By Jared Chausow
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To Edwards's dismay, once installed in the publicity department, she found herself in charge of a "black press list" of African-American journalists and publications she was supposed to woo. "I didn't realize until I got there that I was hired as the affirmative action candidate," says Edwards, whose Caribbean lilt is sometimes mistaken for an English inflection. "I told them if they wanted a black voice on the phone to appeal to black journalists, I'm not the one for the job because of my accent. That made them very nervous." Eventually, HBO broadened her responsibilities to include dealing with nonblack journalists. Then, in her first job review, she was reprimanded for not showing enough sensitivity to the diversity training program she failed to volunteer, because she thought it was a waste of time. Later, her supervisors contacted her and told her the course was compulsory, so she signed up.
HBO claims Edwards crossed the line from conscientious objector to ideological crusader when she gave her Persian assistant permission not to attend the class because it was "superficial" and "ineffective." Ironically, the beginning of the end of Edwards's HBO tenure came not because of her right-wing politics, but because she helped organize a bash for bleeding-heart liberal intellectuals who were all Sopranos fans. The July power dinner held at a downtown Italian restaurant and attended by New York Post columnist Jack Newfield, Sopranos creator David Chase, Nicholas Pileggi, Mario Cuomo, and Pete Hamill incensed Edwards's immediate superior, Tobe Becker, who Edwards says told her: "You had no business being at that dinner."
"This was the pretext for me being put under investigation," says Edwards. "I guess this little nigger was too uppity for her masters." A few days later, Becker and her boss Quentin Schaffer approached Plepler and told him they believed Edwards was attempting to build up a private client roster culled from such HBO talent as Gandolfini, actress Lorraine Bracco, and Oz creator Tom Fontana. (Through their respective managers, both Gandolfini and Bracco denied Edwards had ever tried to solicit them as personal clients; Fontana declined comment.) Exiled from HBO's Bryant Park offices, Edwards decided to fight back, retaining Milton Mollen of Mollen Commission fame as her lawyer.
Writer Frank Renzulli, coexecutive producer of The Sopranos, agrees with Edwards that it's easy to get blackballed in the entertainment industry for having the wrong political views. "Showbiz has room for everybody, just as long as they think like us," he jokes. "No matter what anybody says, there is a party political line you're expected to toe. It's not as ugly and repressive as the McCarthy era. But it's definitely there."
Renzulli has nothing but praise for Edwards: "She's a joy to work with, as opposed to another HBO publicist I had to deal with," says the script writer. He's talking about Becker, who after removing Edwards from the show, took over herself. "My experience with Tobe was very unpleasant. Her whole tone was insulting. It doesn't surprise me that a person like Tobe could make such an unfair accusation against a person like Frances. Frances was the perfect person for the job. She did her job so well that she made her superiors jealous."