In 1987, CBS debuted a situation comedy about a Creole restaurant, set in the Tremé, that remains one of the best portraits of New Orleans ever captured on film. Despite critical acclaim and a slew of trophies, including three Emmys and an NAACP Image Award, it was canceled after 22 episodes.
Then it vanished.
The show was called Frank's Place, and it hasn't been rebroadcast in the two decades since, nor has it ever been made available commercially. In a time when nearly all old TV shows are reissued on DVD, it's never been released in a box set. Several years ago, the master tapes were discovered in a Hollywood trash bin, discarded by the network that owned them, headed for the dump.
The man who produced and starred in the show drove over to pick them up.
That man was actor Tim Reid, who had created the show with friend Hugh Wilson, and the ignominy of finding his masterwork in a Dumpster was, to Reid, the final metaphor for the way the network had treated Frank's Place.
"I remember the feeling I had after reading the pilot script," he says. "I told Hugh: 'I think this is brilliant, but I don't think they're going to get the first episode. It's gonna take them a few episodes for people to really understand what they're seeing. Because there're no black people like that on television, and white people had never met black people like that, except in a personal, small sense.'"
Except, perhaps, in New Orleans.
Twenty years before Frank's Place, Reid — perhaps best known to the TV Land generation for his role as deejay Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati — had entered show business as half of "Tim and Tom," the country's first (and, to this day, he insists, only) interracial stand-up comedy team. Tom was his friend Tom Dreesen, and the two spent five years crisscrossing the country, entertaining black and white audiences alike. (The story of their act is told in their new book Tim & Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White, an autobiography co-written by journalist Ron Rapoport; see sidebar on p. TK.)
In May 1972, Tim and Tom arrived in New Orleans to play a two-week set at the old Playboy Club on Iberville Street in the French Quarter.
"We arrived in New Orleans the day [segregationist Alabama governor] George Wallace was shot," says Reid, "and we stayed in a place that had a picture of Jefferson Davis over the desk. And when we arrived there, we hadn't heard whether the assailant was either white or black. I remember praying, Please, God, let it be a white man, because I don't want to be in this city if a black man shot George Wallace!.
"Outside of the French Quarter, it was still ... back in the day," he laughs.
New Orleans seduced Reid. He hung out with Playboy bunnies, drank at the Club Car bar, and enjoyed wee-hours "brunches" at Lucky Pierre's on Bourbon Street. "It was sometimes hard for me to believe the French Quarter was in America," he says. "It had a unique, crazy sort of arrogance about it — this was before hip-hop and the whole urbanization of New Orleans, there was this sense of voodoo, food, the language people spoke — it was English, but not quite English, you know?
"That's what embedded New Orleans in my heart. It was like I had gone to a foreign country. [Tom and I] ended up having the most fun we ever had together as a team in five-and-a-half years. I left town thinking: I gotta move to New Orleans. That never happened, but that's one of the reasons when we had the opportunity to do [Frank's Place], New Orleans was one of the places I thought of."
It would be more than a decade before Reid returned. In the meantime, he and Tom split up. Dreesen went on to a fine solo stand-up career, with frequent appearances on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson and many years as Frank Sinatra's opening act, while Reid took on small TV parts until he was cast on WKRP. There, he says, he had his first (but not his last) major clash with network executives over the direction of his character: "They wanted me to be Jimmie Walker. They even sent down a couple young white guys from New York to teach me how to be black. They gave me black lessons."
Other roles followed, including Simon & Simon sidekick Marcel Proust "Downtown" Brown. Not wanting to be "Downtown Brown" the rest of his life, Reid left after four years and teamed up with Hugh Wilson, the former producer of WKRP, to create their own show.
The result was an eccentric, nuanced ensemble comedy. Reid played Frank Parrish, a Boston professor of Italian Renaissance history, who came to New Orleans after his father's death. Parrish hadn't seen his father since he was a baby, but Louisiana's inheritance laws stated he was the new owner of Chez (pronounced "shezz") Louisiane, a shabby-genteel Tremé restaurant with money problems but a strong local clientele. (Wilson and Reid based it on the real-life Chez Helene, down to copying the floor plan on a Hollywood soundstage and flying in chef Austin Leslie to prepare the food that would be seen on camera.) Daphne Maxwell Reid, Tim's wife, was cast as his love interest, a gorgeous mortuary worker based on a real-life embalmer Wilson and Reid had met at the Rhodes Funeral Home on N. Claiborne Avenue.
"Everybody doesn't have to look like they just came off the cover of Vogue or GQ," Reid told The Washington Post at the time; indeed, the cast came in various shapes, sizes and ages. Among them were two actual New Orleanians: Francesca P. Roberts, a University of New Orleans graduate who played Anna-May, an exasperated single-mom waitress, and Don Yesso as sous-chef Shorty LaRoux, a novice actor who had been hired on the strength of his personality and his straight-outta-Parasol's Irish Channel accent. Other roles were filled by veterans of the black theater, including 83-year-old Frances E. Williams as "Miss Marie," who, in a recognizably New Orleans touch, only waited on customers who had been coming to the Chez for more than 20 years. "The characters came out of New Orleans — I'd like to say we wrote them, but how can you go to New Orleans and not meet them?" Reid says.
And the storylines flowed out of the lives of the Seventh Ward: the world of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, the gulf between light- and dark-skinned blacks, and the city's particular funeral customs — all of which captured "the special warmth of New Orleans without tumbling into patronizing caricatures," noted The New York Times.
The world and the rituals of Frank's Place were those any New Orleanian, black or white, would recognize immediately and find normal, even comforting. But Reid and Wilson still worried. Would viewers, whose TV favorites at the time included The Facts of Life and Who's the Boss?, relate to a subtle comedy shot on film with no laugh track – a then-radical approach? And would America even recognize an authentic New Orleans, not the faux-Hollywood version with Cajuns, swamps and year-round Carnival?
The critics did. "I have no problem placing...Frank's Place in the company of a great American novel," wrote a reviewer in the Baton Rouge Advocate. The Oregonian called it "a work of art." Rolling Stone said "Rarely has a prime-time show attempted to capture so accurately a particular American subculture – in this case that of blue-collar blacks in Louisiana." The night following the debut of Frank's Place, Bill Cosby sent Reid a telegram with a single word: Bravo.
"It wasn't a sitcom. It was a naturalistic drama," says David Mills, the Emmy award-winning producer of The Corner and writer for HBO's The Wire. "American television has always found it difficult to present black life in a drama-series context."
Audiences had the same problem. Frank's Place debuted with great ratings, but quickly began to slip, even as the scripts got sharper and quirkier. In one episode, Frank tries to goose up evening business by advertising, only to find his restaurant filled with fanny-packed tourists and drag queens. Another featured a recipe dispute between the Chez and a white-tablecloth Quarter restaurant, which was eventually settled with a boxing match between their chefs. By the season's end, the Television Critics Association had given Frank's Place its award for Best Comedy Series, but CBS, puzzled by the show's sophisticated rhythms and unsure of its appeal — was it a black sitcom? A half-hour drama? — had switched its time slot six times in 22 episodes. Still, CBS stuck with it, or seemed to, and Reid and company spent the summer of 1988 planning season two.
"During the break, the writers had hired a train car and went down to New Orleans and came back with some of the most incredible storylines," Reid says. "They were interesting, edgy. Frank was going to run for office and we were going to get into New Orleans politics.
"We were three days before shooting our first episode [of the second season] when we were canceled."
The network offered no explanation.
The group Viewers for Quality Television began a letter-writing campaign, but it was too late. Frank's Place was gone, never to return to TV except in a brief run on Black Entertainment Television in the early 1990s. It hasn't been seen since.
What happened? As it was told to Reid a year later by, of all people, the network's Walter Cronkite, the last episode of the show (about a then-hot topic, junk bonds) had enraged Wall Street investor Laurence Tisch, who had just purchased CBS — using junk bonds. Reid is convinced that Tisch overruled network brass, who had renewed the show, canceling it and burying it for good on the basis of that episode alone: "When you piss off the big boys, they don't forget."
Despondent at the show's failure, Reid left Hollywood. "I sold my house. I bought a farm in Charlottesville [Va.] and for one full year I didn't have a television in my house. I drove around on my tractor. I stayed out of show business for three years."
Eventually, Reid and his wife built their own production studio, New Millennium, in Charlottesville, and went on to create several well-regarded projects there, including the movie Once Upon a Time ... When We Were Colored and a series called Linc's, a mashup of Frank's Place, Archie Bunker's Place and Cheers, set in a Capitol Hill bar. It lasted from 1998-2000 on Showtime.
When the money ran low, Reid began to commute to L.A. He starred for six years on the family sitcom Sister, Sister while his wife played Will Smith's aunt on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He floated scripts for a couple of Frank's Place movies, both of which went nowhere.
And then, one day he got a call from a friend at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.
"I got in my car and drove over," Reid says, "and they had thrown away the 1-inch original master tapes of [Frank's Place] and put them in the Dumpster. That's what they thought of the show." No longer devastated, but angry, he took them back to Virginia.
Tim Reid had his show back. It was a start.
TODAY, THE REIDS still live in Virginia. Neither has any desire to move back to Hollywood. "Life is joyous here," says Daphne. Tim has been traveling the country, promoting Tim & Tom with his old friend Dreesen, and Daphne is preparing her first photography show. Both work occasionally in television as the mood strikes them.
Reid still has the master tapes, and continues to work on getting Frank's Place released on DVD. "I have a whole email list of people who are waiting for us to put it out on DVD," Daphne says. "Passionately waiting."
"The problem is not the show, it's the music," Reid says. (Each episode began with Louis Armstrong's version of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" and included original Louisiana music from the likes of Clarence "Frogman" Henry – all of which would need to be repurchased again for a DVD release.) "It cost me $2,300 a week back then just to use the Louis Armstrong theme." But he hasn't given up.
Reid professes admiration for a few contemporary performers, like Dave Chappelle, but has no desire to return to TV on a full-time basis — particularly in 2008 Hollywood, which he says is less inclusive than it was in 1988 when it comes to quality and diversity.
"We are nonexistent in the sitcoms," he says. "They're all about young white kids and there are no black people, not even extras ... what is this world? And it is being created by these so-called liberals! They are not racist — they just don't care. They think they are above race. They don't understand racial division because they were never a part of it, good or bad. They have no need to write about New Orleans the way it is.
"Television will never be the same to me. I don't think about it now. I don't have any pain. But it left a scar and scar tissue, because I'll always think about what could have been."
(color photo of Tim Reid)
(woman with hat)
- "Frank had to be a fish out of water, so we had to stack him against the unusual nature of New Orleans," Tim Reid says today. "I haven't been to New Orleans since the flood, so I have no idea what it's like now, but it really was like a foreign country."
- The ensemble of Frank's Place, with Tim Reid and Daphne Maxwell Reid (center). The cast included two New Orleans actors, Francesca P. Roberts (back row, center) and Don Yesso (middle row, right).
- In the Emmy award-winning episode "The Bridge," guest star Conchata Ferrell played an Uptown lawyer who filed suit on behalf of her family's housekeeper, whose husband had driven off a Ninth Ward bridge after being "overserved" at the bar at Chez Louisiane.
- In "Night Business," Frank ignored the advice of his staff and attempted to expand the Tremé restaurant's evening clientele by advertising in the French Quarter ... with some unexpected results.