Copyright 1999 Times Mirror Company

Los Angeles Times

November 20, 1999, Saturday, Home Edition

 

SECTION: Calendar; Part F; Page 1; Entertainment Desk

HEADLINE: APPLYING THE FIRST LIGHT COAT;

 

TELEVISION * THE DEARTH OF MINORITY FACES ON THE AIR BEGINS AT THE WRITING AND

CASTING PHASE, WHERE CHARACTERS ARE USUALLY ASSUMED TO BE WHITE.

 

BYLINE: DANA CALVO, TIMES STAFF WRITER



BODY:

   As she has every weekday morning for the last 20 years, Miriam Baum walked out the front door of her Beverly Hills home, picked up a packet known as the Breakdowns and read the audition listings with an eagle's eye.

 

   The Breakdowns began in 1971, when an industrious UCLA student named Gary Marsh realized that he could make money by doing legwork for talent agents. He riffled through the pages of scripts at studio lots, jotted down character summaries and then delivered his notes to a handful of folks in Los Angeles.

 

   Today, he has a small staff of writers who work with casting directors to produce listings that are delivered, downloaded or faxed to about 1,000 subscribers--agents and managers like Baum--in L.A., New York and Vancouver.

 

   Baum represents minority television actors exclusively, primarily Latinos. It's a curious career choice, considering that most professionally trained Latino actors are still cast in bit parts. Breakdowns are the entry point for most actors, but for Baum's actors, they are also one of the first barriers to multiethnic casts on television because they clearly articulate Hollywood's dependence on racial stereotypes. Those listings also provide a chilling look at how Hollywood--intentionally or not--perpetuates such stereotypes.

 

   "King Leopold's Mistress: 18 years old. Caucasian, female. Very young, very hot. Seductive and silly at the same time. Every man's fantasy. Mistress to King Leopold during the 1950s in the Congo."

 

   Casting directors and agents agree that each character in the Breakdowns is assumed to be white, but sometimes--as in the case of Leopold's babe—casting directors get emphatic by adding "Caucasian."

 

   Far fewer listings are open to actors of "all ethnicities." Black, Asian and Latino characters have their own listings:

 

   "Agent Shaw: A Latin male in his late 30s to early 40s, he's dressed head to toe in black. A counterintelligence specialist for the Corps. Shaw is one tough customer who really digs the macho trappings of his profession. . . ."

 

   But, in most cases, Baum--who has represented and managed ethnic actors for 20 years--said Latinos must over-prepare for auditions so they can make the casting director "forget" a character was written with a white actor in mind. Baum and her colleagues say the best and most established casting directors are open-minded to changes in a character's race.

 

   But, they said, many casting directors feel committed to the race agreed upon by the writers and studio executives, almost all of whom are white.

   *   As noted in a recent Screen Actors Guild study, Latinos inside and outside of the industry want television to accurately reflect their presence in the United States. Making up 42% of the population in Los Angeles County and 11% of the entire nation, Latinos seldom appear in TV land, even in ancillary roles. The SAG study found that Latinos were the most underrepresented minority in film and television, garnering only 3.5% of the available roles.

 

   That might be a reflection, as well, of their numbers in SAG: As of June, only 4.4% of its 113,000 members are Latino. (8.5% are black and 2.4% are of Asian descent, and SAG notes that roughly 15% did not indicate ethnicity.)

 

   Those numbers are crystallized in the Breakdowns' meager mentions of ethnic characters. Of the more than 160 listings in the Nov. 9 edition, 12 called for black performers, five called for Latinos and four asked for Asian actors.

 

   "I send my actors to everything. Everything," Baum said, shaking her head. "In the early '80s the only roles for Latinos were attendants and screaming mothers. I would say to the casting director, 'She doesn't have to be a doctor, but don't make her an attendant. How about a nurse?' "

 

   But network executives argue that audiences have an ever-expanding array of choices, from UPN to the WB network to cable and DirectTV. In an effort to decrease their risk, networks tend to be cautious, which often means going with what's comfortable, managers and talent agents say.

 

   That proved painfully true for minorities in the last year as the four major broadcast networks unveiled 26 new shows, none of which had an actor of color in the lead. After an outcry among advocacy groups and extensive reporting in the media, studio executives whipped up some last-minute roles for artists of color, but neither the major networks nor casting directors have made moves to modify

their casting processes.

 

   "We're not the problem," said Mary V. Buck, president of the Casting Society

of America. "People just got locked into using Anglo actors. The studios are not

developing shows for minority communities."

 

   A poorly organized boycott by minority activists brought some attention to the problem, but it also highlighted the indifference Hollywood has to dealing with ethnic programming.

 

   Talent agent Diane Perez of Mitchell K. Stubbs and Associates said the 11th-hour casting gave rise to a few Latinas in assistant district attorneys and policewomen roles. "I guess we're getting up there. We're no longer the criminals; now we're the cops," Perez said.

 

   A few casting directors are beginning to actively look for Latino actors. Ivan De Paz of Evil Twin Entertainment, whose client Laura Ceron has had a small role on the NBC drama "ER" for four years, fielded several calls from casting directors who wanted an overview of the Latino landscape.

 

   They were positive conversations, De Paz said, but he is convinced that lack of knowledge, not racism, has stalled Hollywood. 

 

   "One casting director called and asked, 'Do they speak Latin or Mexican?' "

 

   Some agents and actors are encouraged by the pressure on studio executives and hope that it produces tangible results--including more entries in the Breakdowns that are open to "all ethnicities."

 

   Ceron, who plays Nurse Marquez on "ER," knows she is lucky to have had sporadic work on the hit show for four years. Like most actors, she has no idea what lies ahead.

 

   "If someone would give me the opportunity to audition for a role written for a Caucasian, I just know I would bring a different angle," she said. "I know there are not a lot of roles for Latinos, but I try not to focus on that."

 

   *   The problem originates at the top of Hollywood's structure, according to John

Caldwell, chairman of the Film and Television department at UCLA's School of

Theatre, Film and Television. Until there are more executives of color in the conference rooms, there will not be more roles available to artists of color, he said.

 

   "That's the dirty little secret. It's all networking. What's it going to take for you to be invited to play golf?"

 

   The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, supported by some Latino activist groups, has talked about a new, stronger boycott of network programming, but it has not provoked a response from the networks. . On Nov. 10, the NAACP sent the network heads a timetable and list of demands to diversify their programming and executive ranks.

 

   Meanwhile, the small screen still looks very white. And at dawn on Monday, Breakdowns, holding little opportunity for ethnic actors, will land on the front porches of hundreds of talent agents.

 

   "There is a trend to try and use minorities," said Peter Weiss, executive vice president of Marsh's Breakdown Services, though it hasn't resulted in more listings, rather it's the feeling that at least some casting directors are becoming more aware of minority talent.

                                                                         

 

SAG Report Cites Rise In Black Acting Roles Despite Overall Downturn For

Minorities.(Screen Actors Guild)(Brief Article) Jet v99, n5 (Jan 15, 2001):62.

                  

COPYRIGHT 2001 Johnson Publishing Co.

 

  A report by the Screen Actors Guild revealed that Black actors increased their number of acting roles in 1999 while the numbers for all minorities went down.

 

  The report stated that 14.1% of the roles available to actors went to Black performers in 1999, compared to 13.4% in 1998. Latinos increased their percentage over the same period from 3.5% to 4.4%.

 

  Roles going to Native Americans and Asian Pacific Americans remained stagnant for the same period.

 

  The report pointed out that women make up the majority of the population in America. However, men received 62% of all acting roles in 1999.

 

  Dr. Patricia Heisser Metoyer, executive administrator for affirmative action for the guild, said: "Simply put, the changing face of American society is not being reflected back to the American public by its media. These recent casting data statistics support the claim that most non-Caucasian performers are underrepresented in the media compared to their percentages in the American population."

 

  Actor William Daniels ("St. Elsewhere"), president of SAG, said: "We hope to convince industry insiders that diversity can improve their bottom line."