Liane Bonin
October 07, 1999 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Kevin Williamson’s ”Wasteland” debuts tonight, but controversy over the new ABC series has been brewing for months. When producers decided in July to reshoot the pilot episode to include an African-American character, the Hollywood rumor mill churned with theories that Williamson had not only caved to a recent NAACP protest, but that the show was also a loser in need of an emergency fix. ”You know what? The pilot is a blueprint, and it’s really sad that the rest of the world doesn’t know that,” sighs star Rebecca Gayheart, whose character was revamped from a cop to a staffer for an African-American district attorney. ”We had the opportunity to make the show better, so we did.”

Still, even the African-American actor ultimately cast on the show at first worried that the rumors might have weight. ”Because of all the things happening with the NAACP and so forth, I was wondering, is this a response to all of that?” says Jeffery D. Sams. ”But I was told that, no, Kevin had already decided that he wanted to do this, and, seeing the pilot, I thought this was something I wanted to be a part of.”

Though the NAACP flap may have pushed Williamson to incorporate Sams’ character sooner than he expected, costar Dan Montgomery says the media’s decision to target ”Wasteland” was off base. ”I think the lack of minority characters on TV this season was an unconscious decision by the networks, and it was smart of the NAACP to make them aware,” he says. ”But all the breakdowns [audition scipts] that were sent out said, ‘Please submit all ethnicities.’ Believe me, I auditioned with many black girls, a really beautiful Asian woman. To say [Williamson] ever made a conscious decision like ‘we want an all-white cast,’ I don’t buy that at all.”

Color-blind casting aside, Sams realizes some may be cynical about his addition to the show. ”Once you’ve made this argument that you need to do more ethnic casting, applaud it when it happens,” he argues. ”Don’t say, ‘Oh, you got this person, this person is a token.’ Say, ‘This is great that we’re seeing this.’ And then let their talent shine and give that person a fair shot.” We agree.

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