (1971), David as a central character in The Outcasts projected an image that was self-sufficient, virile, and threatening.
Personally, Otis Young seems to have harbored as much distrust of white society as his character. TV Guide in 1969 reported that his refusal to cooperate with his producers—in one case, refusing to say the line, "Ain't nothin' like darkies for prayin' "—led to considerable tension on the set of The Outcasts. Young defended his editing of the script, noting that "the line is an insult to Negroes." In language reminiscent of Paul Robeson's defiance, Young continued:
If this line went through, the next thing they'd have up there is Stepin Fetchit. If I compromised myself on this script, it would be a little easier next time, and in three or four years I'd wake up one morning and be a wealthy Negro who forgot who he was.... The thing that affected my decision about this line was my responsibility to Negroes in this country. White people think there's nothing like darkies for dancing, there's nothing like darkies for singing, and there's nothing like darkies for praying. Well, that's a lie. The segment of Negroes that is praying instead of doing is dying off. We have a new Negro that hasn't even been to church. One of the things that has hung the Negro up is that he's been too busy praying in the white man's church. This has kept him under the hand of the white Establishment. Any Negro today who is praying instead of doing is a damn fool."'
The Outcasts failed for several reasons, among them its poor scheduling opposite feature films on NBC and Mayberry, R.F.D. on CBS. Westerns, too, were no longer popular with TV viewers by the late 1960s. The program also failed because of the hostile quality of its black characterization. Although the product of white script writers, Jemal David was one of the most threatening black characters since director D. W. Griffith in 1915 introduced a black would-be rapist lusting after a white girl in the motion picture, Birth of a Nation. The image of a strong and assertive black male, which film historian Don Bogle has termed "the brutal black buck," had been absent from the mainstream of American popular culture until the appearance of the brooding, quick-tempered bounty hunter created by Otis Young. The Outcasts and Jemal David anticipated by three years the violent and intensely angry black males in feature films in the following decade.
The rage apparent in the words and actions of Otis Young’s character suggests a militancy traditionally proscribed from network television. The pattern of excluding black anger had been established early in TV history with the banning of Paul Robeson from the medium. While the participatory perimeters of video had expanded since the days of Nat King Cole, the ideological boundaries remained intact. TV could adopt moderate performers like Diahann Carroll, Bill Cosby, and Sammy Davis, Jr. But there was still little place for those entertainers or characters, real or fictional, who brought strongly political perspectives to their performances.
This is not to disparage those African-American talents who found success in television. It is to suggest, however, that American mass culture continued to operate as a conservative, assimilative force, seeking to maintain social stability while gradually merging people of differing backgrounds into the cultural mainstream.
The process had worked effectively with the waves of immigrants who had come to the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While they maintained vestiges of their ethnic cultures—dress, food, dance, music, secondary language skills, and observance of holidays—they eventually were Americanized and became socially indistinguishable from other citizens.
American blacks, the offspring of reluctant immigrants who in earlier centuries were brought forcefully to the New World to be slaves, faced a different set of circumstances in the process of assimilation. Hampered by an institutional racism that stripped them of their African culture while disallowing their absorption into the mainstream of American social life, blacks had been kept historically rootless.
To ensure their servility after the laws of slavery were abolished in the mid-nineteenth century, blacks were isolated, culturally circumscribed, and made objects of derision within the dominant white culture. In this way, American popular culture ensured second-class political status for the offspring of exslaves.
The significance of the civil rights movement which flowered in the mid-1960s was that for legal, economic, political, and moral reasons, the dominant culture began to reevaluate its proscription against full participation by blacks. As never before in history, African Americans now had a chance to enter the social mainstream, to find educational and professional opportunity, and to achieve personal and familial satisfaction working within the system.
Given this situation, it is obvious that an immoderate series such as The Outcasts could not survive on television. It is amazing that ABC even telecast the series. Beyond the limits of popular acceptability, its anger was out of harmony with the cultural process.
Much more congruent with American cultural dynamics was the successful ABC series, Room 222. Better than any other program focusing on blacks in the Golden Age, Room 222 mirrored the ambiance of social change that was a part of the late 1960s, while operating within the boundaries of cultural possibility. In this regard, Room 222, and not The Outcasts, stands as the "best possible" black-starred show to emerge in the late 1960s.
Room 222 was a schoolroom dramatic series set in urban Walt Whitman High School. It featured Lloyd Haynes as a compassionate teacher whose lessons in black history were often interrupted by the real-life problems of a racially-integrated student body. Stories dealt with issues affecting contemporary American teenagers: drug addiction, cheating on exams, sexual attitudes, recalcitrant and nonconformist students, insensitive teachers, limitations on student rights, as well as social issues such as women's liberation, consumerism, and the environmental crisis. Frequently, the program dealt specifically with racial themes: President Lincoln's racial views, tutoring a ghetto youngster, the varieties of prejudice, and the like.
The program, however, did not have to approach racial problems directly to deliver its egalitarian point. The fact that Haynes, the main actor, was black, and that the prominently-displayed school counselor played by Denise Nicholas was also African American, made Room 222 a series with a reformist message. The sympathetic characters portrayed by Haynes and Nicholas delivered a positive statement about black middle-class success. In charge of young lives, here were responsible adults making all the right moves. The basic integrity and law-abiding nature of the African-American students in class also communicated a hopeful lesson about those struggling to leave the urban ghetto and enter the flow of American life.
There was no rage here. The professionals in Room 222 had achieved. They were laboring now so that black youngsters could follow them to the American Dream. The black heroes were allowed vestiges of African-American culture—Afros, colorful clothing, and a sensitivity toward younger "brothers" and "sisters" seeking equal opportunity. But the same central characters were well adjusted to the suit-and-tie regimentation of their careers and identities within the mainstream. Not simply principals in a TV series, these were role models of what "the good life"—a world of rational thought, attractive people, and financial sufficiency—offered for those who would abandon bitterness and work to overcome within the system.
Despite the cancellation of The Outcasts and the success of Room 222 and Julia, and the others, anger was an integral part of black reality in the late 1960s. If the intensity of that anger were to be encountered authentically on television, it would not appear on entertainment shows. It would have to be seen in nonfiction TV, in that realm of news, documentary, and public service programming which—despite boundaries established early in the case of Paul Robeson—still had helped make the civil rights issue a problem of national scope.