Written by: Matt Hutaff · May 01, 2000
Cleavant Derricks is the kind of guy that can make you smile. A 30-year veteran of stage and film, Derricks’ personality is effused with an energy that perks you up just by being in his presence. When he smiles and invariably laughs, it doesn’t matter what the situation or how hard the heart, you’re instinctively laughing with him.
And why not? He’s seen five years of Sliders pass by in his career, and let’s face it, there are definitely moments in the show’s run that elicit laughter, either through genuine comedy or truly awful writing.
I caught up with Cleavant in April of 2000 at the Fallbrook Mall in West Hills, California, a thirty minute drive from Los Angeles. Aware of the fan base for the show and his character, washed-up R&B singer Rembrandt “Cryin’ Man” Brown, Derricks had recently published an album of music and was promoting it through personal appearances. I decided given the proximity, this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss and drove to meet up with him.
I’d never really spoken to a celebrity before so I made my way to his table apprehensively and introduced myself, bought a CD and got to see the Derricks charm up close. It was my good luck that I was able to spend close to four hours talking to him about his life, Sliders and his album, Beginnings.
Cleavant explained why, after all the location changes, dramatic firings, budget downsizings and cast turnaround, he stuck with the show until the very end — the fans. “When you have a fan base like the one Sliders enjoys,” he explained, “it’s an obligation to stick with that for the fans.” Since fan support brought the show back from cancellation not once, not twice, but three times, he returned that support even when it meant being the only original cast member.
A gallant effort, considering some of the episodes that made it on screen, particularly during the third season. Much of the third season was a waste of the premise, and Cleavant was upfront about some of the behind-the-scenes changes that took place during that time. The first, Rembrandt’s sudden naval experience, was particularly exasperating.
“Why add a whole new side to the character and then downplay it?” Cleavant asked. “It defeats the whole purpose.” Derricks had hoped that the producers would utilize Rembrandt for the role he fit into perfectly — the everyman that needs the explanation of the show’s sciences. The person people can relate to. Instead, his character was transformed into muscle and someone who can magically search for car bombs after a class on a USO tour.
Derricks was also shocked at some of the writing that was presented during the third season. Remember Slither and the snakes that were able to knock down a door? He sure did — recalling the readthrough brought out a solid minute of laughter.
Sitting there with the cast and the producers, the question of exactly how snakes could jump up onto a door and knock it over was brought up.
“Well,” one of the producers said, “there’s all these snakes together, and together they push the door down.”
“Right, but the door is vertical,” Derricks said. “Snakes are on the ground! How are snakes supposed to knock a door off its hinges?”
The explanation? The snakes had this powerful Force that allowed them to, as seen in the televised version, attach themselves to a door and knock it over with their weight.
Derricks regretted other scenes that came towards the end of the FOX run, most notably his discrimination speech with Quinn (Jerry O’Connell) in The Breeder and his fight with Quinn in The Exodus, part II (a fight where Rembrandt punches Quinn in a burst of anger), which Cleavant felt was the low-point of his character.
The most disappointing event for him, however, was the firing of John Rhys-Davies.
A little backstory to the uninitiated: John Rhys-Davies, who played Professor Maximillian Arturo on Sliders, was fired during the third season because of his contempt for the shoddy writing and a feud between him and then head of FOX Programming Peter Roth. Rhys-Davies had publically humiliated Roth’s wife at a network party and Roth and Executive Producer David Peckinpah conspired to have their tempermental star canned (despite a full season contract). They did this by killing off his character in the two-parter The Exodus.
Losing Rhys-Davies was a crushing blow to the morale of the cast. And ironically, he was the last person to think he was going to be the one that got canned.
In late fall of 1996, a rumor ran past Rhys-Davies’ agent that one of the cast members would be fired and replaced, probably with a new female lead. John felt it was Cleavant and approached him with the information. He confided in Derricks that he thought Rembrandt’s character would be the one to die, since the writers and producers didn’t know what to do with him. While Derricks fretted about it for a week John’s suspicions changed to Sabrina Lloyd, who played Wade Welles. The news broke Sabrina’s heart and she locked herself in the trailer holding up production until the producers came down and personally assured her that she would not be fired. John’s suspicions then immediately turned to Jerry O’Connell. According to the rumors, Jerry was going to be replaced by someone a bit higher on the totem pole celebrity-wise to draw a higher crowd. Quite a humbling rumor considering the events between the fourth and fifth season.
However, it was Arturo that would bite the bullet, no pun intended. And his firing was done with all the grace and subtlety befitting an actor of John’s stature — out in the open amidst cast and crew.
Filming had wrapped on third season’s Paradise Lost and the cast sat on the cliffs of Malibu as the cool night air blew in off the Pacific Coast. Spirits were high and the behind the scenes production staff mingled with the stars and shared in the excitement of another episode put to bed.
One of the producers of the show made his way to the bluffs, interrupting the festivities. “Hey, John,” he said, “you know the two-parter you wrote?” A quick pause. “Well, we’re gonna kill your character in it.”
As Derricks told the story, I could see the emotion, the shock, the outrage he and everyone felt as the news was delivered. It’s clearly not a pleasant memory to this day. The way the story was told, I felt like I was up there on the cliffs watching every instance of decorum and integrity vanish as office politics destroyed a show.
After John left the show and Kari Wuhrer came on board as Marine Maggie Beckett, Sabrina Lloyd approached Cleavant and expressed her desire to leave. “She was miserable,” Cleavant admitted — John’s firing deeply affected her, and to a lesser extent Derricks as well. Doubt began to sneak in. The chemistry, the family feeling the crew had experienced for two and a half seasons was gone, and Sabrina was feeling it worse than everyone else.
With Rhys-Davies was gone, Lloyd miserable and O’Connell heading to bigger things, Cleavant was unsure of what was going on. The spirit of the show was broken and they had a new Slider that wasn’t exactly comfortable with her surroundings.
“I’m not having fun any more,” Lloyd admitted towards the end of third season production. It didn’t surprise Derricks when she didn’t come back for the fourth season. Why did she did come back to do the Wade voiceover in Requiem? As a favor to Cleavant, who insisted to production that if they were going to go ahead with the storyline that they hire the woman who originated it. Production was more than happy to use any woman’s voice — Derricks’ insistence is the reason Sabrina returned in that capacity. Dissatisfied with Requiem, he also preferred the original Wade storyline proposed in Keith Damron’s Year Five Journal to the one eventually shot.
Cleavant is quick to point out, however, that he genuinely enjoyed his entire run on Sliders. While he appreciated the location shooting that Vancouver, British Columbia allowed, he loved the production’s move to Los Angeles since it allowed him to spend more time with his wife Portia (who was also at the autograph session) and their children.
As for cast changes, Derricks sympathized with fans who were outraged by Rhys-Davies’ removal and his replacement, military officer Maggie Beckett (Kari Wuhrer). While the blame for Beckett’s early poor characterization comes from the writers, Derricks was very enthusiastic about how Wuhrer was able to grow Maggie into a more likable and three-dimensional character during the show’s run on the Sci-Fi Channel, and praised the efforts of the writing staff during that time to return Sliders to its roots.
Cleavant also spoke briefly about Charlie O’Connell, and how much fun it was to work with the O’Connell brothers. According to Derricks, Charlie is a sweet guy and a total gentleman and he is glad he got to work with the young actor while he was whetting his acting whistle. As for fifth season cast mates Robert Floyd and Tembi Locke, he had nothing but good things to say.
Derricks was very grateful to the Sci-Fi Channel for renewing Sliders after FOX cancelled it in 1997. Most Internet savvy fans know that Sci-Fi bought Sliders to attract viewers to its other shows and that it wasn’t planning on even a fifth season. Yet, even after the network gave up on the show, season five outperformed Sci-Fi’s expectations by matching Farscape in the ratings, proving that Sliders truly is a cult favorite.
One thing that came up often by fans walking in and requesting autographs was why season five ended with the cliffhanger seen in The Seer. It was hard not to — most of the props brought by Derricks were some of the faux paintings the titular Seer painted during the episode (the other prop being a parking placard with the show’s logo and three Sliders leaping from it made when it was uncertain how many people would star in the fourth season).
Derricks insisted that he pressed, and pressed hard to end the season on a cliffhanger. “That way, Sliders never really ends,” he admits. Executive Producer Bill Dial also pushed for the ending over Keith Damron’s budget-busting “Battle for Earth Prime” storyline, and the result is what we saw on screen. If you watch closely, in the episode Rembrandt takes the damaged timer and tucks it in his jacket pocket (“You can always fix the timer!” he muses). He felt that finishing the season with a definitive ending was a disservice to fans who wanted the show to continue, even if the powers-that-be were fairly certain there was going to be no season six pick-up.
How would Derricks wrap up The Seer? How would he pay off the cliffhanger? “With Sliders, you can do anything you want,” he said. He posited a few suggestions, including a fan favorite that reunited Rembrandt with Professor Arturo in a season six opener. He stated matter-of-factly that the wrong Arturo slid (an assertion backed up with on-screen evidence and sly clues during interviews with series creator Tracy Tormé) and that that could be exploited for more on-screen adventures.
Derricks himself is one of those genuine personalities, a rare find in Hollywood today. He and his wife Portia were more than happy to talk about what was going on in their lives and even fed me while we sat and talked. His album, Beginnings, which had just come out when the interview took place, was the thing he was most excited to talk about. Consisting of nine tracks (none of them from the show, unfortunately), Beginnings is a classic example of R&B with a little pop groove thrown into the mix. And one of the tracks, “Remmy’s Slide,” is there for fans of Sliders. The producer of the album, Aaron Jones, even turns in an impromptu Quinn performance when he asks where the timer is (Cleavant was doing the line himself but didn’t like the sound, and with studio fees compounding by the hour, found that Jones was a good enough match for Jerry O’Connell’s voice on the final take).
Derricks was very excited about finally being able to pursue a musical album and plans to release another soon, possibly with a remix of “Remmy’s Slide” that includes a grunge electric guitar in the background accentuating the tune. And don’t worry, “Angel” from fourth season’s Asylum will be on it. It would have made it to Beginnings, but studio time costs money.
With Derricks having toured with the stage production of The Full Monty in 2002, it’s a safe bet that a new studio album will reach fans soon.
If you ever get a chance to meet up with Cleavant Derricks at a convention or at one of his appearances, be prepared to enjoy the time spent. Between him and Portia, I can definitely see why he brings such a positive energy to any production he’s a part of. He’s an amazing individual, and his role on Sliders is one fans will cherish for years to come.
Thanks for everything, Cleavant.
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