*Long before America elected its first African American president – twice – there was a primetime TV drama that celebrated diversity in its own way – by drawing a large number of black viewers despite having little to no African American actors in the cast.
“In fact, I think we had the number one black audience in television at the time, other than sports,” says Michele Lee of the soap “Knots Landing,” the popular “Dallas” spinoff that aired from 1979 through 1993 and centered on the lives of four white couples living in a cul-de-sac outside of Los Angeles.
“The reason [for the record black audience] was that in ‘Knots Landing’, and I loved that about the show, we had neighbors who were black. And my husband on the show, his law partner was black. And we never talked about the differences of people at that time. We’re talking about the ’80s. We didn’t get into, oh, a black man’s living next to you and what are we going to do, or the whole town is going to hell in a handbasket.”
Those next door neighbors, the Williamses, became the first black principal characters on “Knots Landing” in an episode that aired Jan. 7, 1988 – which was during its eighth season. ”Dynasty” had featured two major black characters several years earlier, but the Williamses at the time were the lone major black characters on a prime-time soap.
Larry Riley, who starred in the film “A Soldier’s Story,” starred as Frank Williams, while Lynne Moody, whose credits include “E.R.,” “Roots” and “Roots: The Next Generation,” played wife Patricia Williams. Kent Masters-King played their 12-year-old daughter, Julie.
In a Los Angeles Times article at the time, “Knots Landing” producer David Jacobs said the show’s writer-producers felt the best way to make a statement in bringing in black characters is to say nothing at all about their race. “We decided to write it colorblind,” Jacobs said. “It’s just a new couple coming to ‘Knots Landing,’ and here are their problems. We’re not doing it this way because it’s safe–we’re doing it because it’s good.”
Michele Lee told EURweb in August, “I love that the producers were doing that on our show. We had quite a diversity of people.”
It was revealed last month that season 2 of TNT’s resurrected “Dallas,” premiering Jan. 28 at 9 p.m., will include a “Knots Landing” reunion at some point when Ted Shackelford and Joan Van Ark guest star as Gary and Valene Ewing.
So far, Lee’s Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie has not been asked back to South Fork, but that’s fine with her. She’s holding out for something bigger. Listen below.