Tonight at 8, Frank Robinson makes his national acting debut on "The CosbyShow" on Channel 2 (WMAR-TV) The episode was taped in New York two months ago.Sun reporter Mary Corey spent the afternoon on the set, interviewing andobserving the budding performer.
Early scouting reports were good. He'd managed to learn his lines, takedirection and tie his shoes on camera. But an hour before taping, FrankRobinson was staring down a serious case of the jitters.
There he was on the set of one of TV's most successful sitcoms, fourcameras pointed at him, 200 or so people waiting for laughs, as he warmed upfor his new position as Frank "Payday" Potter on "The Cosby Show."
Granted, portraying a former ballplayer who bowls, swaps baseball storiesand says lines like "I'm hungry. Let's eat" wasn't too much of a stretch forthe 55-year-old Orioles manager.
But try telling that to a fidgety rookie.
"What I compare this to is three things: first at bat, opening day; firstat bat at the [American League Championship Series], and the World Series," hesaid.
The episode -- "There's Still No Joy in Mudville" -- centers around agroup of men who revel in sports and competition. Joe Black, a former BrooklynDodgers pitcher, also makes a guest appearance.
"It's about self-indulgence and who knows more about baseball," Bill Cosbysaid. His respect for these athletes, combined with their interest in theshow, brought them all together.
"Frank's a great sport and has done an excellent job, given what hisexperience is," the cigar-smoking comedian said.
In between scenes, Mr. Robinson paced offstage behind a potted fern, hislips moving as he read aloud from his script, his acting coach YolandaSnowball by his side.
Members of the crew offered support through their attire -- the stagedirector wore a Cincinnati Reds cap, while another assistant showed his truecolors, orange and black, with a numbered Orioles jersey. (He was soon told,however, he was showing his support for the wrong Robinson. Brooks -- notFrank -- was No. 5.)
And between rehearsals, staff members proved to be as superstitious asmany ball players. Sitting around the Huxtable kitchen table, while Mr. Cosbypolished off a lunch of pea soup, bread and bottled water, they read aloud Mr.Robinson's horoscope for the day.
"Personally and professionally things don't seem clearly defined, butdon't imagine changes and upheavals taking place are to your disadvantage."
Mr. Cosby interpreted that as a good sign and ranked Mr. Robinson's firstappearance above those of other non-professionals who had been on the show,including Dizzy Gillespie, B. B. King and the late Armand Hammer.
Surely, though, he doesn't think the acting world has found its nextOlivier?
"Noooo," said Mr. Cosby without a moment's pause. "But I'll put it to youthis way, he's better than I was in my first 'I Spy' episode."
For Mr. Robinson, the week had its share of highs and lows. He foundprimping for the cameras about as much fun as losing an argument to an umpire.Rumor had it that after a stylist carefully fixed his hair, he went to amirror and combed it himself.
"I don't like powder and stuff on my face," he said. "I was made up when Iwas born."
He also didn't like having his part expanded just a day before taping. "Hecomplained that he's getting more lines and still making the same money," Mr.Cosby said with a laugh.
Aside from Ms. Snowball's help, he received no guidance about how to makea graceful transition from manager to actor.
How was he supposed to say his very first line? Was it: "Is he lateagain?" Or "Is he late again?" Mr. Robinson had to wrestle with thosequestions himself.
"Nobody said, 'Do this, do that. They threw it at us cold turkey. . . .Bill was saying, 'Be relaxed, be your self, be natural. Let it flow.' "
But having observed his style, camerawoman Donna Quante consideredcoaching unnecessary. To her, Mr. Robinson was a natural. "This isn't too muchof a stretch for him," she said. "We see him acting every day when he goes outand argues with the umpire."
It was thanks in part to her that the two even teamed up. In addition toworking on the show, Ms. Quante, who lives in Hampstead, is a camerawoman forHome Team Sports. She acted as a liaison between the men, who became friendswhen Mr. Cosby called Mr. Robinson to offer support during the abysmal 1988season. Soon after, an Orioles jersey was exchanged for a Cosby sweater. Thentalk turned to having the Hall of Famer guest star on the show.
"I admire people in this business," Mr. Robinson said. "I've always wantedto dabble in it."
After his first performance, though, he decided dabbling was all he everwanted to do. Resting on the sofa in his dressing room, looking drained andtired in a blue bathrobe, he was already preparing for the barbs from playersand other coaches.
"I won't hear the end of this," he said. "I know I'm going to catch itafterwards; you know, 'Stick with baseball.'
His thoughts were already turning to revenge.
"Bill has to manage the ball club now," he said. "I want to see how hedoes. I want to see his palms sweat when he has to make the decisions in thedugout."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun