Drama pilots getting more diverse

Halfway through castings, four projects star minority actors

The decades-old taboo that drama series with minority leads cannot work finally might be broken.

Halfway through the castings of broadcast drama pilots this season, the top-billed actors on four pilots are non-Caucasian.

What's more, the four projects are among the highest-profile drama pilots this year.

The spy couple at the center of J.J. Abrams' "Undercovers" for NBC is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe. "Undercovers," co-written by Abrams, marks his first pilot directing effort since "Lost" six years ago.

Forest Whitaker is the lead on CBS' "Criminal Minds" spinoff; Laz Alonso tops the Fox action-drama "Breakout Kings," directed and exec produced by Gavin Hood; and Freddy Rodriguez headlines CBS' CIA drama "Chaos," directed and executive produced by Brett Ratner.

Last year's crop of broadcast pilots included only one fronted by a minority actor, the LL Cool J starrer "NCIS: Los Angeles." The season before that, there were no pilots led by minorities.

While the Jimmy Smits-starring "NYPD Blue" was a breakout hit for ABC, the odds against dramas led by a minority actor historically have been long. None of the networks' attempts through the years had worked, including three shows with James Earl Jones, "Paris," "Gabriel's Fire" and "Under One Roof," and two each with Andre Braugher ("Gideon's Crossing" and "Thief") and Taye Diggs ("Kevin Hill" and "Day Break"). USA Network also tried unsuccessfully a new spin on "Kojak" with Ving Rhames as the lollipop-loving detective.

But whether it's the Obama effect or any other reason, the tide seems to have turned during the past year.

"NCIS: LA" has been a runaway success, becoming the first major hit drama series toplined by a black actor, and CBS replaced iconic "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" star William Petersen with Laurence Fishburne.

And in cable, where there hadn't been a drama toplined by a black actor since the departure of HBO's "The Wire," Jada Pinkett Smith was tapped as the lead of TNT's medical drama "Hawthorne," which has been renewed for a second season.

By setting black actors as leads in its three biggest crime franchises -- "CSI" (Fishburne), "NCIS" (LL Cool J) and "Criminal Minds" (Whitaker) -- as well as shepherding the Dennis Haysbert-starring war drama "The Unit" for four seasons, CBS has been at the forefront of the trend of putting minority actors in charge of drama series.

The network is also behind two of the four drama pilots that already have tapped minority leads: the "Criminal Minds" spinoff and "Chaos."

"Diversity is top of mind for us every pilot season," CBS head of casting Peter Golden said. "It's still very early in the development process, but we're excited about diverse roles we have on the page and the performers cast for the screen."

Black comedians have a strong tradition on TV, and viewers have had no problem embracing comedy series with black leads. But dramas offer a different dynamic and require a larger degree of relatability, which makes it harder for white audiences to accept an ethnic show, TV historian Tim Brooks said.

Indeed, dramas with predominantly black or Hispanic casts, such as HBO's much-lauded "The Wire" and CBS' "City of Angels" and "Cane," couldn't go beyond a niche following.

But in ensemble dramas with diverse casts, there has been a noticeable trend of raising the profile of roles minority actors land, starting with Haysbert's role as the U.S. president on Fox's "24," Brooks said.

"Blacks have risen in the authority of their roles," he said. "(Minority actors) are moving up from part of the team to leader of the team."

Not all lead minority castings this season were planned.

Although Kodjoe and Mbatha-Raw -- like President Obama -- are biracial, casting on the "Undercovers" leads was done color-blind, with producers looking for the actors who best fit the characters and had the best chemistry.

It was a similar situation on "Breakout Kings" and "Hawthorne," and early breakdowns had Michael Keaton and Kiefer Sutherland as prototypes for the role on the "Criminal Minds" spinoff that was offered to Whitaker.

On the other hand, "Chaos" writer Tom Spezialy created the show's lead character as Hispanic, naming him Rick Martinez.

"I'm doing a show about the CIA that travels the world, and I didn't want to show that there was one definition of an American," he said. "I didn't want to characterize and demonize any race."

He started writing the script neutral, but by the time he finished it, he had created the lead character with Rodriguez in mind.

And maybe because meaty roles for Latinos are so rare these days, the bet paid off, and Spezialy was able to do what very few pilot scribes have been able to do: land their dream lead actor.