Tough question: why are most TV Single Dads northern-European-looking Caucasian guys? More specifically, why have there been, in the fifty year history of television, only a handful of men not fitting the description of "lily-white?"
Partially, an answer could be that in the early days of TV, minorities were not portrayed in any TV series as anything but minor supporting characters. The days of Bill Cosby, Pat Morita, and Diahann Carroll breaking new ground were decades from the snow-white series of the fifties.
One demographic continues to be notably rare on current TV schedules: the Latino as the Starring Role. Other than a few light comedies in the 70's, Latino actors having star billing in a weekly series is almost unheard of.
Enter Showtime. While known for its offbeat original programming, the cable network has garnered a reputation as the impoverished second-runner to HBO. Second-place is a breeding ground for innovation, and Showtime (and its parent, Viacom) cooked up a novel series to capture a mostly-overlooked audience: the Latino cable viewer. The series is Resurrection Blvd., and recently, I had a chance to interview its star, Tony Plana.
Resurrection Blvd. is a show about a Latino TV Single Dad and his brood of adult and near-adult children. The show focuses on the world of boxing, and touches on the conflicts between traditional Latino culture vs. the culture of mainstream America.
Tony was filming on location in East L.A., in a section of town full of 1910-era Sears catalog houses. The cast and crew were housed in the parking lot of a Buddhist temple, incongruously set amid a neighborhood with front lawns full of statues of the Virgin Mary. Most of the street was filled with the detrius of television production: lights, filters, cable, more lights. I wondered how much of the gear had to be put away every night, or did they just rent out the whole block for storage?
James, my son, was along for the ride as my Audio Guy. I've found that it's easier for me to conduct an interview if someone else is doing the fiddling with the recording stuff. Plus, my son has developed a severe infliction of swooning over the pretty production assistants on-set, so who am I to spoil his infatuations?
We followed Luis, the unit publicist guy for Resurrection Blvd. up to a line of dressing-room trailers. Climbing up the stairs, we walked in on Tony and Elizabeth Peña, rehearsing a scene in their makeup chairs. Tony suggested we head over to his trailer, and he'd be ready to talk with us in a few minutes.
Status symbols on the set are few. The only way to differentiate between each actor's trailer is to read the tiny piece of yellow tape stuck to the trailer door. We found Tony's and stepped inside. As he promised, Tony was back to his trailer in a few minutes. James kicked on the recorder, and
Most of the single dads that I've talked with have been in comedies - a lot of shows have a mixture of comedy and drama. This show seems to be *very* serious, with a lot of issues involved, and a lot of the dramatic unfoldings and narrative style seems dark and very - - very tension-filled. Is there any lightness in this show?
Tony - There's a lot of humor in this show. It's interesting: the character of Bibi, who is my sister-in-law, and I are like oil and water. We don't get along very well. It's really like a younger version of the archetypical mother-in-law. She brings a lot of humor to the household, and family. And there's a lot of humor that they try to introduce. For example, whenever guys come to date my daughters - - there's kind of an M. O. that people laugh about in the family because I kind of intimidate them. I'm an intimidating kind of guy in this show - - I'm very intense, and very serious. But, there is a lighter side of me, and I do that purposely. I kind of make fun of some of the guys that come and try and date my daughters. So, that's some of the sources of humor. Certainly in the ring, in the training, there's humor. And I think part of the fun, for the audience with this character of Roberto Santiago, is to discover his sense of humor, what makes him funny. Like, there's this one episode where he's - - [Tony points at a fly flying inside the trailer] I was reminded of it because of this fly - - you see him in an office, ferociously pursuing this fly that is driving him crazy, and saying, you know, "the next thing you're going to see is your ass!" [laughs] And he's really intense - you know, the same way he pursues his career, and the same way he parents his children is the same way he goes after a fly that's a nuisance. So, they're finding ways to use my kind of Archie Bunker gruffness.
Yeah, you have a very - he seems like a very dour character - everything seems to be upside-down for him, everything needs to be 'reset' --
Tony - Yes!
He seems like a fun character to play.
Tony - It IS a fun character - because he's always got an EDGE. He's always - he always gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. It's been delightful for me. It's been great.
Has it been difficult to - - you're always having to - - vent - - you must always be 'on edge' - -
Tony - Well, he's also venting and he's also repressing a lot of stuff, so - - he carries a lot of stuff with him. And I think what's interesting in terms of me talking to you about being a single dad is that - - I think single dads - - - carry a lot of stuff with them, because they're performing the duties of the mother and the duties of the father, at the same time. So, it's hard enough just being a father, because I'm a father. I'm not a single father, in real life. I'm a father with a mother, a wife that lives at home and we are raising the children together. So, I can't even *imagine* what it would be like to have to raise these children by myself.
But you have to, in terms of understanding the role you have in the show.
Tony - Yeah. So, I think that, because of the man he is, he tries to hide his inadequacies. He tries to hide his insecurities, his fears. He wants people to feel that they can trust him, and he wants to try and push this image and this feeling out there that, you know, "everything's under control." - that they will be taken care of. Even though, underneath, maybe he's full of doubt and, you know, feelings of insecurity.
It's a fear that sits on him all the time.
Tony - Oh yeah, and I think that's the source of his anger and the source of his intensity - - the source that he tries to overcompensate, especially with the girls. Because he feels most inadequate raising the girls. The boys, he knows how to treat: just go box, or whatever. It's a very macho world for him and he feels very comfortable with the boys, telling them what to do and what not to do. With the girls, it's a whole different world for him and he feels so out-of-place. He wishes he had that wife.
He can't be the coach or the trainer, like he is with the boys.
Tony - Yes. AND - he also full of -- and this is where some of the humor comes from - - he's very full of these somewhat old-fashioned expectations of women. And his daughters are, you know, very liberated, modern women to a certain degree. So, part of the process in the series is seeing how he deals with the - the emancipation of the women in his family. All of a sudden, they're standing up for themselves and saying, "I'm not gonna cook today - tonight, you have to do it!" [laughs] So he's forced to cook -- and some of the humor comes out of that because he's a horrible cook, and his boys are always complaining, you know. And he'll say, "well, do it yourself!" So, they have been able to - - - these writers are wonderful in that they have been able to discover a lot of humor - - maybe not coming out of me but *around* me and the way I am.
And you've got it in the traditional Latino culture that there's a "man's work" and a "woman's work" - - it's very deliniated.
Tony - That's correct - - that's why I'm so very - - displaced - by the absence of my wife, and that's why I look to - really, the oldest daughter, to replace her. And that's why, whether I admit it or not, I really depend on my sister-in-law to provide that "mother" function. That motherly function, which she does, but - - it's like - - it's like a double-edged sword with her. I allow her to do the things she needs to do, motherly, but then, I don't like her intrusion into the house when she starts telling me what to do! [laughs] Or when she starts telling the kids what to do, over my authority.
You want to have the cake and eat it too...
Tony - That's right. I want her to be just a maid - a counselor to the girls, and - - get out! [laughs]
Just - - helicopter in, and...
Tony - ...and helicopter out! [laughs]
Well, it sounds like a lot of story possibilities - it's a bonanza of available stories...
Tony - Oh my, yes. Do you realize that Latinos have not had a one-hour drama on television, ever?
And within that, you were the first Latino single dad on American television. And even in Spanish-language television, there's only been two. There's a remake of Who's the Boss? on Telemundo right now, and there's another one in Mexico called Papa Soltero...
Tony - But that wasn't in English.
No, that wasn't in English - it was in Spanish. So, here you are, a mainstream, American, English-speaking drama with a Latino single dad. So, it's - - you're groundbreaking. Does it - I know you've probably been asked this question - - being in so many "ground-breaking" situations, is it - is it onerous, is it a burden that you're going to have this over your head that you're the trailblazer, the pioneer?
Tony - You know, I don't feel it. I mean, I feel the responsibility, but I don't feel it as "onerous" at all. I feel it as - - exciting, exhilarating - - like I'm participating in a part of history. And I feel so fortunate and blessed that - - it happened to be *me* to be the first one, you know? It - - I mean, of all the people in the world - - I was there at the right time and at the right place, you know? And in the right way - to fulfill this particular role. I'm hoping that this will be a particular ground-breaker for Latino series, but it really inspires me to do good work. I like that - - I mean, so much of the work that we do is commercially-oriented, and it's not "cause-oriented" at all. It's nice to have that ingredient in this mix, where, all of a sudden, I'm coming to this venture where there are these other inspiring elements - - the "historicity" of it - the novelty of it - - the great opportunity that it presents for us to do well and to maybe open the way for others like us.
I would imagine that you've had a lot of feedback from the Latino community from being in this show. Now that episodes have been aired, I guess you're hearing a lot back from viewers, and how they feel about your character and about the show.
Tony - I can't tell you how many people have said, "You remind me so much of my father!" or "you remind me so much of this uncle that I had!" The writers tell me all the time that I remind them - aspects of me remind them of authority figures in their lives. That's exciting to me because I feel that maybe I've been able to interpret this character in a way that strikes a chord. Some people have accused it of being stereotypical, you know - the stereotypical strict father. I prefer the word "archetypal" in that he is all cultures - not just Latinos have these fathers who are laconic, and strict, and severe, and demanding, and ambitious for their kids. I think that there are as many, if not more, positive aspects of it as there are negative. And I think it's the work of love, because he certainly loves these kids deeply. He cares for them, he identifies with them, he's there for them - - maybe not in the way they'd like him to be all the time, but that's a lot more than a lot of dads who - - in this society - - and in many other societies - - who basically run away from home and abandon their kids. I mean, I'm really proud of fathers that are - single fathers that have the courage - - I mean I really admire them more than ever now that I've played this character and kind of placed myself in their place. I mean I've never kind of *empathized* with them as much as I do now. The courage it takes and the resourcefulness and the adaptability that you have to have to be everything to the kids.
Now, I guess as your story progresses, your character will grow and there will be different arcs of your story - - when you're in TV Guide in seven or eight years, when your show has its final episode, do you have any direction as to where you'd like to see your character?
Tony - My God -- I'm just trying to figure out what happens next week! [laughs] Seven years from now? Well, the thing is - - you wish for things to be resolved, but if they resolve, you have no drama! [laughs] So, in some ways you can't possibly end up resolving everything. Although I do wish, down the line, that my character is able to accept the freedom of his children to - - develop their own dreams and pursue them, and that he's able to get his ego out of the way enough, and his own ambitions, you know? His own frustrations - - frustrated dreams to help them in their journey. I think that is the biggest lesson for him to learn on the arc of the show. And he's going to be learning it because he learns a little bit in the pilot. I don't know if you saw the pilot - you should see it - he learns a little bit about it. You know, progress works like a tractor track - - you make a little progress, and then you go back over the same ground you were before, then you move a little bit further ahead and you go back over the same ground again. So it's like - he reverts back to his old M.O.'s - - he can't help himself. But, little-by-little, I think that his soul and his heart and - - his psychological constructs are changing, you know? He's learning things and he's becoming different - - - he's evolving.
He has to make a lot of difficult choices. The clips that I've seen of your show - I saw the scene with Cheech Marin, where your son changes sponsorship with the jacket, and it's a very powerful scene. A very simple scene, but a very powerful scene. And having to make all those difficult choices as you move from away from your past into a future that may be successful in some ways, but isolating in other ways. Really, your show is - although it's based within a particular ethic community, a lot of the stories are - most of the storylines I've seen are pretty timeless and can be placed in any society.
Tony - Absolutely. That's what I'm most proud of in this show - - we're dealing with, like I said, *archetypal* characters, universal issues, that can be found in any family dynamic, any culture. The only things that change are maybe the particular specifics of language and expression and feeling, but I think all families go through these -- have to deal with this issues, I think, at some point or another. I just like the fact that we're able to show them through the Latino filter.
So, people in a sense get to view them through fresh eyes, because they've never seen them through a Latino perspective on this before.
Tony - That's right. But somehow, through seeing it through somebody else's eyes, that are not your own, you're able to have some perspective on them that you wouldn't have if you were looking at your own family. And I'm hoping that that happens.
The circumstances of your wife's death in the show - has that been mentioned at all, in the storyline?
Tony - We haven't gotten into the specifics of it, but we just finished a show that deals with the first anniversary of her death, which is a very moving show, because the family is at odds. They're fragmented, and somehow, the memory of her death and her - spirit within the family, begins to bring us back together, at least momentarily.
Kind of a "Sons of Katie Elder" kind of thing
Tony - It is. Exactly.
What you were saying about raising daughters, and raising sons in the show - - do you draw on personal experiences? You said you have a son who's ten?
Tony - Yes, I have a son who's ten and a daughter who's six.
Then, they're younger than the ones that are on the show.
Tony - Right.
So, I guess you have some parental experiences. Do you - when you pattern your character, do you pattern him after anyone in your family?
Tony - Yes, I'm patterning him after my father. It's a combination of me and my father, the character. I love it, because I'm able to use those old-fashioned sensibilities of my father in this character, and at the same time, some of the more modern sensibilities that I have towards parenting. So, depending on the moment and the situation, I draw on my feelings, or what I had experienced with my father's feelings with those different situations.
I've heard a lot of parents say - and sometimes I've said it myself - that you open your mouth and hear your father's voice coming out of it...
Tony - Oh, that happens to me all the time! Happens to me with my children. My father's still alive and I see him playing with the grandchildren, in a way that he never played with us. And yet, in some ways, I see him playing with us, because he doesn't have the disciplinary responsibilities, being a grandparent.
Has he seen you in this show?
Tony - Oh yeah.
Has he said anything about your performance in this show?
Tony - We haven't talked about it! [laughs] but - he saw one, he saw the first episode. He found me considerably strict. And I said, "How quickly we forget!" [laughs] because he was *very* strict with us. He was very demanding of us, authoritarian, a disciplinarian.
How many children were in your family?
Tony - Three boys.
Oh boy. He was the referee?
Tony - He had to be. He was the referee. So, yes, I draw on him a lot. His kind of - - unpredictably, sudden flashes of anger, that came from - came out of his frustration of work and with his own life's frustrations. I guess I draw on him a lot for this character. And yet, he has this incredible ability to be tender. He's very smart and very pro-education, you know? So those values, I think, were passed on to me, and I experience them through this character.
I've talked with some people who've portrayed single dads. Some are very much the character they portray - they enjoy *being* the character - like Adam West enjoyed being Batman - - he's *still* Batman. Do you ever get concerned with the series - I know we're very early on in the series - that you'll be perpetually Roberto? That you will always be looked on as that character? I mean, that might be a good thing to have!
Tony - [laughs] Well, you know, it's funny - - -I've been a character actor for 22 years - - and people have been concerned because, you know, I change from role to role - - and people have said to me, "well, maybe viewers have nothing to grasp onto because of your roles." So I'm hoping this will be the antidote to that, you know? [laughs] That they'll say, "okay, that's the guy from Resurrection Blvd..." and I'll have my past 22 years of work to show that I don't have to be like that all the time. But I'm really enjoying interpreting this character, living this character. It's such a wonderful luxury to have a series where every week that character is placed in different circumstances and he has to react accordingly - - and the different things that test him, and change him or not change him -- it's interesting to see him go through different challenges and different situations.
You've done lots of different series, but this is your first front-line, head-of-the-pack, right-up-front guy, right?
Tony - Yeah, it is because usually I've been playing supporting characters, in series. This is my fourth series. In the first three, I've been always been supporting characters. And this one, I'm playing the lead character. That's one of the great satisfactions that all of us feel, who are on the show - - in that, a lot of us are always serving other people's stories. And here, we are serving our *own* and really dealing with our *own* feelings and our *own* experiences and our *own* interactions with our significant others. So, it's just great satisfaction to finally play just who we are, and that the stories are about us, as opposed to being about somebody else. We've been blessed with a very collaborative, inclusive, artistic team of writers who really ask for our opinions - - that's why I was working with Elizabeth when you came in - - on this one scene that we have coming up which is a very sensitive scene - - and we wanted to - - I wanted to get her input on it, and I wanted to give her mine, and then, we're going to have to deal with the writers' input - but they're very open to it and many, many times - - not all the time but many times - they have really welcomed our input and incorporated it - - and we have felt very *invested* in the show.
You're part of the creative process - -
Tony - I'm part of the creative process, and when we're doing the scenes, some of those lines come from me. And some of those ideas - - for the scene - - come from me. I'll say, "I need a scene that's about *this* " and they'll go, "maybe you're right, " and they write it. And then, I help them to shape it, and then, all of a sudden - boom - there the scene IS - and we're playing it. Then, you see it and go "wow!" - you really feel - - a *part* of the creative process in the show. Not just an interpretive role but a truly creative, originating one.
This being the beginning of your series - you've filmed eightepisodes now?
Tony - Yeah, we're on our - - this is twelve - - so we're on our tenth - we've got ten more to go. We're about halfway.
Being in a filmed series, it's a lot better than being in a sitcom where you've got a stage and audience and all that. Is it particularly grueling? I mean - how is the schedule working for you? Are there difficult days?
Tony - Well, yeah - - I mean you have twelve-hour days, fourteen-hour days - last night was a fourteen-hour day. And - you know, some days you don't work at all. It's unpredictable. Out of the seven days, I usually work four or five, maybe six days. I usually have one day that I'm pretty soft on, or completely off. So - you know, I work most of the time - -
Well, you seem to have most of the coverage, because you're the hub - -
Tony - Right, kinda like the hub of the wheel. So, all the paths lead through Rome, you know? They all kind of come through me, where they're either bouncing off of me or I'm pursuing them and so - - I enjoy it, I'm pretty central to the stories. I participate in a lot of them. It doesn't matter whose story it is - I'm the father, so they have to deal with me. And I'm a *single* father - which is also kind of - - speaks to - - the *father* - - they have NOWHERE else to go. You are IT.
No time off.
Tony - Yeah - - and the single father, you know, they don't have another person to go to - - they only have *you* to go to. So, depending on how many kids, there's no other choice. You have to - - they have to come to you. So it really doubles, I think, triples, quadruples, whatever - - what a single father has to deal with, when they have no other -- partner - - to help them raise the kids. So, I think it's right, structurally - - that that happens, but it means I work a lot.
Which is - -
Tony - Which is okay! I work a lot - - work is *good* for an actor! [laughs] Always.
Being on a cable series, vs. being on a network series - -
Tony - You know, I'm going to start getting dressed, if you don't mind. I'm going to put my shirt on...
So, Tony got dressed while we kept talking.
As I was saying, being on a cable series, instead of being on a network series, - - it frees you up in terms of storylines and things like that. Anything offhand that you've seen being in a cable series that - - - you've seen that you can do in this series that you can't do on network?
Tony - Well, certainly we can deal with sexuality in a way - - very kind of - - directly - - explicitly - - that you cannot do on network television. Language-wise, we can - - we don't have the restrictions that - - we can use - - the vernacular! [laughs] I think that - - dealing with violence - - we can be a lot more - - graphic, and realistic with violence. .
I would imagine, being a story involved with boxing - - it would be a requirement to be able to show the violence to get your story told...
Tony - Yeah. I think that's one of the brilliancies of this idea, of a boxing show - you have a drama, with built-in action - - that's not a cop show, that's not a doctor show, and that's not a lawyer show. So, it's a different kind of franchise, with action, that's sportive action - - which I love. And I hope it would attract people.
This would be difficult to sell to a network, because they ask, "Well, what's it like?" - - "Well, it's like L.A. Law, but it's set in the Old West!" - - you have to relate it to another show. And your show, while it has elements of everything from Rocky to Dallas to Bonanza, I guess - -
Tony - [laughs] - I've never heard it described that way, but yeah! There was a single father, right?
Yeah - you're the Ben Cartwright of East L.A. - -
Tony - Right! That's funny.
I guess you're - - well, you have to be ratings-conscious for Showtime, they're always interested in viewership...
Tony - But that's another thing that's great about the cable networks - they don't have the kind of onerous pressure that the major networks have to deliver ratings to justify commercials - vs. a subscription audience. So it's like - they don't - - you know, they just have different criteria in what is "successful" - - in terms of numbers. Their expectations are lower, and I think they have more patience in building a show. I think - - I think they really *like* the show, and they like it artistically. So they're able - - and I think they like it conceptually. They like the idea of being the first one off the block with a Latino show, that's respectable, that's good artistic quality. I think that says a lot for them. They want to not only create programming that's popular - - they want a great - - they want to create programming that's admirable, that's stimulating, that's dealing with issues in a way that - - that those issues have not been dealt with before. You have never seen a Latino family that - - that dealt with these kind of issues on television before ---
Without making you feel like - they're checking boxes to build a monument .... it's a story that's - - it's compelling, and yet - it's not being done "in the public service" - it's a show that's entertaining and makes sense.
Tony - That's right! That's exactly it. I mean, they've had it in development for three years, four years, something like that - - - way before this whole "whitewashing of the networks" controversy surfaced. You know, the last two seasons where they've not had any diversification whatsoever on their programming - very few ethnic leads, and very few ethnic shows. So for them, and for me, I think it's interesting - - and I think it's also good business, because when you look at their demographics - - a big growth market for them is Latino constituents, Latino subscribers. So, why not start to go - - deal with programming that starts to - - address the very area where you have the most growth potential?
You've got a big part of America that you're missing - - that are customers, that are your audience.
Tony - My God, yes! There's a huge - you know, there's - I mean, they all talk about it, Latinos talk about it. We represent something like $360 BILLION in purchasing power, and you know, we're very brand-loyal, according to the studies that I've read. And I think that it's really smart for them, artistically, because they can make a great contribution to the *landscape* of television by creating this kind of original, innovative kind of show, and at the same time, they can satisfy the bottom line, in terms of really starting to develop - - cultivate - - an audience that's only growing. Because, you know, it's - - by the year 2050, Latinos are going to represent 25% of the population of the United States!
And they'll all have ATM cards and want to buy stuff!
Tony - That's right! So - - I just feel so -- excited -- about the possibilities that exist here. I'm enjoying the process, artistically very much, and at the same time, I'm excited about the economic potential, where they can represent for Showtime and also for Latinos - - because I think if a major network or cable network like this really starts to tap into that audience - - - and other cable networks and other major networks see them doing so, successfully - - it's just going to create - - they're going to say, "They can do HBO!" - who you *know* is going to do it next - - if you create a successful show, HBO will do it, and -- ABC and FOX will look at HBO and say, "if THEY can do it, WE can do it!" And it's just going to generate other attempts and other programs.
Your show will be - in the pitch, the shows will be, "It's like Resurrection Blvd, but ... " You'll be the first, but not the last.
Tony - Exactly. We'll be the paradigm.
Tony recorded a great ID for the site. Click here to listen.
On the way back to the car, Luis stopped a charming teenager named Marisol Nichols, who plays Tony's youngest daughter. It was nice to meet her but, as I had no idea I would talk to her, I had no questions to ask her. She shook hands all around and headed off to the set.
I turned to my son. He was staring blankly up the street. "What's wrong?" I asked.
"Nothing," he said, "she said, 'nice meeting you, James.' - - she called me 'James' - - she remembered my *name* after I said it!"
Sigh. I guess James has moved beyond production assistants.
Resurrection Blvd. is on Showtime at 10 PM Eastern and other times during the week. Check your cable listings.