When film actor Angela Bassett was considering a substantial role on NBC's long-running medical drama, ER, she particularly remembers one actor encouraging her to make the move: castmate Mekhi Phifer.
So imagine Bassett's surprise when she arrived for her first day of work as County General Hospital's new chief Dr. Catherine Banfield, only to see her colleagues in tears and black clothing, having just filmed the scene where Phifer's Dr. Pratt was cremated.
Laughing at the memory, Bassett, 50, acknowledged some might wonder why an Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning actor with roles in high-profile films such as What's Love Got to Do With It and Waiting to Exhale would join a TV series, especially one Hollywood considers a bit diminished heading into its 15th and final season.
But consider how stars such as Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter and Glenn Close have earned awards and headlines for TV work — and the continuing challenges for women of a certain age and ethnicity in today's film industry — and Bassett's move makes more sense.
"An actor wants to act — an actor has to act," said Bassett, who plays a tough doctor with a troubled past coming back to Chicago after working on tsunami relief in Indonesia.
"You get tired of waiting for the perfect movie role, and it doesn't really, I think, serve you well to do just anything that comes along because you want to work," she added. "ER is a great drama that has proven itself. And it's literally 15 minutes from my home."
Bassett even got husband Courtney Vance involved, playing her onscreen spouse in their first roles together. The pair join NBC's drama during a swan song season featuring appearances from past stars such as Anthony Edwards and Noah Wyle, amid a faint hope George Clooney might revisit County General later this year.
According to Bassett, producers considered casting Vance after meeting him at a brunch for the show's cast and crew hosted by longtime ER producer John Wells. Initially reluctant to horn in on his wife's role, Vance eventually fit in well enough to produce a little good-natured husband/wife rivalry.
"(At first) he said, 'That's your job' . . . you know, reverse psychology," she said, laughing. "So Courtney comes on the set, and he's a kidder. But when it's a serious scene and it's your husband, you're just like 'Stop kidding, stop kidding. Don't you see me trying to get a character?' "
Born in New York and raised by her mother, Betty Bassett, in St. Petersburg, Angela Bassett is one of the city's most famous exports. But she doesn't visit much; it has been three or four years since her last stop here.
A woman who answered the phone at the St. Petersburg address of the actor's mother, saying she was Betty Bassett, declined to speak about the star, saying "Angela and her mother have a broken relationship — that's all you can say."
But Bassett gave no hint of family tension during a wide-ranging interview, recalling a childhood in St. Petersburg spent taking swim lessons at Wildwood Community Center and walking from her home in Jordan Park to Boca Ciega High School, where she graduated in 1976.
A trip with the Upward Bound academic program to see a Shakespeare play at the Asolo Repertory Theater in Sarasota sparked her interest in acting. And friendships with a handful of other bay area theater kids, including director-to-be Kenny Leon (ABC's A Raisin in the Sun), fed her desire.
"Someone, somewhere mentioned the St. Pete Little Theatre, so I went over there and auditioned," she said. "I remember finding an album by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis reciting Langston Hughes poetry . . . I could do that at my church."
Still, childhood friend and former St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Maria Scruggs-Weston said she was surprised by Bassett's acting career, recalling her as smart but often shy during their time together in Upward Bound in the early '70s.
"I always envisioned her being a college professor or something," Scruggs-Weston said. "She's just always been brilliant."
ER producers used similar words in describing Bassett, who only asked initially that her character's name be changed from Bancroft — which she found difficult to say — to Banfield.
"I went back to the writers and said, 'Bassett's going to be difficult,' " said executive producer David Zabel, laughing. "The great thing about TV, is there's a dance that happens between the writers and the actor. When we create a character like Angela's character or Stanley Tucci's character or Forest Whitaker's character — sometimes that dance doesn't kick into full drive for a few episodes because we're getting to know each other."
Now just past filming her fifth or sixth episode, Bassett hasn't yet seen a completed show, trusting the producers and her own instincts to develop a performance that makes sense.
"I love doing films, because I love the intensity of it . . . but a one-hour TV drama is like a movie that never ends," Bassett said. "Last week, (Vance) and I were there until 3:30 in the morning. But I told them, 'Don't bring me on and don't use me.' And I got what I asked for."
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. See his blog, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.