R.I.P. Della Reese, 86, Singer and ‘Touched by an Angel’ Star

Ms. Reese performed in concert in 2001 as part of Detroit 300, a festival celebrating the city’s 300th anniversary. As a singer, she had her first big hit record in 1957, with the romantic ballad “And That Reminds Me.” (Credit: Paul Warner/Associated Press)

by Anita Gates via nytimes.com

Della Reese, the husky-voiced singer and actress who spent almost a decade playing a down-to-earth heavenly messenger on the CBS series “Touched by an Angel” and became an ordained minister in real life, died on Sunday night at her home in Encino, Calif. She was 86.

Her death was confirmed by her manager, Lynda Bensky. She did not specify the cause but said that Ms. Reese had diabetes.

Ms. Reese had been under contract to Jubilee Records for three years when, in 1957, she had her first big hit record, the romantic ballad “And That Reminds Me.”

Named the year’s most promising “girl singer” by Billboard, Variety and Cash Box, she was soon making regular appearances on the leading television variety shows of the day. Her biggest hit was “Don’t You Know” — adapted from “Musetta’s Waltz,” an aria from “La Bohème” — which reached No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart in 1959.

But she became best known as an actress, particularly in the sentimental drama series “Touched by an Angel,” which had its premiere in 1994 and evolved into one of prime time’s top-rated shows. It placed in the Nielsen Top 10 from 1996 to 2000, with an average of more than 20 million weekly viewers at one point.

In the show, Ms. Reese, by then in her 60s, was cast as Tess, a stern but loving supervisor of angels who guided a softhearted and less experienced angel, Monica (Roma Downey), in helping humans at crossroads in their lives. The series told reassuring stories of forgiveness and second chances with mild irreverence. (“You get your little angel butt back to the city,” Tess told Monica in one episode.)

Ms. Reese contended that no career switch was involved. “Every time I sang the blues, I wasn’t blue,” she said in a 2008 interview for the Archive of American Television, alluding to her emotional connections and delivery as a vocalist. “I was already acting.”

Ms. Reese’s religious faith was a major influence in her career. In 1996 she told The Chicago Tribune that she had consulted with God about whether to sign on for “Angel.” “As clearly as I hear you,” she said, “I heard him say: ‘You can do this. I want you to do this, and you can retire in 10 years.’ ”

The series lasted nine years, and she continued to act for another decade after that.

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Executive Producer and Star Gabrielle Union’s ‘Bad Boys’ Spinoff Series Scores Production Commitment at NBC

CREDIT: MEDIAPUNCH/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

by Joe Otterson via variety.com

A planned “Bad Boys” spinoff series starring Gabrielle Union has landed at NBC with a pilot production commitment. Union will star as Syd Burnett, her character from “Bad Boys 2,” who was last seen in Miami taking down a drug cartel. As an LAPD detective, she can now pursue all the pleasures Los Angeles has to offer and leave her past behind. But things will get complicated when her new partner, Nancy McKenna, learns that Syd’s unapologetic lifestyle may be masking a greater personal secret.

Union will also serve as an executive producer in addition to starring. The drama series will be written and executive produced by Brandon Sonnier and Brandon Margolis, who previously worked together on NBC’s “The Blacklist.” Jerry Bruckheimer, who produced the “Bad Boys” films, will executive produce along with Jonathan Littman, KristieAnne Reed, Jeff Gaspin, Jeff Morrone, Doug Belgrad.

Sony Pictures Television Studios will produce in association with Jerry Bruckheimer Television, Primary Wave Entertainment, and 2.0 Entertainment. News of the development of this series comes as Union prepares to wrap up her role in BET’s “Being Mary Jane,” which wrapped up its fourth season in September. Union stars as successful broadcast journalist Mary Jane Paul. The network announced that the show will end its run in 2018 with a two-hour finale movie.

Source: ‘Bad Boys’ Spinoff Series Starring Gabrielle Union Scores Production Commitment at NBC – Variety

Vanessa Morrison Named Head of Fox Family in Animation Division Overhaul

Fox Family President Vanessa Morrison (CREDIT: COURTESY OF 20TH CENTURY FOX)

by Brent Lang via Variety.com

Vanessa Morrison, longtime head of Twentieth Century Fox Film’s animation division, is moving into a new role at the studio. She has been named president of Fox Family, a newly-created division that will develop films aimed at younger moviegoers and their parents. They include both animated films and films with live action elements. Her appointment is effective immediately, and she will report to Chair Proman and CEO Stacey Snider and Vice Chairman Emma Watts.

Fox said it will announce a replacement for Morrison in the coming days. The move comes as Snider is shaking up Fox’s animation arm with the goal of releasing at least one animated film a year. Snider recently signed a multi-year production deal with Locksmith Animation. The goal is to augment the films that Blue Sky, the makers of the “Ice Age” series, creates for Fox. The studio owns Blue Sky.

Snider believes that animated releases are an increasingly popular genre and that Fox needs to be a bigger player in the space. There’s certainly a lot of competition. Disney continues to dominate the market thanks to its Pixar division, Warner Bros. and Sony have upped their number of family releases, and Universal’s parent company Comcast made the decision in 2016 to shell out $3.8 billion to buy DreamWorks Animation.

In addition to her movie work, Morrison will also oversee the studio’s family animated television business. That division makes holiday television specials based on existing film properties. Fox is also making film features based on its small-screen efforts, such as a “Bob’s Burgers” film. Morrison will oversee those productions, as well. “Vanessa has for many years championed the studio’s efforts to take a more wholistic approach to the family entertainment space, and this new role will empower her to execute on that goal,” Snider and Watts said in a joint statement. “We are thrilled to have her leading this initiative, and as this segment in the marketplace continues to grow, the creation of this new division will strengthen our footprint as we look to create the best possible films for families across our entire company.”

Morrison has headed up Fox Animation since 2007. In addition to the “Ice Age” franchise, Morrison oversaw the production of the likes of the “Rio” films, “Peanuts,” and “Book of Life.” She also worked on “Ferdinand,” Fox’s next animated release, which hits theaters in November.

Source: Vanessa Morrison Named Head of Fox Family in Animation Division Overhaul – Variety

R.I.P. Robert Guillaume, 89, Emmy-Award Winning Actor and Star of “Benson”

Robert Guillaume (CREDIT: AP)

Richard Natale via variety.com

Emmy Award-winning actor Robert Guillaume, best known as the title character in the TV sitcom “Benson,” died Tuesday. He was 89.

His wife Donna Brown Guillaume told the Associated Press he died at their Los Angeles home of complications of prostate cancer. Guillaume often played acerbic, dry-witted, but ultimately lovable characters like the butler Benson Du Bois, which he created on the 1977 series “Soap,” before his character was spun off in 1979. Guillaume won Emmys both for “Soap” (as supporting actor) and “Benson” (as lead actor).

He was also known as the the voice of Rafiki in “The Lion King,” for which he also won a Grammy for a spoken word recording. “Benson” ran on ABC for seven years until 1986. The show brought Guillaume an Emmy in 1985 for lead actor in a comedy. In the late ’90s he took on the role of Isaac Jaffe, executive producer of a cable sports show on the ABC sitcom “Sports Night,” and continued to perform even after being felled by a stroke.

Guillaume also possessed a powerful, mellifluous voice, which he used most notably to play the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” onstage. After suffering through a period of unemployment during the ’70s, he was cast in an all-black revival of “Guys and Dolls” as Nathan Detroit, which debuted on Broadway in 1977 and secured him a Tony nomination. He also guested during this period on sitcoms such as “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son” and “The Jeffersons,” which led to the supporting role of Benson in “Soap.”

He tried another sitcom in 1989, “The Robert Guillaume Show,” playing a marriage counselor. The series lasted four months before ABC pulled the plug. He returned to singing in 1990 in the Los Angeles production of “Phantom of the Opera” and on Broadway in the lead role of “Cyrano — The Musical” for four months beginning in November 1993. He also performed regularly in concert.

Guillaume was featured in films such as “Meteor Man,” “First Kid” and “Spy Hard.” On television he appeared in the HBO family series “Happily Ever After” and TV movies and miniseries including “Children of the Dust,” “Run for the Dream” and “Pandora’s Clock.” He appeared in Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” in 2003, and then made more frequent bigscreen appearances later in the decade, appearing in the Christian film “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry” in 2008; in the thriller “Columbus Circle,” starring Selma Blair, in 2010; and in the small musical dramedy “Satin” in 2011.

Robert Peter Williams was born in St. Louis, Mo., changing his name only after he decided on a career in acting. After completing his schooling he joined the Army in 1945 and was discharged 15 months later. He took on a number of menial jobs while studying nights at St. Louis U. He originally intended to study business but became interested in singing and transferred to Washington U. to study voice and theater. His performance at the 1957 Aspen Music Festival led to an apprenticeship at the Karamu Performing Arts Theater in Cleveland, where he appeared in operas and musical comedies.

After moving to New York, he made his Broadway debut in a 1960 revival of “Finian’s Rainbow” and found regular employment in the chorus of shows like “Fly, Blackbird,” “Golden Boy” and “Porgy and Bess.” In 1972 he took on the title role in the musical “Purlie” and also appeared in the revue “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”He is survived by his second wife, TV producer Donna Brown Guillaume; one son (another died in 1990); and three daughters.

Source: Robert Guillaume, Star of ‘Benson,’ Dies at 89 – Variety

Larry Wilmore and Bassem Youssef to Develop Middle Eastern Superhero Comedy at ABC

Bassem Youssef and Larry Wilmore (photos via variety.com)

by Joe Otterson via variety.com

ABC is developing a comedy about a Middle Eastern family with superpowers from Larry Wilmore and Bassem Youssef. The untitled series centers on the Sharif family, an ordinary Middle Eastern American family with two superhero parents at a time when it’s illegal to be a superhero, so they are forced to save the world in secret. The show will highlight some of the issues that immigrant families face when it comes to fitting into a society that at many times treats you like the enemy.

Wilmore and Youssef will serve as writers and executive producers on the single camera series. ABC Studios will produce. “To have ABC challenge the narrative and stereotypes that have long stuck to people in my region is something spectacular to say the least,” said Youssef. “To have only terrorist roles available for us one day, then get to play superheroes the next, is ground breaking. I am grateful to work with, Larry Wilmore, one of the most talented writers and producers in the market. SCH is unprecedented, culture-defining, and entertaining for the whole family.”

The sale of the project marks Wilmore’s first solo project under his overall deal with ABC Studios. He also serves as an executive producer on “Insecure” and “Black-ish.” Youssef is a writer and comedian who has made numerous appearances on “The Daily Show” as a commentator and also appeared on Wilmore’s former Comedy Central series, “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore.” 

“I’m beyond thrilled to have the chance to put a family like this on television,” Wilmore said. “Plus, I’ve always wanted to do a show about superheroes and to work with a real life superhero in Bassem is a double bonus.”

Source: ABC Developing Middle Eastern Superhero Comedy From Bassem Youssef, Larry Wilmore – Variety

Jordan Peele and ABC President Channing Dungey to Be Honored by African American Film Critics Association

Filmmaker Jordan Peele (l), ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey (r) [photo credit: Getty Images via hollywoodreporter.com]

by Arlene Washington via hollywoodreporter.com

The African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) has named Get Out writer-director Jordan Peele and ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey among the recipients of its special achievement honors.

Alcon Entertainment’s co-CEOs Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove and Los Angeles Film Festival president Claudia Puig will also be recognized at AAFCA’s special achievement luncheon in 2018, which along with its annual awards ceremony will be a “Celebration of Women in Cinema.” The success of female-helmed films this year, from big-budget features including Patty JenkinsWonder Woman to Dee Rees‘ anticipated Mudbound (which recently screened at New York Film Festival), has inspired AAFCA — the largest group of black film critics — to proclaim 2017 the “Year of the Woman in Cinema.”

The organization stated that with films including The Zookeeper’s Wife, A United Kingdom, Detroit and The Beguiled, “women are rightfully being recognized for their long overdue equity in potential for quality, successful filmmaking.” “There is no argument that women have made a bold step forward this year in Hollywood,” says AAFCA president Gil Robertson, who co-founded the organization in 2003 with Shawn Edwards. “The evidence demonstrated during the past year speaks for itself both in terms of box office and critical recognition by women, and we predict that there will be continued momentum going forward. We are also pleased that African American women are a part of this progress and are taking advantage of increased opportunities to make their cinematic imprint.”

The organization also said that future projects, including Ava DuVernay‘s A Wrinkle in Time in March 2018, show that women and African American directors are heading toward a normalcy in getting more big-screen opportunities. “Women wrote, produced and directed some of the year’s most compelling, provocative and culturally relevant movies,” adds Edwards. “However, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that women have a permanent place at the table with equal representation.”

In addition to the AAFCA special achievement luncheon on Feb. 3 in Marina del Rey, Calif., the organization’s annual awards program will take place on Feb. 7 at the Taglyan Complex in Hollywood.

Source: Jordan Peele, ABC’s Channing Dungey to Be Feted by AAFCA | Hollywood Reporter

FEATURE: ‘Girls Trip’ Star Tiffany Haddish’s Remarkable Rise

Comedian and actor Tiffany Haddish (photo via theatlantic.com)

by Michael P. Jeffries via theatlantic.com

When comedian Tiffany Haddish was 9, her stepfather tampered with the brakes on her mother’s car, hoping to kill his partner and her four children. Rather than going out with her mom that day, Haddish asked to stay home and look after her younger siblings—sparing her from the horrific accident that left her mother mentally impaired. As the oldest child, Haddish did what she could to help for three years, from tying her mother’s shoes to paying bills, but eventually Haddish and her siblings were placed in foster care.

Haddish used the trauma and tragedy of her upbringing to ignite what is now a blazing comedy career. As a child, the Girls Trip star was teased for being a foster kid, but Haddish has also talked about maintaining a strong sense of self worth in her recent Showtime standup special, She Ready!: From the Hood to Hollywood. “The state of California paid so much money to make sure I don’t die ‘cause they knew I was gonna be special,” Haddish tells her audience. “They knew it. They was like, ‘This one right here, she gonna be a unicorn.’ And they was right. I’m the last black unicorn, bitch!”

Haddish’s ascent in recent years—debuting on NBC’s The Carmichael Show in 2015 and appearing in the 2016 action comedy Keanu and the summer hit Girls Trip—is a testament to her talent and resilience. But her story also offers insight into what it takes for a black woman in comedy to become successful today. Haddish’s rise points to where systemic roadblocks still lie for performers of color, particularly women, when they first enter the business—and how some barriers to entry may be falling as comedy enters a new golden age, with fewer gatekeepers and more platforms for artists to reach their fans.

Even though Girls Trip has a black director and writers, Haddish faced questions about her low profile. Her agent initially told her that studio executives were looking for someone with a bigger name to play her character, Dina. Haddish told her agent to tell them, “I’ve had a name since 1979. Okay? I was born with a name.” In the end, her rare comedic gifts won out, and reviews of Girls Trip regularly singled Haddish out for praise. Continue reading