STAGE TO SCREENS: Stage Actors Find a Home on TV's "Ed"

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: Stage Actors Find a Home on TV's "Ed"
 
This month we again look at New York actors working in television, in this case on "Ed" (NBC, Wednesday, 8 PM ET), and chat with the series co-executive producer, Merrill Karpf.
Tom Cavanagh
Tom Cavanagh Photo by Justin Lubin

A production of David Letterman's Worldwide Pants company, in association with Viacom, "Ed" follows the adventures of lawyer Ed Stevens (Tom Cavanagh) who, following the end of his marriage and career in New York City, moves back to his hometown, Stuckeyville, Ohio. There, he takes over a bowling alley (where he practices law) and pursues his high school crush, Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen), now a teacher. Enjoying its fourth season, "Ed" debuted in October 2000.

***

"Ed" shoots in New Jersey, "about a half-hour against traffic [from Manhattan]," says Merrill Karpf. "We're here because we found a bowling alley that had been abandoned. We needed a practical bowling alley [which could also serve as a studio], and that dictated where we put our operations. It's only 25-30 minutes up the Palisades Parkway."

Most New York actors who appear on the show share a van, are picked up on a designated street corner, and driven to the alley/studio. "Some, depending on their stature, get picked up alone," Karpf points out. "Little perks."

On the East Coast for the nine months that the series is in production, Karpf's home base is Seattle. "I don't commute, except on some holidays. I go back during hiatus. I love the show, and I was born in New York. When my wife is here, we go to the theatre almost every weekend. I love work and theatre, and I relax in Seattle. It's kind of the best of both worlds." Sometimes actors working in theatre are unable to do episodic TV because, for 60-minute shows, there has to be a 12-hour turnaround (break) between each day's shooting. "Rarely do we have to have an actor ask for a day off," explains Karpf. "If someone's in a play — and it's someone I really want — we make sure [he or she] works on a Monday, when the play is dark; or, if it's just one scene, I'll schedule it early in the day. I can't think of one instance where someone's missed a performance [onstage]."

Among the New York actors who have appeared on the series over the years: Philip Bosco and Jane Summerhays (as Ed's parents), Melissa Errico (as Ed's ex-wife — "one of my favorites," notes Karpf, "very professional"), Taye Diggs, Richard Easton, Christopher Sieber, Charles S. Dutton, Anne Meara, Shuler Hensley, Kevin Chamberlin, Karen Mason, Amy Spanger, Evan Handler, Jennifer Van Dyck, Robert Ari and William Duell.

"We just aired episodes with Len Cariou and James Barbour. We had Joel Higgins [in an October episode]. He had a long history in theatre before going into television. People forget that Timothy Busfield [who twice has played Ed's older brother] was in A Few Good Men [before working in TV]. Coming up, we have Burt Reynolds [who began his career Off Broadway and may soon be appearing on Broadway], Blair Brown, Julia Murney and Reg Rogers.

Are there advantages to working with stage actors? "Without putting down other actors, there are two that readily come to mind," observes Karpf. "One is purely financial. There's such a talent pool here to draw from; we don't have to rely on flying people in from Hollywood. That's a cost saving to us. Second, for the most part it's a generalization, but the working New York actor is better trained and, I think, more committed to their craft and skill than their counterparts in Los Angeles.

"People are going to scream, 'How can you say that?' Of course, there are exceptions; there are wonderful actors in both places. But I'll find more classically trained actresses — Juilliard, Yale— at a younger age here than I would in Los Angeles. They tend to come here first, after their training. If you're looking for actors in their twenties who have good training, I think you'll find more here than in Los Angeles.

"And actors who just love theatre seem to want to live here. They're willing to live the life of a working New York actor. Of course, the Len Carious of the world work in both [media]." Karpf finds it ironic that sometimes he'll go to the theatre and find that "a single-day player [on 'Ed'] has a major part in a play."

Turnabout is fair play, too: During the summer hiatus, Tom Cavanagh took over the role of Bobby Strong in Urinetown, opposite John Cullum. "It wasn't his Broadway debut," says Karpf. "He had been in Shenandoah [in 1989], also with Cullum."

When "Ed" began, 16 new bowling lanes were installed in the alley/studio. "We have a full-time bowling technician who runs the technical part of the lanes — extras do bowling during scenes. Last season, we hosted an NBC party, where people came and bowled."

Was it ever considered that the alley be opened to the public for a charity event? "No, no," insists Karpf. "It's a working set with props; the lanes are not what you'd call 'Triple-A.' If we kept them highly polished, people would be falling all over while they're setting up lights." This week on "Ed," the lawyer and teacher are separated — at least geographically — with Carol, who longs for a writing career, accepting a job offer in New York. Without ruining anything for viewers (or creators), does Karpf want to say what direction the plots will take? He pauses. "I'd rather that people just watch; I don't think they'll be disappointed. I don't think [Ed and Carol] are destined for a relationship apart." Like a bowling ball on a lane (and to quote a playwright who's bowled-'em-over for centuries), "The course of true love never did run smooth."

***

END QUIZ: John Cullum, who combines theatre and TV, received one of his two Tonys for Shenandoah, a musical (based on a Jimmy Stewart movie). Who was originally slated to star: a) Jack Palance; b) Robert Ryan; c) Richard Kiley? (Answer: Next column, Nov. 23)

The Sept. 28 question was: In which Broadway musical did Gypsy Rose Lee play a role originated by Ethel Merman: a) Panama Hattie; b) DuBarry Was a Lady; c) Gypsy? The answer is b). (Lee replaced Betty Allen, who succeeded Merman.)

Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review. He may be reached at mbuckley6@nyc.rr.com

Today’s Most Popular News: