ST. LOUIS - TV Land wanted Cedric the Entertainer to make Cleveland his home. He held out for his real home: St. Louis.
In "The Soul Man," a comedy making its debut Wednesday on the cable network, Cedric plays R&B star Boyce "The Voice" Ballantine, who has given up the fast life and moved home to take over his father's church in the Central West End.
Viewers first met Ballantine on TV Land's "Hot in Cleveland" in an episode that found him offering premarital advice to Betty White's character.
"When we were talking about the new series, they asked if I wanted to be from Cleveland, but I wasn't really comfortable with that," Cedric says. "I said, let's make it St. Louis, so the setup is that I leave Las Vegas and come home to St. Louis."
As co-creator and an executive producer of "The Soul Man," Cedric, who also co-wrote the pilot, had a hand in other details, including casting. But choosing fellow St. Louisan Niecy Nash to play his wife, Lolli, was a coincidence, he says.
They had met years before and worked together on a movie ("Code Name: The Cleaner"), but as for their similar roots, "I didn't know!"
The two soon compared notes about their St. Louis childhoods and some of their favorite spots.
Cedric, 48, was born Cedric Kyles (he still uses the name in his personal life) in Jefferson City and lived in Caruthersville before moving to St. Louis, where he graduated from Berkeley High School. He worked as an insurance claims adjuster here before making it in comedy.
Nash, 42, was born in California but spent much of her childhood with her grandmother, Mildred Brookins, in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood in northwest St. Louis. She has often said that she considers St. Louis home, or at least a second home, and visits family here often.
Maybe it was their similar roots, "but we had a nice rhythm together right away," Cedric says of Nash. "We have so many connections."
(Plus, Nash has pointed out, "My first husband was an R&B singer turned pastor. How about that for coincidence?")
In "The Soul Man," Boyce and Lolli Ballantine have been married for 18 years, with a teenage daughter, Lyric, played by Jazz Raycole ("My Wife and Kids").
When his father (John Beasley of "Everwood") decided it was time to retire from the church he had led for many years, Boyce saw a chance to turn his life around by taking over. As viewers meet him, he's getting comfortable in the pulpit and trying to fit into the church community, often asking God for help along the way.
"I built the character off a joke I did about how everybody has a right to change, that even R. Kelly could become a minister," Cedric says. "Boyce's music didn't always sit well with his father. His biggest hit was 'Sex Wichoo,' and he made a lot of money, but he felt the calling and is making a big transition."
Now, "he's a minister, but he's not sin-free," Cedric says. "That's very important. Christians can be portrayed as so righteous, that they can do no wrong, but most of us know it's a struggle."
Also making a big transition: Boyce's wife and daughter. Lolli wants to support him, even if it means putting on pantyhose to satisfy the "church ladies," but Lyric just wants to get back all the perks she had when dad was famous.
Moving to the Central West End, which Cedric identifies as the setting for "Soul Man," hardly means deprivation, though.
The Rev. Ballantine's church is large and stone and could fit right in on, say, Skinker Boulevard. The family's ivy-covered brick home is large - "it's nice, it's big, but not one of the mansions," Cedric points out - and is a real house in the Central West End. That's the exterior; interiors are sets on a soundstage.
In the first episode, in which St. Louis isn't mentioned by name, Bryce is introduced as a big sports fan and wears both a "Missouri Basketball" shirt and a "Mizzou 1" jersey.
"I need my lucky sweatpants," he tells his wife, the ones "with the Tiger stripes." (Unfortunately, she insists they were "lost in the move.")
Cedric's sister, Sharita Kyles Wilson, teaches communications at Mizzou, and St. Louisans can expect more local logos, including those from St. Louis University and Washington University.
"And the Rams and the Cardinals, of course," Cedric says, "although getting the approval of the professional teams takes a little more."
The aim is to make the setting authentic, Cedric says.
"We'll mention some landmarks," he says. "Streets. Food places - London and Sons wings, C&K barbecue, that kind of thing. And the Arch has come up."
What we won't hear: Cedric slipping back into his old St. Louis accent.
"I'll do it. I'll say something like 'churr' (for chair)," he says. "But Niecy calls me on it every time."
TV Land ordered 12 episodes of "The Soul Man," co-created with Suzanne Martin of "Hot in Cleveland," and will pair it with Season 2 of "The Exes."
The series shoots before a live audience in Los Angeles.
For a Season 2, Cedric says, "It would be fun to come out to St. Louis and get out on the streets. That energy would be great to have."
THE SOUL MAN
10 p.m. Wednesday
© 2012 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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