CBS’ THREE RIVERS Lives on Through Organ Donation
What would you change if you were “head writer for a day” on your favorite show? Would you “kill off” a character, or make a major storyline change? Would you be willing to make a change at all?
Unsuspecting writers on the now-canceled CBS series Three Rivers had to be prepared to make big changes the moment Owiso Odera took the stage.
His portrayal of Kuol, the Sudanese refugee in need of a heart transplant, was so endearing that a three to four-episode story arc became a recurring role that, in fact, lasted through the remainder of the series.
When I spoke with Odera, he was working on a feature film called H4, which was in the midst of reshooting.
And, as we delved into our interview, my world of make-believe slowly but surely began to be shattered.
A Similar Background
“I’m not Sudanese,” Odera informed me. “My mother was a graduate student in the Sudan when I was born. I actually grew up in Kenya. But I can relate to Kuol, because when I was growing up, we actually provided shelter for a lot of Sudanese refugees who were friends of my mother when she was a student. Our house really became kind of a conduit for Sudanese refugees leaving the Sudan.”
He said, “I knew the background of my character and remained true to him by tapping into my experiences as a child growing up and my mother’s connection to the Sudan.”
So, what was it that gave Kuol that edge to make such a strong connection with both writer and viewer? Odera let me in on a little secret, “What I brought to the character that I remember so much from my childhood was hope. Even though the situation in the Sudan was a sad one, there always seemed to be present a sense of hope, no matter what the circumstance. So, for me, I wanted to try and find everything positive about the character. Yes, he’s dying. He may never get a heart. But every moment he has left is to savor and enjoy. That was my approach. And, as for the dialect, I just listened to a few tapes.” Ouch. And I thought he was really Sudanese.
Three Rivers premiered on October 4, 2009, and we were introduced to the character of Kuol in that episode.
Maybe, in the beginning, Kuol was just another character for Odera to play. Maybe. After all, he did have a recurring role in Dirt.
Then again, maybe some part of him actually became Kuol.
A New Respect
For sure, two quite unexpected things developed for Odera while portraying Kuol.
One was that he gained a tremendous amount of respect for television writers.
He revealed to me, “It was a pleasure working with the writers of Three Rivers and figuring out how to make their words come alive. I really didn’t know a lot about the collaborative process in television and writers in general, but I learned a lot, and I appreciated them. It was a great learning process for me.”
Something to Think About
The other unexpected development was the importance of organ donation.
“I was aware of organ donation, but on the periphery, until I played that role,” he said. “I started looking more into what it means.”
“It helped me understand what it really does mean to open up your heart to somebody else. For some, it might mean writing a check or donating some food here and there. But organ donation is completely opening up your heart and saying, ‘I’m willing to give whatever part of me I can at any point in time to save a life.’ That just really deeply moved me.”
Odera was also moved by the impact of the show on the lives of its viewers. “I have a deeper respect for the show and for the work and what the show was trying to do. It was really unique, and it touched a lot of people. We got a lot of fan mail from people who became donors from watching it. I don’t know of any other shows on television that have had that kind of impact. I still get correspondence from people in Germany, Sweden, and Africa that watched it and loved it.”
Acting and Real Life
I couldn’t let the moment pass without mentioning one of my favorite Andy/Kuol moments. In this particular scene, Kuol unintentionally woke a very exhausted Andy with a guitar hero performance. As Andy proceeded to chastise him, suggesting he play in a common area of the hospital, Kuol innocently quipped, “But then I would be alone.” An empathetic Andy quietly said, “Give me the guitar” as Kuol challenged “the great Dr. Yablonski” to “let the rock gods soothe your troubled soul” through the magic of guitar hero. Odera laughed, “That was a lot of fun.”
Andy and Kuol shared many great moments through the artistry of television, and I wanted to retouch on a real-life moment I wrote about in a previous article at suite101.
Tenaya Wallace of Donate Life Hollywood and Three Rivers Creator/Executive Producer Carol Barbee had both shared with me a common thread regarding the sincerity of actor Alex O’Loughlin (Andy), now starring in Hawaii Five-0, to become an Ambassador for Donate Life America. He was so involved with becoming an Ambassador for the cause that he was instrumental in organizing an on-set training session for just that. Odera confirmed, “Yes, he was very involved with that.” Though not an Ambassador himself, Odera did participate in the training and is currently registered to be a donor for bone marrow transplants.
This brought me to Donate Life America’s current campaign to register “20 Million (Donors) in 2012,” a cause Odera readily supports.
Besides his Kenyan-Sudanese background, Odera’s Shakespearean background is also set to serve him well. The project I mentioned at the beginning of this article, H4, is a retelling of the story of young King Henry IV. And it is set to make history, marking the first time a feature presentation based on a Shakespearean play will be created, produced by, and starring mostly African Americans. “It was a no brainer for me when they called and asked if I’d join them,” Odera said.
Here’s to a wonderful actor with a great gift for touching lives.
Cheryl has been a freelance TV/film writer for more than 10 years. Simultaneously, she has worked in PR for Bon Jovi Productions in NYC, PolyGram Records (also in NYC), and Rogers & Cowan Public Relations. Cheryl has published articles at suite101.com, “Sci-Fi Entertainment” magazine, and “Soap Opera Weekly.” She was also a credited researcher for English author Denis Meikle’s JOHNNY DEPP: A KIND OF ILLUSION. Cheryl enjoys writing for the entertainment industry and meeting new people. She is also an animal lover.
This article originally appeared at suite101.com.