Samm-Art Williams goes from picking cotton to picking fresh talent


SAMM-ART WILLIAMS says he doesn't have any problem with the 15-hour days that are standard for staff writers on television comedies.

"Hey, I can remember in 1962 working for 30 cents an hour, from 5:30 in the morning until 8 o'clock at night, wrapping hands of tobacco or picking cotton," said Williams, a native of small-town North Carolina.

"That was back when adults were making 75 cents an hour. And minimum wage was, what, $1.10, I think. So when I'm in one of these meetings and one of those guys starts looking at his watch like it's time to go home, I just think they don't know what they could be doing. I don't have any problem with those hours at what they're paying us."

Williams is currently on the staff of NBC's "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," the Monday night sitcom that stars rapper Will Smith as a fish out of water being raised by a rich uncle in Los Angeles.

A Morgan State graduate, Williams is back in Baltimore this week conducting the second version of the Warner Bros./Lorimar regional comedy writers' workshop. Though it's been cut down to four days from last year's full week, and down to 11 writers from last year's 17, the idea is still for the studio to get out of Hollywood to find writing talent that can feed the voracious appetite of television.

Warner Bros. has conducted a similar 10-week workshop to introduce new talent to the realities of the business in Los Angeles for several years. Last year's Baltimore visit was the company's first attempt to try the idea in another area, and two of the participating writers -- the team of Karen Raper and Eunetta Boone -- were invited to Los Angeles at studio expense to take the 10-week workshop. That has just concluded and, according to Warner Bros. officials, they are hopeful of landing a staff job on a show. Following the success of the Baltimore foray, the studio also conducted a similar workshop in Boston.

"These things are very, very good for the writers," Williams said of the workshop. "I just hope they realize what an opportunity it is, having a major studio express interest in essentially unproven talent. There was nothing like this when I was coming along."

Williams arrived in Baltimore in 1964, heading for Morgan State on a basketball scholarship. His size -- 6-feet-5, 230 pounds -- also attracted the attention of the football coach.

"He was always coming around to visit me, sending players and everything," Williams remembered. "I finally went out there. That was when Morgan had Raymond Chester, Willie Lanier and a bunch of other players who went on to the NFL. Those guys could have killed me! I didn't want anything to do with football."

A month into the season, Williams also gave up his basketball scholarship. "I could have made the freshman team and been pretty good, I think, but I realized that I was never going to make a living playing profes

sional basketball, and I wasn't going to have time to study and play," he said. "I wanted to get my degree."

What he really wanted to do was be a writer. "I had wanted to write since I was in eighth grade," he said. "That was rather unusual coming from where I came from. My grandfather was a farmer. But my mother was a drama teacher, so she encouraged me."

Williams said he received further encouragement at Morgan and, though the jobs he worked to make up for the loss of his scholarship kept him out of the school's drama program, he wrote his first play while there in 1965. "It wasn't any good," he said. "But they told me just to keep at it."

When he graduated in 1968, Williams went to New York to pursue his writing, doing a lot of acting with groups like the Negro Ensemble Theater Company -- along with waiting tables, tending bar and such to make ends meet.

"I really was not a very good actor," Williams, who won acclaim for many of his performances, said. "I could do a certain kind of role and I knew my limitations. But I was no real actor. I don't do much acting any more unless some friend asks me to do something."

Eventually, he had several plays produced, and one of them, "Home," was nominated for a Tony and received several other awards. His first television work was for PBS' "American Playhouse," including "Solomon Northrup's Odyssey," a drama about a runaway slave. He also starred as Jim in a PBS production of "Huckleberry Finn."

In 1985 he got an acting job on the TV series "The New Mike Hammer." Talking to a producer of the show, he found that they needed a re-write on a script. The job came with no on-screen credit but did have a Hollywood-size paycheck attached.

Williams did the re-write and then, as he was walking off the set on his last day as an actor, the producer offered him a job as a staff writer. That took Williams to Los Angeles, where he has survived on his writing ever since.

A number of free-lance assignments followed, including scripts for "Cagney & Lacey" and the special "Motown Returns to the Apollo." Williams got another staff position on the excellent, but short-lived, "Frank's Place." "Fresh Prince" came along this year.

Despite his theatrical background, Williams said that he in nway looks down his nose at the grind-'em-out work of writing for a TV series.

"I look at television as an art form of its own," Williams said. "think one reason that so much television is bad is that people don't take it seriously enough. You have to have respect for it. I approach a half hour show as something like a very, very funny one-act play."

One that pays a lot better than an off-off-Broadway one-act play, too. And a whole lot better than picking cotton.

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