Three's a Crowd - and a Hit: Rising Young Stars Score in 'Hangin' with Mr. Cooper.' (Television Program)

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In a season when most new television series have been major ratings disappointments, the ABC sitcom Hangin' With Mr. Cooper has emerged as a winner, occasionally finishing in the Top 10.

The series, sort of a 1990s version of the 1970s hit Three's Company (a sitcom about a man living with two female roommates), has standup comic Mark Curry sharing house space with Holly Robinson and Dawnn Lewis. In the series, Curry is a former neighborhood basketball star who is now substitute teaching in Oakland, Calif., while dreaming of a career in the National Basketball Association.

On the homefront, Cooper has a warm but unrequited lustful spot for roommate Vanessa (Robinson), a woman who barely knows he exists beyond coughing up his share of the rent on the first of the month. Dawnn Lewis, Cooper's lifelong friend (Robin) is the person Cooper relies on for confidence boosting. Through humor and good old feminine intuition, she manages to help him improve his self-image.

Blessed with a favorable time slot (it precedes top-ranked Roseanne), a cast of two veteran actresses and a hot comic, Hangin' With Mr. Cooper has connected with audiences far beyond expectations. Critics as well as cast members attribute much of the success to the chemistry among three very different personalities. Each brings a different strength to the show.

ALTHOUGH he always saw himself as funny, Curry never planned on making laughter a lifelong career. The youngest of eight children, he recalls that the humor came from his siblings joking and talking about each other at home in Oakland. "At the table, we'd say things like, 'Oh, look at Brenda's hair. Doesn't it look like a mop.' Everybody would burst out laughing."

He downplayed his comedic talents while majoring in journalism at California State University-Hayward. "I had a pretty nice voice. So I gave radio a try, and the comedy came from there," he says. "I did a radio show in Oakland as a grandmother character. It was really popular in the Bay area. People would swear by it. She was a hip old lady. It got so popular that when I was on the road, I had to call it in."

He got into standup comedy on a dare. While working as the manager of a drugstore in San Francisco, one of his employees informed him that he was going to try standup on a local show. "I said, 'If you do it, I'll do it,'" he recalls. "And I went on the Gong Show and got gonged. But I felt good onstage. So I came back. This time I wrote things down. That was Feb. 18, 1987. And it's been good ever since."

Curry performed at comedy clubs throughout the country, toured with Damon Wayans and opened for Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl. He performed on The Arsenio Hall Show, with fellow comic Sinbad on the special Sinbad and Friends and served as host of Showtime at the Apollo. On the silver screen, Curry performed in the comedy, Talking Dirty After Dark.

Officials at ABC-TV saw his Home Box Office special, One Night Stand, and were impressed enough to offer him a deal. "We looked at and rejected scripts and finally came up with Mr. Cooper," he says. "At first, I just wanted to be a great comic. I never thought about having my own series."

Curry still has trouble believing how well things have turned out so fast. He wants Mr. Cooper to be a good role model for youngsters like the Cosby Show.

Comedy takes up at least 80 percent of Curry's time. On those rare occasions when he is not working, he spends time bike-riding, watching old movies and, of course, playing basketball.

AFTER being a cast member of the highly successful NBC sitcom, A Different World, for five years, Dawnn Lewis decided last season that the time had come to move on.

As Jaleesa, the older student who came back to Hillman College to finish her degree, her character eventually got a job, found a husband (Glynn Turman) and had a baby. "I had been trying to leave for over a year, for a couple of reasons," she recalls. …