Profile – Mills: Economic Reality Limits Black Opportunity

Feb 23, 2004  •  Post A Comment

CBS had a one-hour pilot script called “The Mayor of Baltimore” a couple of years ago that executives were ready to greenlight if they could find the right star. For weeks, they tossed around ideas with the story’s creator, Emmy-winning writer-producer David Mills. Alec Baldwin, Treat Williams, Tom Berenger-all were either unavailable or not quite right.
At one point, an executive made a bold suggestion to Mr. Mills: What about Ving Rhames? Mr. Mills, who is African American, jumped at the chance to sign a strong black actor for the lead role.
The next day the same executive came back and apologized. “He said, `Forget I brought it up,”’ Mr. Mills said. “`This show will never sell internationally with a black star in the lead.”’
Mr. Mills said he views the story not as an example of racial prejudice in the industry but as a sad commentary on how the economics of the business results in wasted black talent. “I don’t say it’s racist. It’s reality. If only 11 percent or 13 percent of the mainstream audience is black, it doesn’t make sense to target those viewers. Thank God there is an HBO and a Showtime [where black viewership is somewhat higher],” he said.
Mr. Mills has reason to be thankful. His miniseries depicting Baltimore’s largely black inner city, “The Corner,” won Emmys when it aired on HBO in 2000. But Mr. Mills, 42, has been equally successful in writing and producing a raft of critically acclaimed shows with predominantly nonblack casts-“Picket Fences,” “ER,” “NYPD Blue” and “Kingpin,” a limited series about Latin American drug trafficking that he created for NBC last year. He’s currently developing with Jerry Bruckheimer Productions and Warner Bros. a show for NBC starring Jimmy Smits as a Los Angeles private investigator to the stars.
“I see great opportunities to tell stories involving black characters, because that’s just part of L.A.,” he said of the new show. Mr. Mills said he welcomes that chance, especially in light of network reluctance to cast black stars in dramatic series. “I’m hamstrung,” he said. “Hey, if they were willing to make a show with an all-black cast, or even a black lead, I’d be all over it.”