Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome “The Bus” Bettis guest stars on Monday’s episode of “The Neighborhood” (8 p.m., KDKA-TV) as himself.
The storyline finds Calvin Butler (Cedric the Entertainer) running into Bettis at a restaurant and learning the Hall of Famer grew up knowing Calvin’s wife, Tina (Tichina Arnold), who calls him Romey, a nickname for Jerome.
“Jerome and I go back to when Amazon was just a rainforest,” Tina cracks.
The Butlers invite Bettis to dinner where Calvin learns Bettis and Tina had a teenage fling. Calvin gets jealous, references are made to Bettis’ GEICO commercials and Calvin worries if Tina regrets her choices: “Being married to a guy who owns an auto body shop doesn’t get you on ‘The Real Housewives of Pittsburgh.’”
Although it is a sweeps month, “Neighborhood” showrunner/executive producer Meg DeLoatch said it wasn’t a directive from the network to feature Bettis in an effort to better to promote the sitcom during CBS’s Sunday NFL games.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know a lot about sports,” she said in a phone interview Thursday. “I don’t follow any team. I just was aware of Jerome as a charming football player that I knew could do more than just play football.”
DeLoatch said she met Bettis briefly years ago at Pro Bowl festivities in Hawaii through a friend who was married to NFL player Chester McGlockton.
“[Bettis] had a lot of personality and so when I was pitching the story, I always said, ‘Jerome Bettis,’ but I never thought I would get him,” DeLoatch said. “What the part calls for was, of course, the manliest of football players, somebody that this character, Calvin, would respect and love and geek-out over. That’s just not going to be any old guy. Jerome was just perfect for that. We wrote it. And then casting was like, ‘Well, do you want to try to get Jerome Bettis?’ We were like, ‘Sure,’ never expecting, he’d be willing to come on and do it.”
Bettis said he was happy to be asked and was game to make the trip to Los Angeles from Atlanta, where he now lives.
“I’m a big fan of Cedric the Entertainer,” Bettis said in a phone interview Friday. “We’ve been friends for years so I definitely wanted to support him and I’ve been a big fan of the show so it was fun to get the request.”
On “The Neighborhood” it’s previously been established that Tina grew up in Los Angeles’ Compton neighborhood, so to make the story work with Bettis, the writers invented a grandmother for Tina who lived in Detroit, where Bettis grew up. Tina visited her grandmother there each summer which is how Tina met and dated Bettis.
Although Bettis plays himself, he is in multiple scenes so he does have to act.
“Everything we wrote, we could give it to him, because we knew he could pull it off,” DeLoatch said. “And then when he got here, he was even better than I thought. He was a pleasure to work with. He’s just the most approachable guy, hanging out with everybody and very warm and friendly. And then he was game for all of this stuff we threw at him.”
Bettis has acted in scripted TV series before, playing characters on “Chuck” (2009) and “Living Single” (1994) and appearing as himself on “The Office” (2006) but “The Neighborhood” marks his biggest role to date.
“This is the most extensive because I was in a number of scenes,” Bettis said. “Most of the time you do one scene or it may bleed into a second scene but this was an incredible opportunity to be in the episode in multiple areas and have multiple lines and have to interact with the actors, which was great for me.”
Bettis said he hasn’t traded acting tips with his former Steelers compatriot James Harrison, who has a series regular role on Starz’s “Heels,” which was recently renewed for a second season.
“I’ve been watching him and he’s quickly gotten his feet on solid ground and is doing an incredible job,” Bettis said. “I am thoroughly impressed by him being able to pick it up so quickly.”
Due to covid safety protocols, “The Neighborhood,” like most sitcoms usually taped in front of a studio audience, continues to produce new episodes without an audience present. DeLoatch said Bettis came to several rehearsal days in advance of tape day, when the episode is recorded. And he hung out after.
“We got a lot of swag and he signed everything and then we raffled it off to the crew and he did the raffle and personally took a picture with each person who won,” DeLoatch said. “He was here long enough that everybody was able to get their picture. He hung out with us and had a drink after. He was just a decent human being.”
Bettis said he’d consider more acting roles in the future.
“I do appreciate the art form and I know how difficult it is,” Bettis said. “In no way would I ever think you could just walk in and just master that craft because it is an art and it is so difficult. I’ve been fortunate to work with groups of people who make it look very easy.”
As for the current Steelers’ season, Bettis said he’s quietly excited about it.
“Initially it was going in the wrong direction and I was like, ‘Uh-oh, here we go, we had a lot of promise at the beginning of the season and it kind of all falls apart,’” Bettis said. “I think they’ve [righted] the ship and now they’re in the position to really go out and become one of those sleeper picks that can go out and do some special things so I’m excited to see what the second half [of the season] is gonna looks like.”
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Cable sports shutdowns
NBCSN will be discontinued on Dec. 31 with many of its properties – Premier League, NASCAR, horse racing and Olympics coverage – shifting to USA Network. Some live sports may also move to CNBC and streaming service Peacock.
In addition, ESPN Classic will shutter on Jan. 1.
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