STAGE TO SCREENS: TV and the New York Actor

STAGE TO SCREENS: TV and the New York Actor The theme of this monthly column is theatre and television. Thanks to Eric Grode for his kind words of welcome in his most recent "Stage to Screen," and to everyone who contributed to my first effort. I'd like to dedicate this column to my wife, Marie, the love of my life, and daughter, Ro, the life of our love.

The theme of this monthly column is theatre and television. Thanks to Eric Grode for his kind words of welcome in his most recent "Stage to Screen," and to everyone who contributed to my first effort. I'd like to dedicate this column to my wife, Marie, the love of my life, and daughter, Ro, the life of our love.

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"Law & Order," the popular NBC-TV series starting its 13th season, has been produced in Manhattan since it premiered in 1990. Executive producer Jeff Hayes, who's been with the show from the beginning, credits its success "not only to the formula and the fact that it's plot-driven, but also to shooting in New York and using real New York actors. There's such a wealth of talent here."

Hayes should know. He does the casting, along with each episode's director and casting director Suzanne Ryan. "For each part, you're reading five or six people—most of whom are perfect. It's a question of what you had in mind. I keep saying, 'Gee, that person was great, and should be saved for another episode.' But we see 40-50 people a session, and I can't store that much memory. Suzanne's good about that; she makes notes. Five or six times a session, a person that you know you can't use knocks you out.

"We probably have more guest cast than any other show. I think we average 36 or 37 speaking parts every episode. Even if a person's only in one scene, you still have to cast him. And he has that one scene to create the character; he has to be good. We do three major casting sessions—each of which lasts about three hours—for every show. It takes eight days to shoot an episode. While one episode is shooting, we prep the next one. We do casting sessions on days three, five, and seven." Hayes frequently attends plays. "First thing I do is check the Playbill [bios] to see who hasn't been in 'Law & Order.' Now, with two spin-offs, it's hard to find someone who hasn't been in any of them. I can spot [the credit] even in the dark. Tonight, I'm going to see Frankie and Johnny.... Edie Falco's been on 'Law & Order,' and I'm going to get her back. 'The Sopranos' only do 13 episodes, and she's got to work." (Might he make her an offer she can't refuse?)

A 1997 Emmy winner as Best Drama Series, "Law & Order" has given work to a multitude of New York actors. Initially, NBC wanted to shoot the show in Toronto. "They thought that doing it in New York was too expensive," recalls Joe Stern, an executive producer for the first three seasons. He credits series creator Dick Wolf with insisting that the show be shot in New York. "They wanted us to do second unit [production] in New York--like 'Cagney and Lacey' did, or fake it, like 'Kojak.' But they were missing our subtle advantage: the New York actor.

"We told them they'd have no acting pool in Toronto. If 'Law & Order' were shot in Toronto, there would be no 'Law & Order' today. NBC had no faith in the show. The first year, we had four different time slots." Stern, who produces "Judging Amy" on CBS and operates Los Angeles's Matrix Theatre, envisioned the show as another "Naked City," a 1958-63 series shot in New York. "You'd see re-runs and recognize famous faces in leading or supporting parts. I thought that could happen with 'Law & Order.'" Indeed, it has—as evidenced by the cable re-runs; in addition, the first season's episodes are being released on DVD.

Several of the current "Law & Order" stars have backgrounds in theatre. Fans of musicals know Jerry Orbach (Det. Lennie Briscoe) from the original casts of The Fantasticks, Carnival, Promises, Promises (for which, he won a 1969 Tony), Chicago, and 42nd Street. Jesse L. Martin (Det. Ed Green) is a classically trained actor who was in the original cast of Rent. Among the many credits for Sam Waterston (McCoy) is a revival of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, for which he received a Tony nomination, and the sublime S. Epatha Merkerson (Lt. Van Buren) was a Tony nominee for The Piano Lesson.

The series' two spin-offs are "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" (starting a fourth season) and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (beginning its second season). The latter has three Tony nominees among its cast: Kathryn Erbe (Det. Alexandra Eames), a nominee for The Speed of Darkness; Courtney B. Vance (ADA Ron Carver), who was up for Fences and Six Degrees of Separation; and Jamey Sheridan (Capt. James Deakins), nominated for an All My Sons revival. "Criminal Intent," "Third Watch," and "Sex and the City" are Manhattan productions. "SVU" shoots in New Jersey, as does "Oz," "Ed," and "The Sopranos." (Actually, "The Sopranos" shoot wherever they want.)

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Restoring TV production to New York may be due to the success of "Law & Order," but the concept began with the medium itself. During what's been called the Golden Age of Television, numerous live-television series were produced in New York. Some had direct connections to the theatre. Actors' Equity produced the first season of "Philco TV Playhouse" (1948-55). Among its early presentations were "Cyrano de Bergerac," starring Jose Ferrer in his Tony-winning (and later Oscar-winning) role, and "Counsellor at Law," with Paul Muni making his TV debut in a play he'd initially done on Broadway in 1931.

"The U.S. Steel Hour" (1953-63) was a television version of the company's successful radio series, "The Theatre Guild on the Air," which premiered in 1945. Its beginning TV offerings included Tallulah Bankhead as "Hedda Gabler" and Andy Griffith in "No Time for Sergeants," which proved so appealing that Griffith then played its hillbilly soldier on Broadway and in the eventual movie version.

A non-anthology series that originated live from New York was "Mama" (1949-56), with stage star Peggy Wood (later the Mother Abbess in the film of "The Sound of Music"). Based on a book, the story had been adapted for Broadway as I Remember Mama in 1944 and became a memorable movie (starring Irene Dunne) in 1948. In the TV series, Dick Van Patten played the son, Nels, and he once remarked on a talk show that his pals, at various times, were played by such upcoming New York stage actors as Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, and James Dean.

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For the four seasons of his cable series, "Remember WENN," Tony winner Rupert Holmes (Best Book and Score for The Mystery of Edwin Drood) recalls, "The show's regulars included stage actors, such as Carolee Carmello, Mary Stout, Tom Beckett, Amanda Naughton, and Melissa Dye. And, because we filmed in Queens, we were able to get [as guests] actors doing a play. They'd work on a Monday and half-a-Tuesday. We were able to cast the best people on Broadway: Betty Buckley, Donna Murphy, Phil Bosco...."

To date, Philip Bosco has appeared on "Law & Order" five times—always as a lawyer. Says the Tony winner (Lend Me a Tenor), "It's a dynamite show! They keep right on top of the headlines. I'm grateful that they shoot in New York."

Twice, the series almost gave Bosco a regular job. "There was a question of whether Steven Hill would be cast [as the DA], because he doesn't work Fridays, due to religious convictions. I was considered, but they worked it out." Then, George Dzundza (Det. Max Greevey) quit the series. "I was asked to replace him. I jumped at the chance. A producer said, 'It's just a formality, but you have to meet the suits at NBC.' I did, and my agent told me that I didn't get the part, because the suits thought I was too old. Can you believe that? Didn't they ever hear of hair dye? I was very disappointed—particularly since it's been such a long-running hit. That would have been a golden annuity."

The actor next guest stars on a "Criminal Intent" (scheduled for Oct. 13). Phil Bosco notes, "We shot it at Columbia University. I play the head of a school. I get killed in the teaser, and they try to solve my murder."

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Robert Ari, who played Inspector Barnes in the recent Bells Are Ringing and portrays nine characters in Jolson & Company (starting performances Sept. 12 at the Century Center), is a New York actor who's happy to list "Law & Order" among his credits. "Whenever a show is shot in Los Angeles and they use one of those backdrops—like on 'Seinfeld'--you know it. There's a texture to things done in the city.

"There's a quality to the acting here that doesn't exist in Los Angeles. You can see it in the smaller roles. They're well detailed, because New York actors are used to working on the stage. It's important that we have these outlets—the offshoots of 'Law & Order,' and 'Ed,' and 'The Sopranos.' I would love to see more TV done in New York. There's a great casting pool here."

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William Duell, Erronius in the most recent A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the jovial doctor in The Man Who Came to Dinner, recently taped an upcoming episode of "Ed"—his second stint on the show. "The first time, I was just 'Old Man, Number Two.' This time, I played Mr. Hinckey, who wants to change his will. He wants to make sure that his Hummel collection goes to the right person. They shoot 'Ed' in a real bowling alley that they reconverted in Northville, New Jersey. The stars—Tom Cavanagh and Julie Bowen—are such nice people." Concludes Bill Duell, "I'm glad they called me in."

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"Oz" features a variety of stage actors, including Rita Moreno, Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, B.D. Wong, Terry Kinney, George Morfogen, and J.K. Simmons. Guest stars on its upcoming final season include two Tony winners: Joel Grey (Cabaret) and Phyllis Newman (Subways Are for Sleeping).

Participants on "Oz" are not allowed to discuss episodes, insists Grey, who confesses to being incarcerated "for four of the [last] six episodes." He praises producer Tom Fontana with "making the show so creative. The writing is great, but everything has an improvisational aspect. The characters are so interesting. Everyone gets to live their darkest fantasies. Tom Fontana likes actors—especially stage actors."

Grey is looking forward to doing his one-man show, The Road to Cabaret, as "a fund-raiser for Sybil Christopher at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor [Oct. 12]." He enjoyed not having to travel far from Manhattan to work on "Oz," but visits the West Coast to see daughter Jennifer and granddaughter Stella. "She's almost 8 months old," says proud grandpa Joel Grey.

In the last episode of "Oz," Phyllis Newman plays "a Senator—like Hillary Clinton—who's getting a sentence commuted for one of the prisoners. It was a small part. I only saw Rita [Moreno] when I was shooting, but it's really wild to have all these musical-comedy divas at this prison thing. They shoot it in Bayonne at an ex-Naval yard. It's very grim; they've really created an atmosphere." Would Newman reveal all the resolutions in the ending? She laughs: "No, I'm not allowed! Instead of [the usual] hour, it's an hour-and-a-half." The shooting schedule, she says, "is unbelievably fast. They have hand-held cameras, and you just plunge in and do it." Newman's also excited about a new movie, "The Human Stain," in which she plays Anthony Hopkins' wife. "I have one scene, but it's a key scene."

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Last season, David Aaron Baker, whose credits include Prince Dauntless, opposite Sarah Jessica Parker, in Once Upon a Mattress, managed to appear on all three "Law & Order" series: "SVU" in October, "Criminal Intent" in December, and "L&O" (his second time) in May.

In January, Michael Mulheren (Kiss Me, Kate) was seen in both "L&O" (a third time) and "Criminal Intent." Mia Dillon, who's done three "L&O" episodes over the years, appeared on "SVU" in November and "Criminal Intent" in April. And Kate Burton did an October "L&O" (her second) plus a November "Criminal Intent."

"We'll get Kate, too," promises "SVU" casting director Julie Tucker. "I love Kate. She was working all last season—Hedda Gabler and The Elephant Man—and it's very hard to make [a theatre] schedule work with ours. We're rarely wrapped in time for an actor to go off and do a play. We keep an eye out. When someone like Kate is free, we say, 'Great! Let's get her on the show quickly!'"

Burton, explains Tucker, falls into "the 10 percent of actors who get offers," rather than the 90 percent who are signed through casting sessions. "We're very fortunate in New York, because there's an embarrassment of riches—incredible actors." Tucker claims that she and "SVU" producer Ted Kotcheff see "a lot" of theatre. They conduct the casting sessions, along with an episode's director, "and sometimes the writer." The casting process begins with Tucker making "what we call ideal lists—maybe three dozen actors for each role of substance."

Once a selection is made by Kotcheff and producer Neal Baer, Tucker tracks down the actor. Her advice for those auditioning "is to watch the show ahead of time. What will get you the role is knowing the talent [on the series] and the rhythm of the show. 'SVU' is more character-driven; it's not as documentary-style as 'Law & Order.' There's a little more energy in playing scenes.

"Television is so rhythm-oriented. Once you're into the rhythm—as with Shakespeare—a scene will play itself. The key is understanding the rhythms. We have to cast 28 to 35 parts every eight days. There are three sessions, and we see 20 to 40 people per session." Up for an Emmy (the awards are Sept. 22) for a May episode of "SVU" is Martha Plimpton, who's slated to co-star in David Mamet's Boston Marriage, premiering at the Public Theatre in November.

Tucker speaks enthusiastically about casting a Paul Reiser pilot, "F/X": "It's a great script, and I just love having people discover the abundance of talent that's in New York!"

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Lois Smith did superb work in a May episode of "SVU," in which she played the mother of a rape victim with Down's syndrome. "When they spoke to my agency, there was a conflict," Smith says. "I was starting rehearsals at Steppenwolf for The Royal Family.

"I first heard about it when they called back and said, 'We really want her. Ask her to read the script; it's very good.' I did read it, and said I'd love to do it, but I didn't want to miss the first day of rehearsals. They fixed it, and I was delighted. Wasn't that young woman [Andrea Fay Friedman] remarkable? She has Down's syndrome and is also an actor."

Smith doesn't mind the speed of television work. "What's difficult are the hours. As the week goes by, they get progressively later. You start at 6 AM Monday, and they have to honor the turn around, which means giving actors 12 hours off. Each day becomes later and later. I don't know how the regulars do it; I should think they'd go bonkers. I think I got home about 2 AM [the last day], and had to catch a plane to make it to Chicago for a noon rehearsal."

Last season at Steppenwolf, Smith also starred as Mother Courage. She agreed to play Fanny Cavendish in The Royal Family, "because Frank Galati directed it. That made it irresistible! It was my first time working with Frank since The Grapes of Wrath [for which Smith received a 1990 Tony nomination]." She has a cameo in an independent film, "A Foreign Affair," and just completed an episode of "Touched by an Angel" for the new season.

Lois Smith's television credits date back to TV's Golden Age, before she filmed "East of Eden." She recalls, "I started practically 50 years ago, when there was lots of television in New York—and it was live! You could do a [TV] play every week. I was lucky to start right away on the stage [in Broadway's Time Out for Ginger], but I was very grateful for television. Isn't it great that it's back in New York?"

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Sept. 1, live on TV, be sure to watch the PBS presentation (9 PM/ET) of the last performance of the 2000 Tony Award-winning musical, Contact, with Charlotte d'Amboise, Alan Campbell, Colleen Dunn--and Susan Stroman's dazzling choreography and direction.

STAR GAZING: Catch Nathan Lane Sept. 8 in the season finale of "Sex and the City." He plays lounge singer Bobby Fine who's set to wed a socialite (Julie Halston). (Didn't Lane work with Sarah Jessica Parker's husband in a Broadway musical?)

END QUIZ: Which of the following actors won an Emmy for playing a defense attorney on "Law & Order": a) Jane Alexander; b) Len Cariou; c) Elaine Stritch? (Answer: Next column, Sept. 29)

>Michael Buckley's interviews appear in Show Music magazine, The Sondheim Review, and at TheaterMania.com.