STAGE TO SCREENS: Jamey Sheridan and PBS’ “Broadway: The American Musical”

STAGE TO SCREENS: Jamey Sheridan and PBS’ “Broadway: The American Musical” This month we look at the stage and TV careers of Jamey Sheridan, seen weekly as Captain Deakins on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (Sundays, 9 PM/ET, NBC), and talk to Michael Kantor and David Horn about the six-part series, "Broadway: The American Musical."
Jamey Sheridan in
Jamey Sheridan in "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." (Photo by Jessica Burstein)

What does Jamey Sheridan consider the biggest pro and con of being a series regular? "On the one hand, money—and, on the other hand...money. [Laughs] It seems to me, in this culture, you need to have a subsidy to do theatre, not that I put theatre above anything else. I'm just after the best script I can get.

"Television allows for survival, which is the basic issue for me. You have to decide how much money is enough. You can't get carried away with the hunt for money. But there are times it shows up, and you need to grab it, and that allows you to hunt for a better script."

"Criminal Intent" scripts, says Sheridan, "are very good. Like others involved in 'Law & Order' stuff, I've come to appreciate the lack of 'soap,' if you will. The story dominates. You don't spend a lot of time with the psychological underpinnings of the police. We're more interested in the psychological makeup of the criminal. That makes for a very direct kind of storytelling. Story is always most important to me."

His role as Captain James Deakins, who oversees the actions of Detectives Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Eames (Kathryn Erbe), "is not the biggest part I've ever played. But that's all right at this time in my life. It allows me to spend time with my family. That would not be the case if I were doing 'Chicago Hope' [on which he spent the 1995-96 season as Dr. John Sutton] or 'Shannon's Deal' [the 1990-91 series, on which he starred as maverick lawyer Jack Shannon]. Now, I have a couple of boys and one on the way. [Sheridan's married to actress Colette Kilroy.] So, the situation works out pretty well. I get home [to California] about two weeks a month. Being in New York [where the series shoots] allows me to generate some work on my own. There's a play I want to do. All in all, it's a pretty good gig."

The 1987 revival of Arthur Miller's All My Sons was important to Sheridan "because that's when I realized I could do a decent job. We started at Long Wharf, went to Washington, Boston, and then came into Broadway. Having 50 performances under my belt made all the difference in the world." As Chris Keller, he received a Tony nomination as Best Featured Actor, and one of his competitors in the category (for Fences) was Courtney B. Vance, who plays ADA Ron Carver on "Criminal Intent." Sheridan notes, "Next time I do a play, I want to go out of town. I don't like the idea of opening in New York. I don't have to do theatre, but if you're going to do it, you should do it well. These days, everything has to be up and running in five minutes. As a result, the rehearsal time is missing. I learned [in All My Sons] that, for me, repetition was a tremendously valuable thing. When I'm on camera, I'd rather do 20 takes than 19."

Another reason the Miller play was meaningful to him was its star, Richard Kiley. "The guy was just a doll—a wonderful human being and tremendous actor, who was very, very generous with me. He and Jason Robards, who was also extremely generous with me [in other plays], made tremendous contributions to my dedication as an actor."

He worked with Robards directly following All My Sons. "It was a great couple of years; I thought I'd died and went to heaven." Sheridan appeared with Robards and Colleen Dewhurst in two Eugene O'Neill plays: Long Day's Journey into Night (directed by Jose Quintero, Sheridan played Jamie Tyrone) and Ah, Wilderness! ("I was the bartender, a very small part"). Done in repertory, the plays started at Yale (where Sheridan met his wife) and ten weeks later came to Broadway.

Another O'Neill experience took place in 1992; Sheridan played James Tyrone, Jr. (an older version of the Long Day's Journey character) in A Moon for the Misbegotten at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. "I told Jason I was going to do it. He said, 'Want some help?' [In a 1973 production, directed by Jose Quintero, Robards and Colleen Dewhurst gave what were deemed the touchstone performances of the leads.] For the next six weeks, we spent every Sunday afternoon at the Red Lion [Inn] in Stockbridge [MA]. Jason drove up from Connecticut; I drove over from Williamstown. It's just part of why I'm grateful to him."

A native of Pasadena, California, the actor was the fourth of Daniel and Suzanne Sheridan's five children. "I have a sister and two living brothers; my mother will be 80 this summer." His father was "a jack of all trades. When I was born, he was an officer with the Pasadena police force. He was from Australia and came over after World War II. He met my mother and was promptly kicked out of the country when his visa expired. For awhile, he announced horse races in Vancouver. He got back into the country, married my mother, and worked for a van-lines company.

"My father became the technical advisor for 'The Desert Fox' [1951], with James Mason as Rommel. They wanted an Aussie who had been in North Africa with the English, and found my father on the Pasadena police force. That gave him the [show-business] bug. He started breaking horses [for movies], stepped up to stuntman, and became a Western actor for the last four or five years of his life."

In college, Sheridan "discovered dancing and acting, and became more interested in dance. I got hurt, and an old football injury came back. I bummed around for a couple of years and ended up in New York. I thought maybe I could make a living at [acting]."

With great enthusiasm, Sheridan recalls his first theatrical venture. "We were the Williamstown second company, which lasted about ten years. In the group were Amanda Plummer and Brian Benben. We had our own space at the Pine Cobble School, about a quarter-mile away from the main stage. There were nine paid and three unpaid actors, staff directors, stage managers—a total of maybe eighteen people. We did five plays in eleven weeks: Tooth of Crime, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Rover, The Overcoat—adapted by Tom Fontana [whose later credits include TV's "Oz"], and Gossip. We went on tour to Troy and Schenectady. Boy, that was a ball! Absolutely a dream! I'd do it again!"

His New York stage debut occurred at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1979's Just a Little Bit Less than Normal, followed by The Arbor. "I went from one into the other. That gave me my Equity card." He worked regionally in Baltimore, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Allentown, and Albany.

At Circle in the Square in 1980, he did two plays: Major Barbara ("I had the very small part of Bilton") and The Man Who Came to Dinner (as Sandy, the boyfriend of the daughter of the household). Sheridan calls the latter his "reward for living through the role of Bilton."

His credits include playing Bernardo and Fortinbras in the 1982 Public Theatre production of Hamlet that starred Diane Venora. "That was my first Hamlet. I played Laertes in a little L.A. production, and did the King [Claudius] in the [2000 TV] movie that Campbell Scott made."

Other Shakespearean roles played by Sheridan include Hotspur in a 1992 Williamstown production of Henry IV and Brutus in Julius Caesar at Central Park's Delacorte in the summer of 2000. "I was very happy with that; my wife played Portia. My older son was four then, and was very much into the knives and blood [in the play]. Terrified, but he couldn't take his eyes off it. I had to prove to him that we were faking it. The company had a lot of fun with that."

He favorably recalls "Shannon's Deal," which was created by John Sayles. Scripts were by top-flight film writers, and noted jazz artists contributed to the score. Says Sheridan, "I don't think I've ever had a character that fit as well; it's probably the most interesting part I've played. It had humor, and I loved the cast [which included Elizabeth Pena and Miguel Ferrer]. But [network chief] Brandon Tartikoff left NBC, and that was that. We were mid-season replacements in '90 and '91, and basically played every night of the week [before ending its run]."

Looking back at "Chicago Hope," Sheridan observes, "There were some actors that I would really liked to have worked with more. Hector Elizondo and Adam Arkin were two guys I liked a lot. [Creator] David Kelley didn't stay. I liked his writing. He intimated that he might be leaving, but I didn't believe him. [Laughs] I was wrong. He wrote the first couple of episodes I did, and then left. The writing got a little scattered after that [and Sheridan moved on]."

In the 1999 TV-movie, "Ricky Nelson: Original Teen Idol," Sheridan portrayed Ozzie Nelson. "I loved the idea of this mild-mannered, avuncular presence on the television [sitcom], and this kind of little general in reality." In "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet" (1952-66), Ozzie was always around the house. Did Sheridan ever figure out his occupation? "I have no idea," he says, with a laugh.

On "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," Jamey Sheridan's potential far exceeds the demands. However, he has no complaints: "The character I'm playing is very interesting to me, but there's not a whole lot of him [in the action]. Still, it's a good show."

*** Michael Kantor is directing the six-hour series, "Broadway: The American Musical," which his company, Ghost Light Films, is co-producing with Thirteen/WNET. It's scheduled to debut on PBS in the fall of 2004. "I've always wanted to create a documentary on the history of Broadway," says Kantor. "Musical theatre is uniquely American; the musical started on Broadway."

The six hours will be divided, "generally chronologically," with the first part going from the late nineteenth century through the opening of Show Boat, and the final one covering from 1980 to the present. "It's shot on super-16mm film, and finished in high-definition television," notes Kantor."

Featured in the segments will be performances by numerous past stars, including Ethel Merman, Fanny Brice, Ethel Waters and Bert Williams, as well as clips ranging from The Ziegfeld Follies to The Lion King. There's also, says Kantor, "newly uncovered footage that I don't want to mention yet."

Thus far, Kantor has conducted 40 interviews, starting in 1996 with Al Hirschfeld. Among those to whom he's spoken are Carol Channing, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Jerry Herman, Stephen Sondheim, Joel Grey, John Raitt, June Havoc, Walter Matthau, Patricia Morison, Sheldon Harnick, Michael Kidd, Harold Prince, Tommy Tune, Arthur Laurents, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Jo Sullivan Loesser and Brendan Gill.

"We also have Doris Eaton Travis, the 90-something year old former Ziegfeld Follies girl, on the New Amsterdam stage—doing the same tap dance that she did there in the 1918 Follies. Right now, we're working on telling the story of Agnes de Mille. We're about to do interviews with Chita Rivera, Julie Andrews and Jerry Orbach, and we hope to get Barbra Streisand." Unfortunately, Kantor did not speak to Gwen Verdon, "but we can use footage from 'Steam Heat,' the documentary she did for Thirteen."

The aim, Kantor continues, "is not to just highlight famous performers and creators. We're placing things in historical and social contexts, and showing that Broadway has been a seminal part of American culture. We're showing how—in the Twenties—Broadway slang crossed over into the press, radio and early talking pictures, and how—20 years later—the early revue shows on television used Broadway performers.

There will be one narrator (not yet selected) for the six parts, and the goal is to use a different host for each hour, with the introductions being made from the stages of six Broadway theatres. The series will have a companion book, written by Kantor and Laurence Maslon, "and there are potential plans for a book by Max Wilk, targeting secondary-school students." Come the fall of 2004, "Broadway: The American Musical" promises to be a comprehensive and entertaining look at an American art form. Concludes Michael Kantor, "We want to reacquaint older audiences and introduce younger audiences to the glories of musical theatre."

David Horn, the series' Executive Producer (with Jac Venza) for Thirteen/WNET, observes, "It's a project that we've wanted to do for years. Alan Jay Lerner was writing a [similar] show when he died. It's been a long involved process in fund raising."

Though the exact telecast dates won't be decided before next spring, Horn believes that "Broadway: The American Musical" will likely "be shown over the course of three nights—two episodes a night. We want to make an event of it; you won't have to wait a week to see the next episode."

According to Horn, "All the scripts have been written, and a lot of interviews have been done. Most of the clip and music research has been done. There are rough cuts of two episodes ready for editing." For the final episode, says David Horn, "We're hoping to follow the creative process [of a show], from beginning to end. We're in negotiations with a couple of musicals that will be coming in next year."

Allowed to see part of episode three, I can report that the footage was a delight. It features sections on Cole Porter, Porgy and Bess, and This Is the Army. Brendan Gill comments on Porter; there are remarks by the original Porgy (Todd Duncan) and Bess (Anne Brown), and by Stephen Sondheim, who praises DuBose Heyward's lyrics and claims that the musical is his favorite.

Irving Berlin's daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, recalls that the first premiere she attended was the opening night of This Is the Army (July 4, 1942), and the composer is seen singing "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" in a clip from the movie version. "Broadway: The American Musical" looks like a treat that's worth the wait.

***

END QUIZ: In 1988, Jamey Sheridan's benefactors, Richard Kiley and Jason Robards, both won Emmys. Kiley was Lead Actor in a Series for "A Year in the Life," and Robards was Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special for which of the following telecasts: a) "Inherit the Wind"; b) "Hughie"; c) "Ah, Wilderness!" (Answer: Next column, May 11)

The March 16 question was: Katharine Hepburn starred in a 1979 TV version of "The Corn Is Green." Who played Miss Moffat in an earlier presentation (1/8/56) on "The Hallmark Hall of Fame": a) Lynn Fontanne; b) Eva LaGallienne; c) Bette Davis? The answer is b.

—Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review.