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'Cane' brings writer's life, career full circle

If it weren't for her absolute loathing of speech class, Cynthia Cidre would have been an English professor today, teaching Victorian literature at a college somewhere.

Instead, she is a screenwriter whose first series, the Jimmy Smits-starring "Cane," will become the first Latino drama on broadcast television when it premieres in the fall on CBS. The series, about a Cuban American family in Florida running a rum business, draws on Cidre's experience growing up in Miami. Cuban-born Cidre was in fourth grade when her parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1967 on board one of the "freedom flights" for political refugees fleeing Fidel Castro's communist regime.

In fall 1978, Cidre was well on her way to becoming an English professor, having just enrolled into University of Miami's doctorate program in Victorian literature. Then her career path made an unexpected sharp turn when she found out she had won a screenwriting competition she had never applied for. The script was sent in by the professor in a screenwriting class she had taken as an undergraduate just for the credit.

"I wasn't interested in (screenwriting). I didn't know how it was done; I thought the actors were coming up with the dialogue," she says. "I was just really avoiding the speech class."

The award in the competition was a stipend from Columbia Pictures for her to go to Los Angeles and write a feature script. Cidre didn't think twice, choosing Hollywood over an academic career. The script she penned for Columbia eventually became the 1991 MGM feature "Fires Within." In another twist of fate, the film, about people she knew growing up in Little Havana, starred Smits.

Cidre worked in features, writing films like 1992's "Mambo Kings," until a meeting with CBS Entertainment chief Nina Tassler five years ago led to a career switch to television.

"She is my godmother in this," Cidre says of Tassler. "She single-handedly changed my life."

Tassler, then head of drama for the network, took Cidre under her wing and went on to order four scripts from her, three of which — "Father Lefty," "Wanted" and "Cane" — were picked up to pilots.

"I don't know if it's a cultural thing or not, but there is an incredible connection between us," says Tassler, whose mother is Puerto Rican. "I have a tremendous affection for her as a writer and a person. She has an extraordinary storytelling ability — her words are lyrical and her stories are never predictable."

The story of "Cane" began with Interscope Records exec Polly Anthony's idea for a Latino "Godfather" series. She and Jonathan Prince pitched it to Tassler, who suggested Cidre to write it.

Cidre admits that she had serious doubts about doing the project. "I had moved away from writing about my culture," she says. But with Latin culture now more popular than ever, she felt the timing was right for it.

With Cidre on board, the premise of the show, originally about a Mexican family in the food business, became about a Cuban family in the rum business.

Cidre's biggest inspiration for "Cane" was her late father, who was a sugar chemist in Cuba. To support his family when they first came to the U.S., he worked at 7-Eleven until landing a lab technician job at the University of Miami. That allowed him to send his daughter to college with a tuition remission.

"He is the one who thought me to be a decent human being," Cidre says. "I wish he were here to see the show."
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