Blacks In Non-Comedic Television
To be truly creative and strategic to society, television needs to be more than jokes and laughter. Yet, with the demise of the sociopolitical melodrama in the Nixon years, networks and producers turned to comedy, particularly situation comedy, to please an audience which, according to those crucial ratings, more and more preferred laughter to seriousness.
There were indications, however, that the perceived national taste for sitcoms was not as unalterable as it appeared. First, the most successful series of the decade were those produced by companies headed by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin. And rather than avoid reality, these programs clearly exploited topical humor drawn from controversial issues of the day. Second, the growing popularity of news-magazine shows such as 60 Minutes and 20/20 indicated mass interest in real issues.
Finally, the case of a series like The Jeffersons—which enjoyed popularity for a few years, then plummeted in the ratings for several seasons, only to emerge near the top by the early 1980s—suggests that with the proper time slot, the right promotion, and much patience, network TV could make a program viable and even popular. Giving up quickly on dramatic series which garnered mediocre ratings in their first telecasts—only to replace them with more comedies—the networks helped ensure that national TV would seek to tickle rather than teach its audience.
There was a certain irony surrounding the part played by blacks in video in the mid-1970s. Outside of comedy, the African-American imprint on primetime TV was not of great consequence. Black characters were present in evening television, but they were neither crucial nor influential in non-comedic programming meant for adults. It is interesting, however, that African Americans at this time became vitally important to one dimension of national TV which had been traditionally lily-white: children's programming. Not only did they gain roles in most productions aimed at youngsters, but they precipitated a basic alteration in the relationship between television and American children.
The history of African Americans in network children's programming is an uncomplicated one. Before Sesame Street premiered on public television in 1969, few blacks appeared on children's shows, and no series were ever produced with ghetto youngsters in mind. More than any other mass medium, TV excluded minorities from juvenile entertainment. All of those landmark children's shows during the first twenty years of video—Howdy Doody, Romper Room, Mr. Wizard, Ding Dong School, Captain Kangaroo; and adventure series like Space Patrol, the Mickey Mouse Club, and the Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin seldom, if ever, involved blacks.
The attitude suggested by this pattern reached its highpoint in 1961 with the cartoon series, Calvin and the Colonel. Freeman Golden and Charles Correll, originators on radio of the controversial Amos 'n' Andy, provided their minstrel voices for the prime time series. With no complications, the voices that whites for decades had accepted as the natural sound of typical African Americans now became accepted as the voices of a conniving fox named the Colonel, and a dumb, oafish bear called Calvin.
The racist legacy was challenged by Sesame Street. Three years in the making, Sesame Street was the most acclaimed and important racially-integrated series to emerge in the Golden Age of blacks in TV. Long after I Spy, Julia, The Bill Cosby Show, and other series from the Golden Age had been canceled and syndicated, Sesame Street continued to project positive images of white and minority children and adults interacting constructively.
The goal of Sesame Street was to reduce the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged youngsters. According to Joan Ganz Cooney, president of the Children's Television Workshop, the producers of Sesame Street sought "to move all children across the basic literacy line which is the key to education and later entering the mainstream of American life."
Sesame Street was an imaginary city block near 104th Street and Second Avenue in East Harlem. Within this inner-city milieu there existed a racial mix of happy children and adults. Frequently, black entertainers, notably Bill Cosby and Nipsey Russell, appeared for segments of the program. While critics assailed the show for encouraging passive tolerance rather than active social change, and for "sugar-coating" ghetto life and teaching "minority children to accept quietly middle-class America's corrupt demand to subjugate themselves," the lengthy and popular run of the series suggests that it struck a responsive chord with preschool youngsters and their parents.
In addition to its educational goal of teaching cognitive skills in a direct fashion, Sesame Street sought to teach social attitudes in an indirect manner. Its presentation of adult blacks as educators and role models exercised a positive influence on minority children, and promoted tolerance among white juveniles. It is important that amid the exciting puppet shows and cartoons intended to teach elementary reading and arithmetic skills, there were frequent glimpses of life on Sesame Street, wherein low-keyed social messages about brotherhood were suggested but not overtly stated.
Despite the example of Sesame Street, the commercial networks were slow to reevaluate their own juvenile offerings. As late as October 1972, a survey commissioned by Action for Children's Television and conducted by Black Efforts for Soul in Television (BEST), concluded that Saturday morning network TV was spreading "stereotyped thinking and bigoted information" regarding racial minorities. Studying programming in 1971 such as The Bugs Bunny Show, The Jetsons, The Funky Phantom, The Jackson Five, and Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, BEST argued that the subject of race never was mentioned and the locale was invariably the white community. Further, BEST noted, wherever there was a black leader he was always accompanied by a white co-leader, and all sources of authority and information were white. To one researcher, "Network television is guilty of the worst kind of racist attitudes in the area of blacks and other minorities on children's programming."
With Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, however, CBS pioneered a meaningful network response in children's programming. Premiering in the fall of 1972, this animated Saturday morning series featured Bill Cosby as host to the adventures of a group of black youngsters growing up in an urban environment. The show was drawn in part from Cosby's memories of his own childhood in Philadelphia. From those remembrances came unique black characters that included Fat Albert and friends Mush Mouth, Crying Charlie, and Dumb Donald.
But Fat Albert was not purely an entertainment series. Working with a panel of social scientists and educators, CBS and Cosby used the program as a vehicle for teaching ethics, social values, judgment, and personal responsibility. Here was a fusion of education and entertainment, precipitated for the most part by Cosby, who, although a noted TV comedian, was also a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts working toward a doctorate degree in education which he later obtained.
As well as presenting black characters in a positive perspective, Fat Albert treated issues such as lying, tolerance, coping with death in the family, playing hooky, cheating on tests, and ganging up on a child because he or she is different. In a typical program, "Four Eyes," broadcast in 1974, the Cosby kids continually poked fun at a boy because he had poor vision and had to wear glasses. After getting glasses, however, the boy became the best hitter on the local baseball team—able now to see clearly and to gain the admiration of his pals, even to the point of their confession that glasses made the wearer look distinguished.
The wide acceptance of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, with its values-laden messages and educational purposes, precipitated a major realignment of Saturday morning programming at CBS. In the fall of 1974, the network introduced five new programs that—according to network president Robert Wood, speaking in a closed-circuit telecast for network stations and affiliates—imitated the formula of Fat Albert by purposely communicating a perspective on social responsibility and ethics.
Valley of the Dinosaurs was a cartoon series placing a modern family in prehistoric times, dealing thereby with the problem of recognizable people having to live with totally different human beings. Shazam featured Captain Marvel helping to resolve such youthful problems as going along with the crowd, suffering the consequences of wrongdoing, respecting oneself and other people, and making value decisions with respect to peers, parents, and community.
The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Comedy Show, was a variety program that mixed music and comedy with messages of personal responsibility.
The U.S. of Archie took Archie comic book characters and placed them within American history, where they encountered problems like women's equality and historical figures such as Harriet Tubman.
The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine was a live-action stage show featuring eleven members of the famed basketball team, plus child actor Rodney Allen Rippy, in a blend of basketball tricks and slapstick comedy, together with themes of brotherhood, good health, regard for the environment, sportsmanship, and good citizenship.
Though most of these CBS programs eventually were canceled, values-orientation in children's programming was not fully abandoned. Further, the watershed series, Fat Albert, continued on CBS into the early 1980s. And other shows on network television reflected the fundamental reevaluation inspired by Bill Cosby's contribution. In shows like Bubble Gum Digest, Zoom, Kids Are People, Too, The Big Blue Marble, 30 Minutes, The Electric Company, Weekend Special, and Marlo and the Magic Movie Machine, blacks appeared with regularity, and lessons of social responsibility continued to be communicated. Blacks even appeared in 1977 as regular cast members on The New Mickey Mouse Club, an updated, syndicated version of a children's variety program from the 1950s and 1960s.
Related to the popularity of children's shows with black characters were primetime series featuring black youth. While the success rate for black adults in prime time was low between 1970 and 1983, such was not the case with black children cast in network programs. Featured almost exclusively in situation comedies, African-American youngsters in preschool through high school age groups enjoyed considerable acceptance. The fact that these series were invariably scheduled in the early evening, a time with the largest youthful audience, suggests that young viewers were less hostile to black representations than had been adults.
A favorite format was the half-hour comedy set in a high school environment. Certainly, not all shows in this category were viable. Lucas Tanner, Hollywood High, Szysznyk, and The Waverly Wonders were short-lived series. But Room 222, set in a Los Angeles high school, enjoyed a run of more than four years. And Welcome Back, Kotter, set in a Brooklyn high school, featured Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs as Freddie Washington throughout its four year run in the last half of the 1970s. What's Happening!! focused on three urban high school students and was based freely on the popular black film, Cooley High. In the TV series, Ernest Thomas (as Roger "Raj" Thomas), Fred Berry (as Rerun), and Haywood Nelson (as Dwayne) played a trio of wholesome, if somewhat mischievous, black kids. Three of their greatest impediments to youthful expression were the strong and assertive Mama Thomas; a sympathetic soda-shop waitress, Shirley (Shirley Hemphill); and a sarcastic younger sister, Dee Thomas (Danielle Spencer). What's Happening!! lasted three seasons on ABC, running from 1976 to 1979.
The most significant series highlighting black high school youngsters was The White Shadow. In that it was a dramatic show and not a situation comedy, The White Shadow was different. The program concerned a white basketball coach in a predominantly black high school. Plots usually revolved about the members of his team, often probing important social and racial concerns in the process. Among these issues were high school pregnancy, interracial dating, incorrigible students, the dropout phenomenon, student homosexuality, and sports as a means of escaping the ghetto. Headed by Ken Howard—and including young actors Kevin Hooks, Byron Stewart, Thomas Carter, Nathan Cook, and Eric Kilpatrick, with Ed Bernard and Joan Pringle as school administrators—The White Shadow ran for three seasons on CBS before being canceled in 1981. Its demise relegated black children to comedic roles only.
Equally as popular as high school blacks in situation comedies were sitcoms featuring precocious preteen black children. Such characterization was not unique to the 1970s. Gerald Edwards had his light moments in the adventure series, Cowboy in Africa, in 1967-1968. And Marc Copage as Corey Baker was a crucial part of Julia during its three seasons (1968-1971). The street-wise black child, however, flourished in the mid- and late 1970s. One of the first was Tierre Turner as Lucas Adams, an African-American orphan with an Irish policeman as his guardian in The Cop and the Kid on NBC during the winter of 1975-1976. Danielle Spencer's part in What's Happening!! fit into this mold. So, too, did Todd Bridges' character, Loomis, a hip street-kid, in 1977-1978 on the ABC series Fish.
The most prepossessing actor in this role, however, was Gary Coleman. Cast as Arnold on Norman Lear's Diff'rent Strokes—with Todd Bridges as his brother, Willis—Coleman played the hipper and more flippant of two orphaned brothers from Harlem poverty, adopted by a white widower and living now in Park Avenue wealth. The series gave range to Coleman's show-off acting talent, but still presented a stereotype akin to the pickaninnies who populated vintage Our Gang and Little Rascals comedy films. Like the black children in those two-reel comedies from the 1920s and 1930s, the youngsters in Diff'rent Strokes were meant to be seen and exploited as blacks. Many of the plots and jokes on the program revolved around being African American in a white world. While there were rhetorical attempts at racial pride and human love, Arnold was condemned by his writers and his social context to be self-consciously black. Never able to be simply another child in another situation comedy, Arnold was a black kid before he was a human being.
Willis was also spiritually confined. He was a stereotype, cast to fill a preconceived model explained by the executive producer of Diff'rent Strokes: "We needed a kid who had a kind of rough edge to him. Streetwise, if you will, who could show a little hostility at being pulled into a rich white neighborhood after his parents died, but wouldn't appear so hostile that audiences wouldn't like him." Thus, Arnold and Willis forever had to be black and "act black" for their relatives and friends. In this regard they were clearly tied to those old-time comedies where white audiences rolled with knowing laughter when Farina and a chimpanzee played together, or when Buckwheat sat in a washing machine trying to be washed white.
Black children strongly influenced television in the 1970s. Whether for social values or stereotypes, African-American youths were accepted where many black adults were rejected. This rejection was most noticeable in non-comedic programs. When contrasted to the popularity of the clowns of the New Minstrelsy, the failure to produce substantial black roles in primetime dramatic shows points up the plight of African-American actors in the 1970s. To be successful in the nation's principal medium of entertainment, black men and women had to be funny. Whenever there were hit non-comedic series—focusing as they invariably did on a lawyer, doctor, educator, police officer, cowboy, spaceman, private investigator, pioneer, middle-class executive, military officer, journalist, or any of the other professionals in whom Americans found their dramatic entertainment—the best an African American could expect was a recurring part in which he or she operated in a noncritical way to support the heroic actions of a white central character.
In an earlier time, such ancillary roles were as butlers, maids, janitors, and porters. In television in the 1970s, the characters may have been enhanced somewhat, but blacks still played the secretaries, chauffeurs, bodyguards, and informants for white series champions. For every Percy Rodrigues and Brenda Sykes in Executive Suite—a prime-time dramatic serial about corporate intrigues, sexual encounters, and emotional clashes—there were many more traditional roles such as Antonio Fargas as the jive-talking informant, Huggy Boy, on Starsky and Hutch, Ed Bernard as James Farentino's personal pilot (chauffeur) on Cool Million, Tony King as a police sergeant to Jack Palance's starring lieutenant on Bronk, Hari Rhodes as a mayor supporting Robert Stack as a heroic police captain on the short-lived Most Wanted, and Dawn Smith as Lloyd Bridges' female friend and entree to the ghetto in Joe Forrester.
One of the most promising castings was Carl Franklin as a university scientist and focal point of the science fiction series, Fantastic Journey. The program and the role, however, lasted only two months in early 1977. Television in the 1970s was unable and unwilling to support blacks in anything but supporting dramatic roles. This was most apparent in detective programming.
The detective story is generally an urban drama. As such, one might have expected blacks to have been integral to the genre since the beginning of television. Such was not the case. Not until the mid-1960s did African Americans appear as regulars in detective programs. Invariably, however, they were never the heroes of such shows. And this pattern persisted throughout the 1970s when blacks were quantitatively more obvious, but qualitatively still unfulfilled.
There were many detective series wherein white private detectives, police officers, or international crime fighters were assisted by black characters. Gail Fisher was the loyal secretary on Mannix for seven seasons. As Sergeant Joe Broodhurst, Terry Carter played Dennis Weaver's sidekick on McCloud. Bernie Hamilton was the gruff Captain Dobey whose understanding permitted the white stalwarts of Starsky and Hutch to capture gangsters in the mid-1970s. Ed Bernard was helpful, but not crucial, to the apprehension of criminals during four seasons of Police Woman. Although on Caribe Carl Franklin co-starred as a sergeant on an international crime-fighting organization called Caribbean Force, most of the attention went to a white actor, Stacy Keach, who played the lieutenant.
The most distasteful black role in the genre, however, was Michael D. Roberts' portrayal of Rooster on the Barretta series. Rooster was a cool-talking black pimp who, through his "street smarts" and his stable of women, for more than three seasons gathered information to sell to the white detective, Tony Baretta.
More distinguished was Georg Stanford Brown's role on The Rookies. On ABC from 1972 until 1976, Brown played officer Terry Webster, part of a trio of energetic police rookies working in a city in Southern California. At the time, Brown's character was the most critical part for an African-American actor in the history of network detective shows. When few blacks had yet to be cast in the lead of serious police dramas, Brown portrayed a solid and professional law enforcement official. As such, Terry Webster was more authentic than Line Hayes, the hip undercover police officer enacted by Clarence Williams III on The Mod Squad. Further, the role Brown played was more crucial to the series' viability than Greg Morris' part as the expert in machines and electronics, Barney Collier, on Mission: Impossible.
The attractiveness of Brown in The Rookies helped persuade CBS and NBC to accept blacks in starring roles in their own detective series. What developed, however, was not simply programming failure, but an expression of the chronic inability of television to imbue a single, black hero with a personality true to his cultural background, yet appealing enough to command the viewer approval needed to survive as a series lead. In the cases of the CBS venture, Shaft, and the NBC series, Tenafly—both premiering in the fall of 1973—the first black detective heroes to work alone in network TV made little impact on white society, black society, or the medium itself. In the blaxploitation films of the early 1970s, Richard Roundtree played private detective John Shaft in a triology of financially rewarding feature films: Shaft (1971), Shaft's Big Score (1972), and Shaft in Africa (1973). Here, he was tough, sexy, slick, and savvy, working and loving in New York City. In the latter film, Shaft even switched locales, returning to the "mother country," sweeping through African crime "like a black tornado." Sleek leather clothing, beautiful women of all nationalities, a tough demeanor around criminals and police alike—these were the hallmarks of the blaxploitation Shaft. On television, however, John Shaft's character was emasculated. No profanity, moderated sex, toned-down violence, no expression of being angry and black in a white world, the video Shaft was more formula than flair.
For white audiences, Shaft on TV was just another private eye, albeit an African-American one, with no distinction except racial ancestry. Variety called the program "formula," "an absurd melodrama," and "a strong lead in Richard Roundtree and not much else." Cleveland Amory in TV Guide lamented over the program: "It would seem the least you could expect ... is that they would occasionally offer an alternative to those seemingly endless private eyes." He concluded, moreover, that Roundtree and John Shaft were compromised on television—"either they shortchanged him or the character itself got shortchanged in the transition from movies to TV."
For black audiences, Shaft was a disappointment. No matter how brutal and pandering the blaxploitation films had been, at least on the theater screen John Shaft was a black hero in black terms. Now on television, he lost that defiant sensuality which had attracted minority moviegoers. Writing in TV Guide, a university professor summarized the cultural barrenness of Shaft on TV.
There is nothing in the premise of Shaft or its execution that is black. In other reviews of this show, I have seen this colorlessness lauded as a healthy sign. But as a black person, I find it offensive. I feel that I am being erased. As if blackness were not to be desired, had nothing to offer. As if all colors in this Nation should be bleached into a sickly gray.
Even more revealing was the reasoning by the producer of Shaft, who explained the moderating of John Shaft's character. "We were very conscious of the movie image and deliberately worked against it," according to William Woodfield. "We knew we would get bad reviews," he added, "but we thought the American people would accept this man as a friend."
If the video John Shaft was a pale imitation of his filmic persona, James McEachin's character, Harry Tenafly, on NBC's Tenafly, was the classic "white Negro," made so bumblingly middle-class and recognizable as to become too familiar and not entertaining. In its promotions for the series, the network emphasized his frenetic blend of chasing criminals and coping with a wife and two children. "Tenafly is a detective who can't find the butter," said an announcer as McEachin fumbled through the refrigerator and complained to his wife. "But," continued the voice, "he solves crimes." Although as a private investigator in Los Angeles Tenafly demonstrated touches of sensitivity, the character and the series were victims of its WASP projection of the black detective, and its inadequate scripts which alternated between formulaic detective drama and domestic farce. Bob Knight in Variety captured the fundamental weakness of the program:
The concept of bumbling your way to a solution while fighting the added battle of personal home life interruptions borders more on sitcom than dramatic fare.... It would seem rather obvious that a black private detective could best create viewer appeal by displaying a distinctive style of operation that drew on his ethnic background for its insight and modus operandi. ... As it stands now, Tenafly is an ordinary detective skein trying to get past on the novelty of having a black playing the lead."
Shaft and Tenafly were part of rotating package-series. Having to share their time slots with other recurring programs, the black detective shows received monthly exposure at best. Only eight episodes of Shaft and six installments of Tenafly were ever produced. With their cancelation, the male African-American detective as central character was abandoned by network television until James Earl Jones appeared in the fall of 1979 in the short-lived Paris series.
Ironically, the first weekly detective series placing a black hero in a starring role dealt with the exploits of a beautiful black woman. Get Christie Love! featured Teresa Graves as a sexy, hip, and independent-minded undercover officer on the Los Angeles police force. Unfortunately, Graves' physical attractiveness alone was insufficient to maintain an audience. During its one-year run, 1974-1975, the series was marred by an unbelievable character acting out poorly written scripts in a tired genre. Due to her personal religious beliefs, moreover, Graves demanded less and less violence in her dramas. This forced her to face danger with only wisecracks and quick karate moves. The program ended its run rated seventy-second out of the eighty-four series offered that season.
The question arises whether black dramatic series were abandoned quickly because they were inherently flawed or because the networks misread national preference and failed to nurture such series with propitious time slots, adequate promotion, good writers, and ample time to develop an audience. If black talent was good enough to populate situation comedies, why was it not acceptable in starring dramatic roles? If African-American intelligence was profound enough to alter the relationship between youngsters and the medium, why was it not profoundly a part of primetime drama series? If blacks were inventively utilized in children's programming in the morning and afternoons, why in adult shows in the evening were they either stereotyped or successful only in subordinate roles? Whatever the answers, if African Americans desired TV which would consistently and fairly treat their interests, they would have to turn to those black-oriented entertainment and public service shows that were usually produced and distributed outside commercial network TV.