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On The Tube: The Dandridge story

Friday, August 20, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, CALIF. -- Everyone knows about Marilyn Monroe.

Many folks remember Ava Gardner.

Few recall Dorothy Dandridge, who rose to prominence in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s.

    TV Preview
"Dorothy Dandridge"

When: Tomorrow at 9 p.m. on HBO.


Actress Halle Berry hopes to change that with HBO's "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge," a biopic airing tomorrow at 9 p.m. with Berry in the title role.

"What initially really inspired me was the fact that Dorothy had been so forgotten, and that her contribution was so great and so meaningful, not only to me, but to an entire community of people," Berry said at a recent press conference for the film. "Her peers have become larger in their death than even in their lives and still people don't remember who Dorothy Dandridge was."

So who was she? Namely the first black woman to be nominated for a best actress Oscar for the 1954 film "Carmen Jones." She died at age 42 of a drug overdose, whether it was accidental or suicide remains a point of contention.

Berry said she feels a social responsibility to raise awareness about the star and the role she played in changing Hollywood's perception of African-American actors. Berry worked for six years to get the project going, while other prominent entertainers -- particularly Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson -- expressed an interest in telling Dandridge's story.

"My struggle has been very much hers, trying to carve a niche for myself as a leading lady," Berry said. "She opened the door for me, but because she was never recognized in the way in which she should have been, I'm still almost in the exact same position she was."

Berry acknowledged progress has been made, pointing out Dandridge wouldn't have been able to get a similar project on track in 1953, because "not only was it a racist industry, but it was a very sexist industry at the time."

Barriers remain, Berry said. While she's had substantive roles in the past -- including the lead in the mini-series "Queen" and a starring role alongside Warren Beatty in "Bulworth" -- Berry said she still faces closed doors in Hollywood.

"Now that I've done this amazing role of a lifetime where I got to stretch and grow and show all of my wares, for the last six months I have not been able to find a project that can even compare to the role I've just been able to play," she said. "That's how I'm sure there's no place for a black leading lady right now. But I think that's changing and I'm gradually knocking down those doors."

WAXING HILARIOUS: She may be more famous in England, but Ruby Wax is no British import.

Despite greater success in her adopted homeland than stateside (her Fox summer series tanked a few years back), loud and loopy Wax is back on American TV. Lifetime will give her a shot with the debut "Ruby" tomorrow at 10:30 p.m. following the season premiere of "Oh Baby."

Wax said there was a simple reason the Fox show failed: "I sold out. And it was for a lot of money.

"Originally I was supposed to give an hour special to Fox and I wanted to do my favorite 20-minutes in three chunks, like Imelda Marcos or O.J. or things that have made me quality," Wax said. "Before I knew it, they had cut up all my shows, which took 10 years, into three-minute slices, and it was a disgrace."

For her new 10-episode Lifetime series Wax again interviews celebrities and commoners alike. Wax tries to find a boyfriend for Carrie Fisher by heading to a Nevada cattle ranch, she enlists with the U.S. Army boot camp and subs for a showgirl in Las Vegas.

"I do all my filming in America, because nobody interviews like an American," Wax said. "I rarely do it in England, even for the BBC."

She may interview here, but her shows will sound different, Wax said. "I've had to tone it down here because I know, in America, you're very innocent and you don't like to hear certain things, so I'm more ladylike in this show than I am in England."

On the other side of the pond she's pretty much given up celebrity stories for more real people. A recent segment found her chained to prisoners on a chain gang in

Arizona as they dig graves for the indigent.

"I was connected to a woman who suddenly remembers that her baby, she killed it," Wax said. "She was on drugs. So she starts to cry and is dragging me by the chain, and suddenly, it's not funny. And boy, can you make a point when you've made people laugh and it undercuts."

So far Lifetime is sticking with Wax's frothy, fun interviews, but she hopes they'll consider buying some of her more recent British shows.

"A nobody is a greater speaker than anybody you've ever seen on 'David Letterman,' " Wax said. "People-wise, you find extraordinary gold in those hills."

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