by Kyle Counts
It’s ironic that Cleavant Derricks plays a character named “The Crying Man” (a.k.a. Rembrandt Brown) on Fox’s SF-adventure series Sliders. This is a man who seems to have a smile and a kind word for almost everyone who crosses his path. Sliders co-creator/executive producer Tracy Tormé appears to be speaking for the entire cast and crew when he says, “Cleavant is a happy guy who brings an incredibly positive energy to the set. In the course of a long season, it’s great to have a guy like that around.”
Is Derricks really so happy-go-lucky? If so, what’s his secret? Chuckles the actor, “I have to confess, I am a happy guy. My secret is a strong family foundation and a belief in God, which is the way I was brought up. I have a family, a job that allows me to put food on the table and a roof over our heads, and that lets me give my kids some of the benefits that I never enjoyed as a youngster. Here I am in an arena where I get paid to study a few lines at night, get up the next morning, put on a costume and stand in front of a camera so that people [watching the show] can get a little enjoyment. What right do I have to gripe about anything? I ought to be rejoicing every single day.”
In a profession known for self-obsession and out-of-control egos, such determined positivity is a refreshing surprise — especially when it comes from a man who, in his lean days as an actor, used to pinch half-eaten bagels from Bagel Nosh trashcans and refinish discarded furniture in order to survive.
That is not to say that Derricks’ life has been a constant struggle. He speaks of his childhood days with a wistfulness that extends beyond more nostalgia. He was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, but lived there only a few years before the family relocated to Jackson, Tennessee. “My father was a Baptist minister and we traveled a lot. Three years later, we moved to Beloit, Wisconsin, where I spent some of the best growing up years a child could have. I played in the fields and swam in fresh-water creeks. You could catch fish with your bare hands. Kids nowadays aren’t really able to have that kind of freedom.”
His next stop was Washington, D.C., where he attended Federal City College studying vocals. “I’ve always been a singer,” he says. “I was born a singer. I started in my father’s church. My senior instructor and vocal coach, William H. Moore, wanted me to be an opera singer. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but it was not opera.”
Because of his musical upbringing — his mother was an accomplished pianist and his father composed songs that became classics in the Baptist Bible belt — Derricks left New York an headed to Nashville, Where he wrote “Southern gospel music — Dale Evans recorded one of my songs. I had a talent for it, but I wanted to write about more than just Jesus, God and being right. I wanted to write about love, relationships and political issues. I was still missing my niche.”
Derricks was considering taking a job as a Lays potato chip delivery man when he received a phone call that would alter his life. “My brother called me — I have a twin brother who started to become an actor in New York before I did. He called me in Nashville [in 1978] and invited me to come to New York because he thought acting might be my cup of tea as well. So, I took a bus to New York. As soon as I got out at 42nd Street and looked up at the skyscrapers, I knew this was home. I started studying acting in Vinette Carroll’s workshop with my brother. I studied there for about six years. I’m telling you, if you can deal with Vinette Carroll for six years, you an handle anything in this business. The woman was gifted and brilliant, but at the same time demanding beyond belief. Beyond belief. You can underline that. Between her and New York City, I knew nothing could phase me.”
He considered forsaking acting, but again, his brother intervened by phoning to tell him about a role in the 1980 revival of Hair that he thought Derricks was perfect for — a part he himself might have played had he not just been cast in Your Arm’s Too Short to Box with God. Derricks auditioned and landed his first big break — and first Broadway show.
His next musical was an African-American version of Alice in Wonderland called Alice, staring Debbie Allen, which quickly closed due to friction between Carroll and the show’s producer Mike Nichols. “Nothing seemed to click” until his good friend Loretta Devine pulled him into a workshop for a musical-in-progress titled Big Dreams, which would become the smash-hit Dream Girls and win Derricks the coveted Tony award for his performance. (He would be nominated again for Bob Fosse’s Big Deal.)
“Winning the Tony was…scary,” Derricks laughs. “Just to get nominated…wow, you think to yourself, it can’t get much better than this. I was sitting about three rows back from the stage the night of the awards and the young lady [who presented the award] said ‘The winner is…Clee-vee-ant Derricks.’ I’m in such shock I don’t even recognize my name. ‘Clee-vee-ant? Is she saying me?’ I never expected that in my life. All I ever thought about was entertaining people. But to be rewarded with a Tony…well, that was one of the most memorable and happy experiences of my life.” It was Dream Girls director, Michael Bennett who encouraged Derricks to leave the show for Hollywood. Derricks admits he felt hurt by Bennett’s push, but knew deep down that the director had his best interests at heart.
Having already appeared in some episodic TV and a handful of films during his time off from Dream Girls — among them Moscow on the Hudson with Robin Williams, Offbeat and the Neil Simon flop The Slugger’s Wife (“So bad I’m surprised they released it”), he knew there were other, more prominent roles within his grasp. So, Derricks moved his family out to Los Angeles — a move he confesses was “financed by credit cards” — and started making the rounds of casting agents’ offices. Within the first year, he landed a supporting role on the short-lived sitcom Good Sports with Ryan O’Neal and Farrah Fawcett.
Getting the role of Rembrandt Brown on Sliders was a trying and lengthy process, he admits. “I was tied to another show called Thea, and I was waiting to hear whether or not it was going to get picked up. [Sliders executive producer John] Landis didn’t want me, because he was going to have to hire me in second position. He hadn’t seen my work, but Tracy kept telling him, ‘Listen, you’ve gotta see this guy’s reel; he’s Rembrandt, I’m telling you.’ Finally, he tricked John into a luncheon at his office. John came in and sat down and Tracy put on my tape. John looked at him and said ‘OK, so hire the guy.'”
What Tormé shows Landis was Derricks’ audition for the show, wherein Rembrandt belts out an over-the-top rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” “[At the audition] they told me this guy takes this song and works it to the best of his ability. Every time I see a singer do the National Anthem, for a sporting event, they always tear that song apart, they riff all over the place. By the time they’re through with the number, you don’t even recognize it. So that’s what I did. This was Rembrandt’s comeback chance, singing the National Anthem at Candlestick Park. So, I took the song and milked it to the hilt.”
Was there pressure to avoid stereotypes? “There was a lot of criticism [about my character] in the first season,” Derricks replies. “Probably half the reviews mentioned it. I somewhat understood where they were coming from. When I read the script, I saw it. I was reluctant to even audition for it. But after talking with a couple friends, and talking to the director, who really wanted me on the show, I thought ‘Maybe there’s a way of my doing this character so he won’t seem so bad [stereotypical].’ As to whether I accomplished that, I don’t know.
“I say to the writers, if you look at Rembrandt as a black man, then you’re going to have problems. If you look at him as an average Joe who’s trying to make a buck, a singer who traveled all over the world with a singing group — and what better education could you have than meeting other people and dealing with other lifestyles-then maybe you can look at him as a human being. I don’t want hem to write him as a black soul singer; I want them to write him as a human being.”
“The character is a show-business anachronism,” says Tormé. “He could have been any color. He could have been a Jewish comedian who plays the Borscht belt, or any number of other ethnic type. What I wanted to do was make him a show-business character from the old school who’s very out of touch with modern society. In his mind, he’s one step away from his next big comeback. But right as that’s supposed to happen, he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time and gets sucked into this vortex. I remember bands like the Spinners, the Four Tops and the Stylistics, and that’s what I based the character on, a guy from the ’60s who gets stuck in the ’90s.”
Tormé, who started out in comedy but left it “completely, for a long time” says Sliders allows him to dabble in SF while keeping touch with his comic roots. “The Rembrandt character was a way for me to do that, as are the phony infomercials that we do. I thought it would be really funny to have a guy and his Cadillac swept up [into this time warp] by accident. His goal is to get back home, sing the National Anthem and get his career going again — that’s all he thinks about. I thought he would be an odd and interesting mix with the other three.
“I love Cleavant and his take on Rembrandt, and I don’t want to lose the fun in the character. At the same time, I’m listening to people who say maybe he’s too over the top. I think what we’re trying to do is find a middle ground.”
Input on the show “happens spontaneously,” Derricks explains. “They play off of what we do. The show’s premise is about an extremely bright young man, his professor and a computer whiz who are caught up in a vortex. My character came into the picture by accident. So it’s hard for him to find his niche among this group. It may take another season before I get a grasp on who this guy really is. I’m discovering little things about him every day. The writers don’t always know where Rembrandt is going either. “I’ll look at some lines and say, Rembrandt wouldn’t say it that way. If I want to change something, the writers, directors and producers analyze it and say, ‘Look, if it works for you, it works for us.’ On the other hand, they may say a change I have in mind doesn’t work.
“John Rhys-Davies will change lines more than anybody — considerably. I mean, all through the show. But it’s only because John has been around, he pretty much knows what works and what doesn’t. He’ll even change lines for us. He’ll look at the script and say, ‘You know, I think maybe Cleavant should change that line because of this.’ And I’ll think, ‘You know, why didn’t I think of that?’ So what Sliders does for us is allow us to really think as actors. We look at the whole script and try to make sure that each thing makes sense. Because everybody’s trying to make the show work.”
What are his hopes for the future of Sliders as — despite some shaky ratings — it enters its third season? “It’s really a hard call to make. It’s like playing the stock market or gambling in Vegas — you just don’t know. I would like Sliders to have a long run, because this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to learn, stretch and grow in television. I could see going five years with no problem. I mean, it has been two years since the pilot. Five years would go by in a breeze.”
Derricks had a taste of SF, sitcom style, while co-starring in Fox’s short-lived Whoops. “A nuclear bomb hits and virtually everyone is wiped off the planet except for these six people and a few others. We end up on a farm and have to learn to deal with one another. I played a pathologist. NBC did the pilot and my character was played by another actor. NBC and the producers didn’t like the guy once they shot the pilot. So, NBC called my agent and they brought me in and reshot the pilot. Then, NBC decided it didn’t want the show, that it was a little too far-fetched.”
Instead, Fox picked up Whoops, but the network wanted to audition other actors for the pathologist. Ultimately, they decided to retain Derricks, but when it came to actually shoot cast publicity shots, they didn’t need the actor on hand. “I phoned my agent. He said, ‘You have the part, but the network felt they didn’t look enough; they want to look some more.’ They wanted a young streetwise type, though that isn’t the way the character was written. They still couldn’t find anyone suitable, so they went ahead with me. I had fun with that cast — a great group of folks.”
Having spent most of the past few years working in television, Derricks hopes to “get back into features. I would also like to go back to Broadway and do some good musical theater, because I really miss singing. Possibly later on, I would like to direct some theater and help develop and encourage some of the young actors coming along. Television I would back away from.”
One might say, given his upbeat personality and determinedly positive nature, that Cleavant Derricks is the antithesis of his Crying Man TV persona. “That’s where I’m coming from.”
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