Cleavant Derricks:
Endings and Beginnings

by Michelle Erica Green

The Sliders cast enters the vortex for the last time this week, but actor Cleavant Derricks already knows where it's going to take him. After five seasons of playing fictional singer Rembrandt "Crying Man" Brown on the show, the last remaining original cast member wants to expand his musical career in the real world.

"I finally was able to do my CD, because of Sliders and because of the fans of Sliders," said the Tony Award-winning actor earlier this week. "There was so much response from the fans about my singing on the show - 'Cleavant, when are you going to do a CD?' When Sliders ended last April, my wife and I looked at each other and said, 'Let's do a CD.'"

Derricks wrote most of the music on Beginnings, his debut album. Most of the music is "crossover, pop, R&B, some spiritual content, some soulful content, train of thought." But the song getting the most attention among fans is "Remmy's Slide," dedicated by the singer to his loyal viewing audience.

Slip Sliding Away

Over the course of the run of Sliders, many senior cast members retired and were replaced by new characters. In the case of main character Quinn, actor Jerry O'Connell went through the Vortex and emerged with the body of Robert Floyd, while Quinn's brother Colin (played by Jerry's brother Charlie) "splattered into a thousand pieces."

"That's clever, huh? That's what happens when there's a change!" laughed Derricks, who stuck with the series through the retirement of John Rhys-Davies, the hiring of several female regulars, and the transformation of Quinn when his originator left the show. "Jerry's character went through the Vortex, came together with another Quinn from another parallel Earth, and they somehow physically became one person. So you have our Quinn's thought processes but another Quinn's body. They handled it very, very well. It made a lot of sense to sci-fi fans."

Now that the series has wrapped its fifth and final season, Derricks has mixed feelings about the ups and downs. "You don't want to stay someplace forever, you always want to go down new avenues and experience new and different things," he observed. "But what kept me coming back was the fact that my character was growing. I appreciated that, and I really fell in love with this guy. I really wanted to see this through, because I found it fascinating to continue to travel to parallel Earths and find new adventures."

"How many times can actors say that we can go outside a stage door, travel a 75-mile radius, and do different episodes every week in a new location? There are not many opportunities, but we were able to do that on a weekly basis with Sliders. That part I really appreciated and enjoyed."

Though Derricks never pitched episodes like Rhys-Davies and O'Connell, "these guys understood sci-fi a lot more than I understood sci-fi," he wanted to portray Rembrandt Brown as being serious about his musical career. "What I understood about the show and about my character was who he was and what he was about - entertainment. That's where my contribution was lying: to show that music meant a lot to him. It wasn't just some fly-by-night silly thing."

So the actor wrote songs for the character - songs which would have meaning for Remmy. And he had a great response from the fans. "That's why the album is here today," he noted. "My staying with the show worked to my benefit, because I was able to do the things that I wanted to do anyway. I wanted to grow. I wanted to go back into my singing, I wanted to write, and I wanted people to hear my music. Sliders has allowed me to do that."

Perhaps it should not be surprising that his favorite episode is the pilot. "They all run together, the scenes, the moments," he admitted. "The fans can ask you about individual episodes, but I don't remember - everything runs together! What stays in my mind, in all honesty, has got to be the first one. That was the beginning of it. It was getting to know actors and characters, it was getting to share and starting to grow. It's the most memorable to me."

Big Dreams

Derricks has fond feelings for all his colleagues on Sliders, but isn't devastated at the thought of moving on. "Actors are like gypsies: you're in one place, you're there for a little while, and then you move on," he said. "We're artists, we have so many facets of our lives that we're involved in, we come together, we break bread together and we commune together. The thoughts and prayers and the well-wishes go with us when we separate, especially when you've had great relationships like I've had with this cast."

Since shooting wrapped in April, most of the cast has gone on to new projects. "John Rhys-Davies now I think has gone back to the Isle of Man, and Jerry's here in California, but he's working behind the scenes," Derricks reported. "Sabrina's into another series, and I've gone more into my music. We're going into venues now that don't necessarily have anything to do with our fellow actors from when we were doing Sliders. That's not to say that we don't have the love and the camaraderie - it's just that our lives go in different directions."

The actor "could never have told you at the beginning that I was going to be doing Sliders for five seasons." But he has rarely been able to predict the course of his career, which encompasses featured roles in the Robin Williams movie Moscow on the Hudson and in Neil Simonís The Sluggerís Wife. In fact, when he was first approached about starring in Dreamgirls - the musical for which he won his Tony Award - he turned it down.

"I had just finished a workshop in New York that never even got off the ground," he recalled. "It broke my heart. A few months later, Tom Eyen wanted me to come down and audition for this show called Big Dreams. What was it? A workshop. I didn't want another workshop! He was working with [A Chorus Line director/choreographer] Michael Bennett, but there was no book. But Tom Eyen had this vision of certain people he had seen on Broadway. He saw them in his dream for this show."

Eyen didn't want anyone but Derricks for the part of James Thunder Early. "I didn't want to do it." But his brother, actor Clinton Derrick - who, like Jerry O'Connell's brother, appeared on Sliders - convinced Derricks to meet with the producer. "I walked in and I met him, and it was the easiest audition I ever could have done."

Big Dreams evolved into Dreamgirls, which ran for several years on Broadway. "That show was probably the best thing I ever had an opportunity to do on Broadway, and I worked with some of the best people. I worked with Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, Joseph Papp, Mike Nichols," stated Derricks. "The same thing happened with Sliders. I didn't want to do it, and it was the easiest audition I could have done. So you never know. My walk of life in this business has always been, I'm just walking...and it just happens."

She Was The One

Derrick credits his wife Portia with convincing him to take Sliders, and with generally supporting his career. "I met my wife backstage at Dreamgirls," he recalled. "She had studied to be an actress, but she didn't like the business aspect of the business. When she met me, she said, 'You know what, you're more talented than I am, I'll work with you and help you with your career. We've been together for 15 years. She is my right arm, she truly is. It's a great relationship and a great friendship, I wouldn't be here today if it weren't for her."

The father of two boys and two girls ages 14, 12, ten, and five, the actor laughed that "the only ten-year plan I have is getting my kids through college!" He sobered a bit when asked about whether Hollywood has become an easier place for minority actors to work.

"There are a lot of actors who are here and in New York who have really worked hard, they've gone to school, they've studied, they've spent a lot of years in the trenches to express themselves as actors," he observed. "But there's another side of the business that says you've got to be bankable. You've got to be bringing in the bucks. When it comes to us, minorities, they don't come to us as actors. They go to people in the music business or some other facet of the business and bring them in, and they put us around them. A lot of times minorities have to depend on somebody who's in another arena in order to even get work as a fellow thespian in the business."

"Here we are in the new millennium, and although I've been very fortunate in this business, there are so many others out there," he continued. "I go on auditions and see how many people are there for a piece of the pie. Hollywood does patchwork in order to fill the void, but it really isn't thought out. They say things are changing, but I don't see it yet. I think America has been ready for it for a long time, looking at television as true America. People coming together and appreciating each other for what they have to offer and learning from people. Isn't that what America is all about? I have yet to see it in the business. In the meantime, I guess we just keep plugging."

Born in Tennessee, Derricks and his family moved around a lot with his father, a Baptist preacher. "I've seen a lot of America, I've experienced music from all over America," he noted. "I'm very fond of all types of music, so I think it shows in my CD. I wanted to do something for everybody because I'm an eclectic kind of person. I think I accomplished that, expressing from inside of me what I wanted to express in different formats of music. You're talking to a happy camper."

Though he doesn't miss the cold weather in New York, the actor does miss Broadway theater. "If there is a show that I feel I would really enjoy doing, I would certainly go back," he said. He has not spent much time in New York since he left, though he did go back last summer to pitch an idea for a musical.

"They already had their quota of shows for the new season to produce last year, but there's always next year. It's a wonderful piece based on a true story, a love story. It has to do with America, North and South, in the mid-1800s. There's nothing like it out, so we'll see what happens. I love musicals, I love good music, and I think this particular show has it, so I'm looking forward to developing it."

Though he has appeared on many television shows, including Roseanne, L.A. Law, and Moonlighting, Derricks would like to focus on his music rather than his acting career. "What I would like to do next, to be quite honest, I would like to follow up my album with another CD. I would like to develop the songs that I've had for so long," he said. "You'd be amazed the people who did not know that Cleavant was a singer. Back East, they know me from theater. But the television viewing audience is all over the world now. This is a facet of my life I have to pick up and develop some more. And I want to, because I enjoy doing that as much as I do being an actor."

He would also like to produce and write "for a lot of the young people out there - songs that don't necessarily sit well on me that might sit well on someone else. I found another facet of myself in the studio that I want to express more. I enjoy it immensely. But who knows? You know how this business is. You never know."

No matter what he does next, Derricks wants to express his appreciation to the fans from Sliders. Information about the actor and excerpts from Beginnings are available on his web page, "The fans are great, particularly now because of the last episode. I'm starting to address the chat page [on] because there's so much coming in. I've got to tell you, it's a joy to be with fans who carry on with a show because they enjoy what they're seeing every week. Sci-fi fans are long term fans, once they get into a show they stick with it."

"You can tell them from me, thank you," added Derricks. "Thank you for your support, your comments, your appreciation of what we tried to do for five seasons. Thank you for allowing me to do a CD, because I don't think it would have happened without the fans. From the letters that we're getting, the fans are really getting into it, so hopefully it continues."

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