By Sheree R. Curry
Special to TelevisionWeek
TV One’s new program, “Quiet on the Set at Howard University,” is out to fill the void producers believe is left by Bravo’s “Inside the Actors Studio,” the cable stalwart that features one-on-one celebrity interviews in front of a student audience.
The Bravo show, entering its 12th season this fall in a new studio at Pace University in Manhattan, has featured interviews with 187 people-but it seems that perhaps less than a dozen of those have been black.
Bravo was unable to verify exactly how many African Americans have appeared on the show, but sources there said that host James Lipton reaches out to a number of people and sometimes they don’t accept, for a variety of reasons.
Only eight African Americans whose names are well known in mainstream America-including Morgan Freeman, Danny Glover and Spike Lee-are listed as past guests on “Inside the Actors Studio” at the show’s subsite on Bravo’s Web site. The list, however, is not up-to-date; some African American actors, such as Denzel Washington, have been profiled but are not on the list.
But other African Americans who have made considerable contributions to the film industry-Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier and Louis Gossett Jr., for instance-have not been profiled, so “Quiet on the Set” plans to conduct its own interviews with prominent and up-and-coming black entertainers.
Hosted, created and executive produced by Mary Major, the show’s Aug. 15 debut featured an interview with award-winning writer-actor-director John Singleton, director of “Boyz n the Hood,” the 2000 version of “Shaft” and this summer’s “Four Brothers.”
“I am a big fan of ‘[Inside] the Actors Studio,’ but when I was watching the 10th anniversary show, I noticed that there had only been about five African Americans on the show [and] Angela Bassett had never been asked to do the show,” Ms. Major said. “The playing field is not the same when it comes to people of color. [This is] across the board with all of the entertainment shows.”
“Quiet on the Set” is filmed in an intimate studio setting on the campus of Howard University, a historically black college in Washington that claims such alumni as Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen, Ossie Davis and Sean “Diddy” Combs. The show’s 30- to 40-person audience, which consists of students from across such disciplines as film, journalism, radio, TV production and acting, are seated on stools, chairs and overstuffed pillows. Just as with “Inside the Actors Studio,” students have the opportunity to ask guests questions during the 60-minute show. “What we found is when you have students from different disciplines, the questions are a lot different than when it is just film or TV students,” Ms. Major said.
“I thought [it best] to keep an intimate audience, instead of being in a big stadium, like they are doing public speaking. That way the person being interviewed can touch the student,” she said. “People can just be real. [Consider] John Singleton, who usually comes off very stoic. On our set John totally let his guard down. He smiled, he laughed. He was animated. He was funny and he told stories where people went ‘That’s John Singleton? John never does that in interviews.'”
For that first show (six shows have already been taped for this season), Mr. Singleton discussed his body of work, from his Academy Award-nominated first film, “Boyz n the Hood,” which he wrote and directed in 1991 as a young man just out of the University of Southern California film school, to his 2005 film, the Sundance Festival award-winning “Hustle & Flow,” which he produced and self-financed.
For the “Quiet on the Set” pilot, LeVar Burton described the road that led him on a quest to become a minister, to his role as Kunta Kinte in “Roots” and to becoming the actor-director-producer that he is today.
But the shows, new episodes of which will air once a month and then repeat several times within a month’s time, are not standard biographies, Ms. Major said. “We tried to do it more from a diverse point of view … and make it personable, not predictable. We also do a lot of research and try to dig up archival footage so they feel like ‘This is Your Life.'”
For the interview with Regina King that will air later this season, Ms. Major surprised the actress with footage of Ms. King performing in the 1980s. She also fielded calls from some former co-workers, including Sandra Bullock, who co-starred with Ms. King in “Miss Congeniality 2,” and Marla Gibbs, who gave Ms. King her start on the TV series “227” about two decades ago.
Ms. Major, a longtime celebrity interviewer who was a reporter on Robin Leach’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and a reporter, anchor and producer for “Screen Scene,” a BET newsmagazine show, interviewed Halle Berry, Lena Horne and Samuel L. Jackson for other shows.
At BET, “We did Angela Bassett’s first-ever interview. I remember she was so nervous,” Ms. Major said. Other firsts include Nia Long, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Blair Underwood. “These were stories important to our community and mainstream media doesn’t get it,” she said.
An interview with Mr. Underwood, who starred in the TV series “L.A. Law,” daytime drama “One Life to Live” and numerous other TV shows and movies, will also run on “Quiet on the Set.”
“I thoroughly enjoyed my ‘Quiet’ time on Mary Major’s set,” Mr. Underwood told TelevisionWeek via e-mail. “There are far too many talented individuals who have made enormous contributions in our field of entertainment that never receive their proper due in mainstream media. Thank you, Mary Major and Howard University, for not waiting on Hollywood and popular culture to ‘validate’ our many unsung heroes.”
The partnership with Howard University is very significant to the parties involved. “The best thing about us having the show is TV One having an association with Howard University,” said TV One President and CEO Johnathan Rodgers. “Many of our employees attended Howard and have a great affection for Howard, and it gives the students a chance to dialogue with these celebrities.”