Why do so few black or brown actors snag lead network TV roles?

Six times.

That's how often Boris Kodjoe was asked to audition for the lead in NBC's spy adventure Undercovers before he agreed to go for it. His explanation for dodging producers' requests? He'd thought for sure the network would never hire a black man to star in one of its most important new series this fall.

Now that NBC has decided to make just 13 episodes, effectively canceling it amid critical carping and lackluster ratings, a new question arises:

Will anyone hire another black or brown person to star in a new, important network TV show?

Since the days of Bill Cosby's supersuccessful Cosby Show, advocates of TV diversity have yearned to find the next minority-led show to find wide acceptance on network TV — influencing the possibilities everyone sees for people of color in America and in Hollywood.

But with the cancellations of Undercovers and Jimmy Smits' drama Outlaw, network TV prime time has once again become a world where people of color are mostly sidekicks, best friends, work pals or members of large ensemble casts, with starring roles for nonwhite people reserved for niche cable channels such as TV One and TBS. (The CW's Nikita now is the only scripted network show starring a person of color who isn't in an ensemble, former Hong Kong film star Maggie Q.)

The questions left hanging outline issues most every person of color faces while struggling to advance in this white-dominated industry:

Why do network TV shows led solely by actors of color keep failing? How much of this situation is really about race?

And what's the impact on viewers when people of color are mostly supporting characters, whatever the reason?

"Knowing Hollywood as I do, having made it all the way to camera tests (for other parts) and then being told they went a different way — which meant a white actor — I was convinced this would be the same situation," Kodjoe said this summer, describing why he avoided requests to audition for Undercovers last year while filming the movie Resident Evil: Afterlife.

Eventually, a personal call from the casting agent persuaded him to try out. After snagging the role, Kodjoe would learn that co-creator J.J. Abrams (Lost, 2009's Star Trek) was specifically hoping to cast nonwhite actors as leads for the series about married, retired CIA agents who secretly get back into the spy game — in part, because Abrams remembered attending the Emmy awards recently and not seeing a single person of color.

"It shows you how jaded I was by the traditional behaviors of Hollywood," said Kodjoe, a native of Austria who learned to speak English by watching American TV (if you want to start an argument, compare him to heavily accented ex-action star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who he says dismissively "could never play a Philadelphia lawyer" as he has). "I was blinded by those limitations that had been put on me."

The weight of diversity issues can be intimidating for actors of color, no matter how long they've been around. Blair Underwood, now co-starring in a series that NBC picked up for a full season, The Event, nearly quit acting last year when he spent 2009 out of work.

In 2008, he had been one of the busiest actors in Hollywood, juggling suave, complicated roles on ABC's Dirty Sexy Money, HBO's In Treatment and CBS's The New Adventures of Old Christine. But 2009 was a different story: "At least four times, there would be conversations about a role, and they'd tell me, 'We want to go more character-y,' " said Underwood. "And every time I looked at the actors in the (final) cast, there was somebody overweight and comedic in type."

His fear: that Hollywood cooled on the character type he plays best — a clean-cut, articulate, accomplished black man. And because folks in Hollywood almost never talk about such issues, Underwood was stuck wondering how, at a time when Barack Obama was completing his first year in the White House, he couldn't land a role playing a character just like him.

"There was a time, for about two days, when I literally thought, 'I'm not sure I want to do this anymore,' " he said. "And then something incredible came along: The Event."

This time, Underwood was playing an Afro-Cuban president with a Hispanic wife and child. Producers had found a new way to spin his old image, freshening his character type while changing his ethnicity.

TV can be brutal: Just two months into the new season, five shows already have been canceled. So producers are always careful with any element that could make audience acceptance difficult.

And in a TV season where the most successful new shows with ethnically diverse casts are ensembles — CBS's Hawaii Five-O, NBC's The Event and Outsourced — the lesson for future casting decisions seems plain.

"I never got a sense of any prejudice in Hollywood other than success and failure," said producer Don Reo. His black-centered sitcom Brothers died a painful death on Fox last year, he says, because the network watered it down with too many conflicting ideas for improving it.

"There was a big emergence of black shows after the success of The Cosby Show, then they got marginalized and ghettoized and they sort of disappeared," added Reo, who now serves as a consulting producer on CBS's hit show Two and a Half Men. "If there's another breakout show featuring a black cast, we'll see more shows."

But I fear that audiences and TV executives aren't fully facing why some shows have failed. If lead actors of color make white audiences less likely to bond with an already troubled show, you get a TV landscape where William Shatner's awful sitcom $#*! My Dad Says somehow flourishes while other series do not.

One good sign: Critics and industry experts seem to recognize that Undercovers suffered from a lot of problems, from trying to compete with CBS's popular Survivor on Wednesday nights to an unknown cast, lackluster scripts and an awkward premise. Smits' Outlaw had similar problems, prompting an Entertainment Weekly story that asked why TV can't find a good series for this well-liked, accomplished actor.

Network TV is growing more ethnically diverse, with actors such as Terrence Howard, Grace Park, Archie Punjabi and LL Cool J filling important roles on shows like Law & Order: Los Angeles, Hawaii Five-O, The Good Wife and NCIS: Los Angeles.

And there are two shows coming to CBS in 2011 that may take another stab at breaking TV's ephemeral color line: a spinoff of Criminal Minds starring Forest Whitaker, and a drama about rogue CIA agents called Chaos featuring Freddy Rodriguez.

It is hard to imagine, in a world where Denzel Washington, Will Smith and Tyler Perry rule the movies, that network television can't find similar room for stars of color on the small screen.

At a time when the country's population is more diverse than ever, we've all got to do better — TV makers and watchers alike.

Compared to electing a black president, finding the next great TV star of color should be a breeze.

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See the Feed blog at tampabay.com/blogs/media.

Why do so few black or brown actors snag lead network TV roles? 11/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 13, 2010 3:31am]

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