Tuesday, May 25, 1993
Meek sheds no tears for 'Raven'
Like his character, he doesn't worry about things he cannot control
By Tim Ryan
On a picture-postcard perfect day, Jeff Meek the tourist is enjoying the scene of the grime and toil after months of filming the just-cancelled Hawaii-based series "Raven."
But this handsome and self-confident actor looks a bit frail, a little pale even, as he sits on the sun-drenched, wrap-around lanai of his $1000-a-night oceanfront suite at the Halekulani Hotel.
(Meek last night served as celebrity host for a "Big Brothers-Big Sisters" benefit. The hotel donated Meek's accommodations while he is here for the event.)
A few hours after Meek arrived last Friday he was struck by food poisoning that, he thinks, began with a sandwich - the contents of which, he says, are better not remembered - and peaked sometime just after a Thai dinner.
"It wasn't a pretty sight when it all erupted," said Meek, 34, laughing at the experience. "The thought of death seemed like it would be a blessing."
Meek, an all-around athlete and an L.A. Lakers fan since his high school days in Riverside, Calif., is interrupting watching the New York Knicks-Chicago Bulls NBA playoff game to do the interview that was cancelled from the previous day because of his illness. Meek suddenly remembers crying the day Earvin "Magic" Johnson retired, announcing he had the HIV virus that causes AIDS.
"It's one of those days where I'll always remember where I was and what I was doing," he said. But he was neither surprised nor shed many tears when "Raven's" cancellation was announced this month. And not because he didn't love doing the show, or working in Hawaii.
This seasoned, award-winning actor who began performing in plays and musicals when he was 12, fully realizes and accepts that entertainment is a business, "about making money," and said complaining about something over which he has no power is simply spitting into the wind.
"You can't get mad because it rains," Meek said. "The only thing I can do is pay homage to my character, be kind to my crew, earn my money and then let it go."
What he hasn't let go is what he feels he owes to Hawaii.
"Everyone was so receptive to the show," he said. "And they made me feel at home. I always felt the people here were pleased with our efforts and that their friendliness was genuine."
The value of being a celebrity, Meek said, is being able to give something back to the community, and "occasionally getting a good table at a restaurant."
He's wearing a pair of high-tech sunglasses, faded trunks, and a white shirt with a logo promoting saving the worlds oceans from pollution. His words are carefully chosen, and he patiently repeats his answers to ensure the reporter understands. His frustration with television as a medium is clear.
"I chose to do 'Raven' because I thought the character was wonderful," he said. "But what you are given in the beginning and what you end up having to do are two different things. I've learned to not be so naïve."
"There's too many people involved in the creative process, all telling the show what it should be like."
An actor's job, Meek says, is to portray the character the best he can, and fight for his integrity.
"The paradox of the actor is that you have to be transparent and yet have armor; be vulnerable, and resilient; people have to see your heart, and yet you have to have skin of steel," he said.
But "Raven" didn't fail, Meek insists, so much as it was killed by bad timing.
"We were very successful...to everything before 'Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman' came on in January," he said. "Then the network wanted the same ratings from us even though we didn't get the same kind of promotion or continuity."
MEEK: He's ready to move on
The Chuck Norris show "Walker: Texas Ranger" - another surprise hit - was the nail in "Raven's" coffin.
"The network only cares about numbers and money, and I understand that," Meek said. "There's not an emotional connection in this business to a show; we are commodities; I'm just an employee."
Meek says he fought to have the character of Jonathan Raven developed more with a focus on the mythology of the part. But the show lost sight of the original intent, or never really understood it, perhaps because the writers were in Hollywood, not Hawaii, Meek said.
And there may have been pressure from network executives to contemporize the show.
"I think they wanted to see 'Magnum, P.I.' again," Meek said. "You can't do that when you're doing a show about a guy from Japan. I wasn't paid to be Tom Selleck; I'm Jeffrey Meek."
In one episode about Madame Pele, a writer made up most of the storyline, said Meek, who protested vigorously and got the script changed. The production company also hired an Anglo, Irish-Catholic redheaded woman to play Pele. Meek went ballistic; he complained again to the producers, who hired a local actress for the part.
"Television is...radio with pictures," Meek said. "If you don't have the words, the story, then you're screwed. You have to know the region, the people, to get into the real heart of things, or you lose."
Meek takes a deep breath, removes his sunglasses and looks out at Waikiki Beach and the several hundred surfers riding tiny waves.
"I did the best I could and left the rest of the business in the hands of God and the network," he says, breaking into a grin. "I try not to use those words in the same sentence."
But Meek hasn't allowed himself much time for mourning.
He's readying himself for a June audition for the Andrew Lloyd Weber production of in Los Angeles of "Sunset Boulevard," starring Glenn Close. He's also working on his Shakespeare for theater work this summer in San Diego.
And he's writing a screenplay based on a dramatic reading by Shelley about a family in Italy in 1599 whose patriarch commits atrocities against his friends and family members but gets away with it because he pays off the pope. In a major understatement, Meek calls the work "very controversial."
"I'm not about doing popular things," he said.
Nor does he aspire to return to television.
"It's always been that I'll work in whichever medium will accept me at the time," he said. "But television, which I do believe is the medium of the future, is in such a state that it's difficult for someone with a theater background to accept its limitations and rigor."
One of Meek's greatest fears in portraying Jonathan Raven was being categorized as "an action, martial artist-actor." That isn't going to happen, he joked, because "no one apparently knew the show was even on the air."
What saddens Meek the most is that "Raven" may have left the wrong impression with audiences about his acting abilities.
"I wish whoever did watch 'Raven' had seen me in (the Langford Wilson play) 'Burn This,'" said Meek who played the part of Pale in the San Diego production. "People would have a totally different perspective of me as an artist. They would see a totally different character; that's something I would really liked to be judged by."