'Lopez' breaks barriers and longevity records as skein sets 'cultural milestone'

It was about time.

The network track record on Latino-fronted sitcoms was abysmal when ABC launched “The George Lopez Show” in 2002.

“George Lopez” came along just as new demographic info started emerging about the nation’s fastest-growing minority group and in the same time frame that other shows, such as Fox’s “Luis” and the WB’s “Greetings From Tucson,” also emerged.

“Luis” and “Greetings From Tucson” quickly disappeared. (A third, “The Ortegas,” never made it to air.)

But 100 episodes later, “George Lopez” has long since become the most successful skein led by a Latino star since, well, “I Love Lucy.”

“To get this far is a cultural milestone,” says exec producer Bruce Helford. “I hope we get to be remembered as a show that changed the way Hispanic families are viewed. We’ve kicked out the stereotypes.”

Helford says Latino actors who showed up at “Lopez” weren’t used to auditioning for roles that didn’t contain the usual stereotypical mannerisms.

“People would come in and do fake Spanish accents,” he says. “That doesn’t exist anymore. Now when they come in, they don’t put on the phony accent. If we’ve broken that wall, that’s huge.”

Still, the network track record on Latino-fronted series remains weak.

“I’ve been at this for five years,” Lopez says, “but we’re still where we were five years ago. I look at the list of pilots, and not one of them has a Latino-themed lead. That’s why it’s going to be tough.”

Lopez says it’s a Catch-22: Networks are leery when it comes to banking on unproven Latino talent, he believes. But that talent will remain unproven until they’re given a shot, he adds.

“There hasn’t been that kind of opportunity,” he notes. “That’s just a part of the business.”

At the same time, Lopez observes, it’s been rough going for just about everyone in the TV comedy business these days, as few hits have emerged overall.

“It’s hard for anybody in the business, no matter what color you are. It’s just harder when you’re Latino,” he says.

Lopez admits he’s very aware of “George Lopez’s” place in TV history, and the impact it will have on future shows that feature Latino leads. The comedian, who has become friends with some of the thesps who paved the way for his success, including Cheech Marin, says he takes that role seriously.

“I always wanted to be that guy,” Lopez says. “I always felt like I was the guy who had the heart to do it the right way, and for all the right reasons. It’s not about the wealth as much as leaving a mark in the industry.”

Lopez says that’s why it was important for him to be an executive producer on the show, a title he shares with Helford, Robert Borden, Sandra Bullock, Deb Oppenheimer, David Caplan and Paul Kaplan.

“Five years ago I had never sat on a soundstage,” he says. “I’ve been able to earn the respect of people I work with.”

Helford said he didn’t realize at first the weight placed on Lopez to deliver a show that would finally break through the Latino glass ceiling.

“I didn’t understand that burden,” he says. “I wasn’t as aware. Like everybody else, I wasn’t looking in that direction until I met George and realized that there was a huge hole in the ozone. This show was on George’s shoulders more than anybody.”

Lopez was able to succeed where other comedians, such as Paul Rodriguez (“a.k.a. Pablo”), Jackie Guerra (“First Time Out”) and John Leguizamo (“House of Buggin'”) couldn’t. Besides “I Love Lucy,” the only other Latino-led sitcom to attain hit status was the mid-’70s skein “Chico and the Man.”

More recently, Lopez has served as a consulting producer on “Freddie,” starring Freddie Prinze Jr. (son of “Chico” star Freddie Prinze).

Latino thesps have done better in the drama arena, where shows such as “NYPD Blue” have featured Latino leads, and in cable and pubcasting, where series such as “Resurrection Blvd.,” “The Brothers Garcia” and “An American Family” lasted for quite a while.

Meanwhile, at 100 episodes “George Lopez” has long since moved away from being known only as a “Latino” comedy.

“In the beginning, the handle was we were a ‘Latino show,’ but now that’s secondary or third to what we’re known for,” Lopez says. “We’re just a show now. We’ve got our characters mapped, everyone knows their personalities. We’re this machine moving forward.”

Warner Bros. TV topper Peter Roth agrees, noting the heritage of Lopez and the other characters is just one aspect of the show.

“What’s wonderful about the show is to have such personal stories told with so much angst and real drama while evidenced in a comedic way,” Roth says. “That’s a tribute to George and his team. To add to that this specific Latino experience, and to have it comedicized so effectively, is a great boon to network TV.”

Roth notes Lopez’s experiences are “unique enough but universal enough to be relatable to a broader audience — and there’s the key.”

ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson says “George Lopez” will be remembered as a show that boasted the strong voice of its star, in the tradition of such Alphabet laffers as “Roseanne.”

“The honesty and the insight that he brings to that character, and the point of view, is what makes it special,” McPherson says.

As for the show’s future, Lopez admits airing opposite powerhouse “American Idol” has left his show bruised and battered, but not defeated,

“It’s toughened us up,” he says. “I feel like Robert Duvall in ‘Apocalypse Now,’ as the bombs are going off around him. Somebody’s got to be up against them, and it’s got to be us. But we have a great core audience, and when the show is good, I don’t think we have to apologize for it not having the strongest numbers.”

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