Lifting the Image of Black Life
Tim Reid, producer and star of `Snoops,' wants TV to include an upper-middle-class view of minorities. TELEVISION: INTERVIEW
FAKE rain trickles down the window pane from a hidden hose. Phony lightning flickers from a louvered klieg light. Tim and Daphne Maxwell Reid stand at attention amid Persian carpets, walnut walls, and chandeliers. On cue, they march into the the next room, where a flood of lights, sound booms, and cameras are waiting. ``It seems there's been a murder,'' says Mr. Reid to a room full of bit actors playing fellow conferees at a seminar. Now they're all stuck at a sequestered resort hotel.
Minutes later, with his feet up in his air-conditioned, on-set mobile home, Reid explains why he is fighting murderous odds for his own life on TV. A veteran actor, he is now spending 16 to 18 hours a day, including weekends, as executive producer and star of the first hour-long black drama to air on TV in 15 years.
```Snoops' [CBS, Fridays, 8-9 p.m.] is an attempt to return the one-hour format to a lighter, more entertaining family drama without all of the heavy cocaine stories, the terrorism and violence that has taken over,'' he says. It is meant to be charming and sophisticated, to return romance to kinder, gentler nonsexual - modes. And it will provide an upper-middle-class view of blacks and other minorities, which reflects a slice of the world Reid knows but until now hasn't been reflected in television.
``I want to portray a positive, new image of upper-middle-class black America,'' he says, ``one in which the dominant image ... is not of someone depressed, defeated, and miserable.''
Citing the characters he held in high esteem in the films of Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, and David Niven, Reid says he would like to portray similar characters, which can serve as models so black children can ``sit up and dream.
``I grew up poor,'' he continues, ``but I have one friend running for governor of Virginia; another is the daughter of one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Another is the black is Minority Whip in Congress. Another friend of mine owns the sixth largest business in Virginia. It is time for TV to reflect these things.''
Aware that ``The Cosby Show'' has been the standard-bearer for such images in half-hour comedy, Reid says a full-hour drama was the next step.
For ``Snoops,'' all this means, among other things, that blacks, women, and Hispanics will be seen as judges, prosecutors, generals, diplomats. They will also appear in gowns and tuxedos and be seen in such pursuits as croquet, polo, fox hunting, lawn bowling.
``I have an episode in which I am in the Potomac sculling, and after 90 minutes of filming they still didn't have a decent shot. So the man said, `Tim, come out of the water,' and I said, `No, some young black kid is going to look at this and say, ``I never thought black people could do that.''' And who knows: Ten years from now he may be the sculling champion of the world!''
If Reid sounds like a man with a mission, it is because he is. In a town he calls ``more subtly racist than any he has known,'' his vision is to reduce what he calls ``the 500-pound gorilla known as racism'' to the size of a small chimpanzee by seeing through its fa,cade, based in fear. In a town where barely two percent of Writers Guild of America members are black and 93 percent of television's producers are white, he has come a long way already.
A veteran of 20 years in television - well-known in such series as ``WKRP, Cincinnati'' ``Simon and Simon,'' and ``Frank's Place'' - he has set the goal of becoming a major producing force in a medium he sees as woefully unrepresentative of the world it should reflect.
A frustrated purveyor of such other projects as ``Brothers'' - a drama about 12 Chicago blacks reminiscing about the civil-rights era, which he says has been rejected both by networks and pay TV - Reid has been building credibility with his own company, known as Timalove Productions. Future objectives: more TV serials, TV movies, TV features.
In addition to his acclaimed portrayals of Venus Flytrap (``WKRP''), Downtown Brown (``Simon and Simon''), and Frank (``Frank's Place''), Reid sees the next step in that direction as getting ``Snoops'' renewed for a second season. And part of creating a believable, integrated image for his series involves integrating the world of those who create the show.
So, as he did with last season's ``Frank's Place,'' he has scoured the television world for the best minority directors, camera operators, set designers, production managers - even accountants - which now add up to 50 percent of his production crew. That doesn't mean just picking someone because he or she represents a minority, but spending the time to find out which minority performers are best. Reid has used the best he's known from two decades in the business.
``The more opportunities that people of color get in prime time, the more it improves the situation for everyone,'' he says. ``It proves to the networks that blacks can produce quality programming. ... As long as we keep getting up there to bat, one of us is going to knock it out of the park - and at least we're in the game.''
So far, ``Snoops'' has received disappointing reviews. Critics have liked the premise for the show, and the two amiable, upbeat leads. But they say that, at least in the pilot, the writing wasn't snappy enough. Reid promises better writing to come. In a series dependent on the subtleties of a married couple interacting through work and home life, Reid says the development of that relationship takes time.
``I want the important messages to be not just those of the plotline, but how people relate to one another,'' he says. ``It will show a sort of quirky, charming, lovable couple who always get in over their heads.''
The longest-running hour-long black TV drama so far has been ``Get Christy Love,'' starring Teresa Graves. It aired on ABC for 10 months in 1974-75. A black drama is considered to be a series that has only black leads, as opposed to shows such as ``I Spy'' and ``Miami Vice,'' which featured one white and one black lead each.
Whether or not ``Snoops'' is the series that bucks those negative odds, one gets the feeling in a 90-minute interview that Reid will continue trying until he finds a formula that works. Growing up poor in a broken home in Norfolk, Va., Reid says he was a ``very angry, militant young man'' until he heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak at dawn on the Washington Mall in August, 1963.
``When I left there, my life had changed,'' he says. ``It was not just the speech but the coming together of a quarter million others who felt the same kinds of shackles I did. The energy of that coming together has never left me.''
``Regardless of the obstacles they try to throw against me in this town,'' he adds, ``it's nothing compared to what I saw as a child, when people in hoods and sheets stood in my way wanting to kill me. It's nothing but fear and weakness that you can work around if you are strong enough.''
Since growing up, Reid says he has returned to the South to see integration he never dreamed of achieved by those who got doors to open by those ``opening up to see who ... is standing there and how did they get in.
``I'm here to prove [racism] isn't as big an obstacle as it's cracked up to be.''