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O'Ree a leading man in more ways than one

by Thomas LaRocca

Willie O'Ree plays himself in an upcoming episode of the CW show, "Everybody Hates Chris". WATCH: Scenes from the show (Courtesy: CBS Paramount Network TV)
Everybody may hate Chris, but everyone loves Willie -- Willie O’Ree that is.

With the season-long celebration of the 50-year anniversary of O’Ree breaking the NHL’s color barrier and becoming the first black NHL hockey player, O’Ree was on the set of Everybody Hates Chris at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles last summer, filming a cameo for an episode that is scheduled to appear on the CW on Sunday, March 30.

“I was nervous,” O’Ree said of his taping. “I was more nervous than in my NHL debut. I had my lines all down pat and then they changed the script and then changed it again.

“This was my first acting appearance and it was fun; but I would much rather be on the ice playing hockey.”

Spoken like a true hockey player.

Also appearing in the episode was New Jersey Devils goaltender Kevin Weekes. He was also in the scene with O’Ree, helping the two main characters, Drew and Chris, with directions to see the New York Islanders play Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers in the early 1980s. Drew is played by Tequan Richmond, and Chris is played by Tyler James Williams.

“It was great working with Willie,” Weekes said. “He is just a pleasure to be around. Something like this is good, it allows us to take our product and utilize a platform that is out there for more people to experience and relate to what we do. There are a lot of people out there that do not know (Willie)’s story, and I think it is really a story that needs to be told.

“This is a great venue to be able to do that.”

O’Ree drove up from his home in San Diego the night before the taping and had dinner with Weekes, as well as former NHL forward Anson Carter. He then went to the studio to be fitted for his costume and for a final read through.

Friday morning, Weekes and O’Ree shot their scene.

Everybody Hates Chris which airs Sundays at 8 p.m., is inspired by the teenage experiences of comedian Chris Rock, growing up as the eldest of three children in Brooklyn in the 1980s. Chris’ younger brother Drew is a huge hockey fan in the show and in this episode entitled “Everybody Hates Gretzky,” Drew and Chris skip school to try and meet Drew’s idol, Wayne Gretzky.

Chris and Drew get lost on the way to the game and stop and ask for directions from two gentlemen on the street, who are played by O’Ree and Weekes.

Director Jerry Levine, who has acted in numerous television programs and movies before becoming a director, has directed 10 episodes of Everybody Hates Chris. Levine had O’Ree and Weekes shoot many different takes of the scene with the two child actors before finally calling it a wrap in the early afternoon.

Williams, the actor that portrays Chris, is 15-years-old. He says he learned a lot from O’Ree while on the set.

“This really did educate me about something I did not know anything about,” said Williams, who has also appeared on Sesame Street, in skits on Saturday Night Live and on an episode of Law & Order Special Victims Unit. “I really didn’t know that there were too many black NHL hockey players now. To know that I was working with the first one ever, it is a real honor.

“To be the first anything is really amazing. I think this experience will really make me more aware of the game of hockey.”

Terry Crews, who played six years in the NFL with stints with the Green Bay Packers, San Diego Chargers, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles, also stars in Everybody Hates Chris as the kids’ father. Though he did not appear in the scene with O’Ree and Weekes Crews said he was both thrilled and honored to meet O’Ree.

"I was more nervous than in my NHL debut.". -- Willie O'Ree

“I just got familiar with his story,” Crews said. “It is crazy I didn’t know it. The fact that he was the first black NHL player just blows my mind. I used to play football and I have such a mutual admiration for other athletes.

“All of a sudden it just takes it into a different perspective, takes it beyond sports.”

O’Ree made his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens and would play in two games during the 1957-58 season. O’Ree returned to the NHL in 1961 and saw action in 43 games and scored all of his four career goals and 10 career assists.

After the 1961-62 season, O’Ree would play another 17 years, primarily with the San Diego Gulls and Los Angeles Blades in the Western Hockey League, before retiring at the age of 43. Another black NHL player did not play in the NHL for another dozen years until Mike Marson joined the Washington Capitals in 1974.

“Willie means a lot because without someone establishing a path, there is nothing to follow,” Weekes said. “For him -- and position-specific for me, Grant Fuhr and Freddy Brathwaite -- and guys like that, they have done so much to allow us to be in the situation we are in. It is just a part of evolution and the growth of our game.”

And appearances in programs like Everybody Hates Chris, will certainly help that growth.

“This was a great experience for me and we can maybe touch a few more people,” O’Ree said. “It was great being able to work with these kids. I can’t believe they do this every day. Hopefully, with my 50th coming up, this show can help us touch a few more boys and girls.”



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