"Children have never been very good at listening to their elders," wrote author James Baldwin in Nobody Knows My Name, "but they have never failed to imitate them." The relationship of Cuban actor Georg Stanford Brown and his daughter Kathryn Dora Brown (whose mother is actress Tyne Daly) proves no exception. A recent opportunity to direct and act with his daughter in the "Like Father, Like Daughter" episode of the Showtime series Linc's showed that despite discouraging his children from following in his footsteps-as actors often seem to do-for Georg Stanford Brown, acting has become a family affair.
While best known for his Emmy-nominated performance as Tom Harvey in Alex Haley's Roots, Georg Stanford Brown's film career began with the 1967 classic The Comedians, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in which he played the role of Henri Philipot, the Haitian painter turned revolutionary. He then starred as officer Terry Webster in the '70s cops-and-robbers series Rookies. While working on the series, Brown said he spent much of his free time hanging around the editing room or the production department trying to take it all in, a habit which led producer Aaron Spelling to offer him the chance to begin his directing career. Brown went on to direct episodes of Charlie's Angels, Dynasty, and Hill Street Blues (which earned him two Emmy nominations), as well as an Emmy Award-winning episode of Cagney & Lacey, starring his then-wife Tyne Daly. He now plays political lobbyist Johnnie B. Goode on the comedy Linc's, currently in its second season.
In addition to her appearance on Linc's, Kathryn Dora Brown has recently guest starred on episodes of Chicago Hope and The Practice, and starred in The Tiger Woods Story.
Father and daughter recently sat down with Back Stage West to talk about the challenges of pursuing a career in acting, whether by blazing a new trail or by following what's in the blood.
Kathryn Dora Brown: I practically grew up on the back lot, being around actors, watching my parents do it. I've wanted to act since I was five, and then I saw this biography on Hayley Mills, who was one of the first young people I saw acting, and I thought, "Hey, I could do that."
Georg Stanford Brown: It was through nothing on my part.
Kathryn: That's not true.
Georg: I disavow all responsibility.
Kathryn: My parents didn't encourage it. You still don't encourage it.
Georg: Well, it's a little late now. But it isn't the easiest thing in the world to do. It's only in recent history that actors have even been permitted to go into restaurants or hotels. There's no reason to be an actor, one of my instructors used to say, unless you have to. It's not the hardest work in the world, but it does require a lot of you.
Kathryn: It was hard for me to say I wanted to be an actor; I thought I would be judged because of my family. When I decided one day that I was going to go to New York and get into an acting school, I remember you were like, "No. Stay in college." Later you changed. But you did give me a bit of a lecture: "You're a woman, you're black. Black women don't have a lot of possibilities in this industry. It's going to be hard. Why not stay in college?"
Georg: Get a degree. Get training in something else.
Kathryn: I probably should have. But I couldn't take it anymore. I had to go.
Georg: You made some right steps. You went and started studying with a teacher that both your mother and I had studied with, and went to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, which both your mother and I had gone to. That was a right step. Get training. In whatever you do. You just can't assume that you can fall into it and be there.
Kathryn: My grandfather had a saying, "Don't go degrading the family." It's sort of a joke, but it sort of isn't. So, you know, it's a lot of pressure. The family is actually scarier to me than critics. I did a play at the Taper a few years ago, Changes of Heart, and when we had the press night, everyone was so nervous. I was fine. The next night was opening night when my entire family was coming, and that was the night I was nervous. They're vicious, and they don't tolerate bad acting.
Georg: We're very opinionated. We do take it seriously. But it's your work and everyone has their own way of doing it. After a while, you develop your own method, and that's what has to be cultivated. That is a very personal thing that no one can really teach you how to do.
Back to the Roots
Georg: I hadn't acted in a number of years, and when I started at the beginning of last season on Linc's, I felt really rusty and out of tune and I just had to start all over again, go back to very basic things like listening, breaking down the character, writing the bible. I've never handled this much comedy before. It's a different rhythm of work, it's not as deep as you usually have to dig, but at the same time it requires a certain lightness that is not totally part of my nature.
It's wonderful when you're in the rhythm of work, when your creative juices are working, but you have to keep doing it to stay strong like that. One of the things about being a minority actor is that you don't have that opportunity as some of your counterparts to keep that flow, to constantly be going from one thing to the other, so when you see really great performances out there by some black folks, you know it's coming from somewhere deep, because they just don't work as much.
Kathryn: Don't you find it ironic that when you first started, on Rookies, you were one of the only leading black men on television...
Georg: Well, Clarence Williams had done Mod Squad, and Cosby had been there before, but very few.
Kathryn: ...and those shows-Rookies, I Spy, Mod Squad-sort of set off a trend of having the token black person on the show, and now we're back to the same place. All the shows now-no one had any people of color on their shows, so they all went out and got one. So now every show on television is like this white show with one black actor.
Georg: These issues have been here before. I recall I did a little show called Roots-still one of the most watched shows ever on television-and that was plenty successful, and right after that there was a whole hoopla about more employment for blacks and minorities. That was 20-some years ago, so why are we having the same discussion 25 years down the road? It hasn't changed all that much, obviously. The big changes will come when there's more diversity in the executive, decision-making positions in the studios, and in all the major corporate offices that are buying up the studios and the entertainment industry. Then possibly it will trickle down.
Surprised by Fame
Kathryn: When you did The Comedians, which was your first movie, did you realize how grand that was to be working with those people and going where you were going, or were you just too young and stupid to get it?
Georg: Probably young and stupid and foolish. It was six months after getting out of school. Everything was happening all at once: the Shakespeare Festival, and then this film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Suddenly I was in Africa for four and half months, then Paris, then in southern France, then meeting Alex Haley who was on his way to Africa to write about his family, (turned out to be Roots), being with all these people, Lillian Gish, Cicely Tyson... I had no idea about the grandness of all that.
For me, acting was something I fell into. I'm just learning about it now, how to apply 30 years of training. I'm giving it an attention I never had before. I was out here in L.A. from New York after quitting high school and bumming around for a few years and not knowing what I wanted to do with my life and I decided to go back to school. I got into LACC and I said, "What am I going to study? Theatre Arts! That sounds like fun." After that, it was total surprise for me. For the majority of my career, I've been surprised that I've been able to sustain any kind of a plan. I was always happy to have the job and I was having a good time. I was growing. But I don't feel all that strongly about my work.
Kathryn: That's fine. You can feel that way. I'll bring over some videos of your work later on and we can sit down and watch it, to remind you of the brilliance. We don't take compliments very well in this family. I think that's what keeps us going. BSW