Today is the birthday of the great actor Charles S. Dutton, born 1951.
I was a huge fan of his sitcom Roc, which ran on Fox from 1991 to 1994. Dutton played the titular garbageman, whose name was based on the actor’s own nickname from his younger days as an amateur boxer in his native Baltimore. Ella Joyce played his beautiful, common-sensical wife Eleanor, a nurse. Carl Gordon played his father, a retired Pullman Porter and veteran of Civil Rights struggles. Rocky Carroll was Roc’s layabout younger brother Joey, an out of work musician.
At the time, the show struck me as a modern classic, a kind of African American Honeymooners. Roc seemed like a combination Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, a rough-hewn working man with a big heart, suffering a string of disappointments…balanced out with laugh-out-loud garbageman jokes. He was always blowing things out of proportion. But his wife Eleanor always stayed grounded and brought him back to earth, and he valued that. I found the writing, acting and direction on the show to be consistently excellent. The cast performed with such assurance and authority and skill. I could recognize that even without knowing much about what was in back of it at the time. Knowing the full story makes me appreciate it even more.
All four of the cast were hardcore theatre veterans, and all had done August Wilson plays (and they’d all worked together in various combinations in the various productions). A light dawns, right? This is indeed the sitcom you’d get if you adapted the Wilson formula to something lighter. That younger brother Joey in particular strikes me as the Wilson touch — Wilson has a character like that in almost every one of his plays. The show was officially created by Stan Daniels, a Jewish writer whose parents had been in vaudeville, and whose previous credits had included Mary Tyler Moore and Taxi. Having him devise the show (with executive producers Joe Fisch and Vic Kaplan) was not unlike the creative team behind Sanford and Son (Bud Yorkin, Norman Lear, Aaron Ruben, Bernie Orenstein and Saul Turteltaub). Was it exploitative? I can’t believe Wilson didn’t think so! They basically stole his jam!
But at least it seemed like the cast had a voice in the direction and tone of the show, and the African American perspective seemed to be respected. The show often had dramatic moments and brought up serious concerns. The characters weren’t fools. The actors had gravitas. Gordon had been in the Negro Ensemble Company, Carrol had done Shakespeare with Joe Papp, and Dutton had the rarest resume of all — a masters in drama from Yale, combined with a seven year stint in the penitentiary for (involuntary) manslaughter (which is where he first became interested in drama). All three had been in the 1990 Broadway production of Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. Dutton had also been in the original Broadway production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And Joyce had been in Fences at the National Black Theatre Festival.
So this was some heavy talent doing critically acclaimed work. And you know what that means. That’s right, low ratings. It polled high with African American viewers of course. But this wasn’t a show “just for blacks”. It was a show about people. If you look at a show about some other human beings and don’t recognize that it’s also about you and for you, you’ve got a problem. And in this country (and in this world) we have a problem. So Roc only ran for three seasons, which is better than some, but not all that it deserved. Of course I haven’t watched it in a quarter century, so I’ve got to wonder if it’s as good as I remember. But given all that I’ve said I have to think I’d like it even more.