JAMES EARL JONES AND JOE MORTON BUILD A NEW MODEL FOR THE TV FAMILY IN UNDER ONE ROOF

By EW Staff
Updated March 24, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Under One Roof

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Picture The Waltons updated to the ’90s: an extended family, a big front porch, a wise grandfather, adolescent angst. But for the Langstons, the central characters in CBS’ new Tuesday-night drama Under One Roof, there’s one important difference: They’re black. On a February day on the Seattle set, the Langstons are facing the typical problems of a typical middle-class TV household: Husband Ron feels ”like a loser” because his mother-in-law just gave wife Maggie a cashmere coat, 10- year-old son Derrick still won’t eat his oatmeal, and recently widowed grandfather Neb is feeling nervous about dating again. But the question on the actors’ minds is: Will audiences embrace the Langstons the way they did the Waltons? So far, critics (including EW’s) have been lavish in their praise of the show, created by Emmy-winning director-producer Thomas Carter (Equal Justice) and starring an outstanding cast of TV veterans, led by James Earl Jones, Joe Morton (TV’s Equal Justice and films like The Walking Dead and Speed), and Vanessa Bell Calloway (What’s Love Got to Do With It). Promising signs, but when CBS announces renewals for its fall schedule this May, will Roof have been blown off? Not if Carter has his way. The key, he says, will be to market the series to a broad audience. ”The show doesn’t trade on the color of its characters,” he says. ”It trades on their American-ness. If you’re a modern American family, you will find something in the show that speaks to you.” That might be meddling mothers-in-law, show-off siblings, working parents who can’t steal even a moment to be alone, and kids who crave-and then rebuff-their parents’ attention. ”This family has problems, but they’re the kinds of problems that we all go through,” Morton says. ”This is an opportunity for a black family to be the universal.” At the head of that family is James Earl Jones, the reluctant patriarch who lives downstairs in the set’s two-family house with a troubled teenage foster son (Merlin Santana) and an unmarried daughter (Monique L. Ridge) who has just discovered Afrocentricity and wants to be called Ayisha. Jones says of his character: ”Usually someone who’s 60 is retired, but when you say that, most people think, ‘Well, there’s nothing going on, right?’ Well, Neb’s a cop and he’s not ready to retire. He’s a stubborn man-and not necessarily a good parent, by the way.” Upstairs live Neb’s son Ron (Morton), an ex-Marine who just opened his own hardware store, and wife Maggie (Calloway), who is ready to reenter the workforce after a long break to raise Derrick (Ronald Joshua Scott) and 15- year-old daughter Charlie (Essence Atkins). Calloway, a wife and mother of two in real life, says the part is a natural for her. ”I’m trying to make her as real as I can,” she says. ”In a couple of scenes, you see rollers in my hair. I’m a black woman-I roll my hair for real. We don’t just brush our hair and go to bed.” That kind of reality-and a more diversified demographic-was what CBS was looking for when it approached Carter about doing a new series. ”CBS is known for having a Town & Country audience,” he says. ”They don’t have many black people watching because they don’t have the shows to pull them in. From a business standpoint, they need a show like this.” But historically, audiences have only responded to black families in sitcoms-The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Black family shows that dared to be serious-like Fox’s biting South Central and HBO’s Laurel Avenue-were critically well received but not widely watched. Could this be the drama that finally breaks out? Calloway, though hoping for a hit, is hedging her bets. ”I’m not here to save the world,” she says. ”I’m here to do my job. If we take this beat by beat, moment by moment, and if the warm, gushy feelings are with us, hopefully they’ll pass through the TV tubes into everyone’s living rooms. And if they don’t then screw ’em.”

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Under One Roof

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