An interview with the star of Burn Notice and The Game
It was a beautiful, sunny spring day in Rochester, NY. The perfect day, in fact, to sit outside and have a conversation. But while I was in Rochester, the man I was supposed to talk to was in a place where the weather is just about always better: Miami, Florida.
Coby Bell has good reason to be in Miami: it’s the place where the hit USA Network series Burn Notice is filmed, and he’s one of the stars. So our conversation today will be over the phone. I downloaded a nifty app to record the call and waited for the phone to ring.
The call started out like any other casual conversation: talking about the weather. When I described the perfect day we were having by Rochester standards, Coby knew what I was talking about. “May is the best in New York,” he said. “There’s really only two months of really good weather in New York. They’re not consecutive, though. It’s May and then, what would you say, October?” He was spot on. Those really are the only two months of good weather in New York.
At this point, my nifty app stopped recording. But I was completely unaware of that fact, so our conversation continued, uninterrupted. Talk of the weather shifted to Miami, where the weather is, as always, beautiful, and where the town is excited by the success of the Miami Heat in the NBA playoffs. That excitement, in fact, was impacting their production last night. The location of their shoot was over a bar, and the production staff had not gotten there early enough to clear the building out. Loud cheers from the bar downstairs – where the TVs were showing the Heat take down the Boston Celtics to win the conference semifinals – kept interrupting their scenes. But Coby didn’t seem to mind, at least in retrospect. He and his co-stars would just wait for the noise to die down and say their lines again.
His character on Burn Notice, Jesse Porter, is in his second season. Coby is really enjoying playing this character; I could sense the excitement in his voice as he talked about the how fun it was to play a character that is getting the chance to develop more fully. The writers, too, got credit for making the Jesse Porter more interesting, especially as he gets used to life in Miami. I thought that would make for an excellent segue, and asked Coby how he was getting used to Miami personally. The reply was quick, “Miami is just work.”
For Coby, Miami is his workplace, his office. He spends three of four consecutive days there, but as soon as that week’s shooting is done, Coby is on a plane to California. The Bells call Long Beach, California home. When Coby is not working, you’ll find him there with his wife, Aviss, and their four children – seven year old twins Serrae and Jaena and two year old twins Quinn and Eli. His family is everything to him, so Coby spends every minute he can with them. Some weeks it’s four days, some weeks, just two, but he is committed to being there as much as is possible.
Two sets of twins intrigued me, so I asked the question, “Were you surprised?” The first time around, Coby said, they were, but they second time they almost expected it. In fact, ultimately, he thinks twins are easier. Sure, the first few months nobody gets any sleep. But after that? They play together and keep each other occupied, and Coby is convinced it has made his job easier.
Of the four kids, Eli is the only boy. As much as he loves his girls, Coby says he and his son are already developing a special bond. It’s something I can relate to; I have three girls and one boy, too. Has fatherhood changed Coby Bell? The response to that question is an emphatic – but positive – yes. He tells me about how he and his wife used to be free to go out to a movie or grab a nap on their own schedule. Now, says Coby, the kids are everything. But from the joy in his voice as he tells me that, I can tell he wouldn’t want it any other way.
What about fatherhood in general? Has it changed from what his own father’s generation knew? Yes, and that was different from what the generation before knew, says Coby. As Coby sees it, today’s dads are more likely to play an active role in sharing household duties. That’s what he tries to do, anyway. Still, his wife amazes him with her skill at organizing and accomplishing the work that needs to be done to take care of the family. But that only spurs him on to work even harder in doing his share.
While we’re conceptually near the topic, I ask Coby about his own dad, Michel Bell. The senior Mr. Bell is a vocalist, known for his work on Broadway. What was it like growing up with a famous father? My father made it very clear, says Coby, that performing was his job, and only his job. He didn’t go to an office for work like most guys, but that was how he viewed his singing: just another day at the office. He put his family first and didn’t let ego creep in.
It’s pretty clear that Coby is following the same model with his own family. Spending so much time away is tough, says Coby, because you can miss so many milestones in your kids lives even when you are only gone for three days. But he needs to support his family, and acting is his job. So Coby makes the cross-country flight to Miami to film Burn Notice. But he also makes the flight back for any time he can get with his family. And, just like his father, Coby is committed to keeping ego out of their lives. That’s why we live in Long Beach, says Coby. There’s too much ego in Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
What’s next for Coby Bell? Burn Notice and The Game (which has found new life on BET after being cancelled by the WB) should take care of him for the next few years, says Coby. And he likes where he is right now. I get to do comedy with The Game and drama with Burn Notice, says Coby. He finds it very fulfilling, and, he believes, it prepares him for whatever other opportunities his career will afford him. And it takes care of his family. After that, he hopes to pursue a new series he is planning on producing with a friend. For now, though, this hard working family man will continue to split his time between the office (Miami) and home (Long Beach).
Ben Martin is the CEO of THE FATHER LIFE. He lives with his wife and five children in the Rochester, NY, area.