STAGE TO SCREENS: The Man from "House" Meets One of "The Defenders" in Born Yesterday

Jim Belushi of TV's "The Defenders" and Robert Sean Leonard of "House" are in from the West Coast for Broadway's Born Yesterday.

Jim Belushi
Jim Belushi (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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Jim Belushi and Robert Sean Leonard elected to spend their TV hiatuses this year escorting Nina Arianda through her Tony-nominated Broadway debut in Born Yesterday as Billie Dawn, the definitive dumb-blonde who introduced Judy Holliday to stardom — and the world —65 years ago.

A girl couldn't be in better hands than this Dawn patrol: Belushi as the junk-dealer tycoon, Harry Brock, who manhandles and exploits her; Leonard as the newsman, Paul Verrall, who sweet-talks and enlightens her, putting her wise to Harry's ways.

As originally designed and directed by Garson Kanin, both characters are very pronounced types at cross purposes, and he cast the roles accordingly with Paul Douglas and Gary Merrill, both of whom went immediately into movies as a result.

Douglas, an NBC sportscaster, was an accidental find for Kanin, who was watching him quarrel with the third of his five wives (actress Virginia Fields) at a diner in the bowels of Rockefeller Center when he hauled off and knocked her off the stool. "There's your Harry Brock," declared Mrs. Kanin (actress Ruth Gordon). "But he's a radio announcer!" protested the playwright. "There's your Harry Brock," Gordon reiterated, and she was right. It was the slap that gave birth to a whole Hollywood career. Douglas went directly into "A Letter to Three Wives" and never looked back to Broadway, save for one return visit (for 4½ months of A Hole in the Head). That same year (1949), Merrill followed Douglas into a comfortable contract-life at 20th Century-Fox with "Twelve O'Clock High" and "All About Eve."

For today's Born Yesterday, the traffic runs from West to East and from small screen to stage. Leonard, a three-time Tony nominee and one-time winner (as the young A.E. Housman of Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love), is making his first Broadway appearance since starting "House" seven seasons ago. Belushi just wrapped Season One of "The Defenders" on CBS in time to go into his first originated Broadway role. (Billed as James Belushi, he was a replacement Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance in 1982, and then he followed Judd Hirsch into Conversations With My Father in 1993.)

Belushi in Born Yesterday.
photo by Carol Rosegg

Not that Harry Brock came to him exactly as a stranger. He played the part in college when he was 19 — and played it so well that the acting bug took hold permanently.

"I don't even remember it," he confesses. "All I remember is making an entrance with my fly open — and, in those '40s-styled pants, the zipper was two feet long.

"And I remember the gin game, how well it went." The play's classic set-piece is a card game in which Brock is constantly being trumped and trounced by his not-so-dumb gal-pal. "It's a silent opera, that scene, and we have a ball doing it every night."

Nor has he forgotten the name of his collegiate Billie Dawn — Jenny Owens. "I got her to audition for Second City when I was starting out as an actor in Chicago, and she was very good, but she was so full of life. She's now a nurse in New Mexico."

Blunt and brutish are easy reaches for Belushi — and there are moments where he's the mirror image of Broderick Crawford in the movie — so it's not hard for him to rev up for Brock's warpath. For inspiration, he has tacked up on his dressing-room wall at the Cort a photo of Brando in full motorcycle gear for "The Wild One"; for more inspiration, there is a movie poster for "The Hustler." "That movie," he says, "has my favorite line of all-time: 'YOU OWE ME MONEY!' George C. Scott says it."

Harry Brock is saying it, too — wheeling and dealing under the table, cruising for corruptible senators, getting Billie to affix her mark to highly dubious documents.

"I like grabbing that role by the tail and driving," he admits. "It's pure aggression — unabashed, unapologetic, upfront. I love Harry because he doesn't hide anything. The big scene where he's trying to be polite with the senator is about as much hiding as he does. But you know who you're dealing with all the time. A friend of mine described it as, 'Omigod! Here comes the train, and I know it's going to crash.'"

Belushi in "The Defenders."
photo by Robert Voets/CBS

The crashing and burning will continue till July 31, when the limited run ends at the Cort. Leonard heads back West for an eighth season of "House," but Belushi will be scouring around for gainful employment. CBS opted not to go back for seconds with "The Defenders" 22 days into his Broadway run. A television-series vet, he can roll with that punch.

Come August, "I'm going to be sitting on my ass for a while. I'm developing a couple of things in TV, and I've got a couple of films I'm working on, but they're in the early stages." Already in the can, as it were, is The Cowardly Lion, which he voiced for "Dorothy of Oz," an animated feature that will star Lea Michele of "Glee."

He also does some promotion for Crystal Skull Vodka for pal Dan Aykroyd, who, with Belushi's late bro John, famously constituted "The Blues Brothers." The nifty thing about this vodka is that it comes in Crystal Skull-shaped glass-wear. Like Joan Crawford's well-placed Pepsi in "The Best of Everything," he shamelessly says, "It was right on my desk in 'The Defenders,' and, if I could get it on this set, I would."

"The Defenders" bore no resemblance to the same-named series of 1961-65. "CBS just owned the title and used it again. Ours had nothing to do with the other show. It was New York, it was E. G. Marshall, it was Robert Reed, and it was heavy."

The 21st-century reinvention of "The Defenders" was a pair of free-wheeling, very unbuttoned-down attorneys who ran a criminal law firm in Las Vegas.

Belushi in Born Yesterday.
photo by Carol Rosegg

"They were based on two real lawyers in Sin City, Michael Cristalli and Marc Saggese. A little hour-long documentary was done on them. CBS bought the rights and wrote the script for me and Jerry O'Connell." Not only do the two actors vaguely resemble each other (enough to have a father-son thing going in a subsequent series, perhaps), they breezily played off of each other.

"It was just beautiful chemistry all the way around. We had a great chemistry with the writers, with the producers, everyone. It's a shame the series didn't continue."

His change-of-pace foray into theatre — outside the law, in the form-fitting role of Harry Brock — came off with equal conviction. Some have even called it the best of this year's unnominated performances — a compliment he gives a que sera, sera shrug. "I came in a crowded year. That's my luck. 'The Defenders' was a great show and I was on the top network, and the series still didn't go."

The instant gratification of theatre helps a lot, and, when we meet, he is coming from a matinee that went over especially well. "What is really satisfying about that performance is that the audience got it all. They got all the jokes, they got all the terror, they got the message. There was a little magic in the theatre today, and I'm a magic-hunter."

Robert Sean Leonard
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

One landing directly above Belushi's star dressing room is Leonard's temporary digs. At 43, he's frightfully unfussy about where he's holed up off-stage. Wherever, it's still an easy sprint for him into the play. "I don't care where my dressing room is. All I do is put my clothes on and go on stage, and then I go home. I'm not living here." In point of fact, he doesn't even live on the East Coast — although he expects he and his wife and daughter will move back when (or if) "House" comes tumbling down in the ratings. Distributed to 66 countries, it was the most-watched television program in the world in 2008, so don't start planning any homecoming parties anytime soon.

Born Yesterday is literally the first chance he has had to get to New York theatre since he signed up seven years ago to befriend Dr. Gregory House ( Hugh Laurie), the loopy, misanthropic medical genius who heads the diagnostic department at the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital in New Jersey.

Not an easy gig, television: "When you're working on a sitcom — that's the best job — the hours are minimal, and you get a long hiatus. You just have to deliver 22 minutes of stuff on tape, whereas with an hour show you need 48 minutes of edited film. It's almost like making a small movie every ten days, so it sucks. The money is great, but boy! it's the worst schedule! You wake up at four in the morning and drive to work in the dark, and the sun comes up as you're putting your makeup on, and the sun cresses, and the sun goes down, and it's dark, and you're still there, and you get home at ten at night. Very long days. We are well compensated, but it 's tough."

This was the first year Leonard was allowed more than six weeks off, and the reason for that had to do with Comcast buying NBC-Universal. "Everyone had to renegotiate so it looked like our break was going to be longer than usual. My contract was up, so my agent said, 'Robert is going to take a play. If you want to shoot on June 10, which is when we usually start, you're going to have to shoot without him.' I didn't want to say no to a play I've always wanted to do because I might have a contract."

Leonard in Born Yesterday.
photo by Carol Rosegg

Leonard, a learned type who is more believably bespectacled than William Holden was in the 1950 movie version, is rather ideally cast as the erudite journalist Brock unwisely hires to increase the wattage of his embarrassingly dim-witted girlfriend. "My friends call a role like Paul Verrall 'the third bow from the last' role. Sometimes you want to shine, and sometimes you don't mind too much if someone else does. You kinda wanna be the guy who has the third bow from the last. I've always wanted to play this particular role, even though it's not my favorite role in the play."

That role would be Ed Devery — the fourth bow for the last — a once-lofty politico turned mouthpiece-for-hire who does Brock's dirty bidding and takes large gulps of booze for his moral pain. In this production, the part is played by Frank Wood, but Leonard hopes that time will one day give him a shot at it — and the play's famous last words that go with it: a bittersweet toast to Billie's triumph.

"Thornton Wilder wrote that speech. Kanin was having trouble ending the play when it was out of town — I think it ended with Billie's exit, and it wasn't working somehow — so Thornton Wilder gave him the idea of having Ed do a nostalgic toast to the time when he was one of those people — 'one of those crazy broads and dumb chumps who make it so hard on bastards like us.' Leave it to the guy who wrote Our Town to know that the heart of the play actually resides in the guy who says, 'For a man who has been dead for 16 years, I'm in remarkable health.'"

When Leonard went into rehearsals for Born Yesterday, the fate of "House" was very much up in the air. It has since been renewed for an eighth season, and he heads West at play's end to further the adventures of Dr. James Wilson, head of the oncology department at P-PTH and lone confidant of the unconventional Dr. House.

Leonard and Hugh Laurie on "House."
photo by Adam Taylor/FOX

"Let's say House is three-dimensional, and the characters surrounding him are slightly less so," he tactfully words it. "I'm the friend, the guy who worries about him and gives him advice that he doesn't listen to. It's sort of a television role. It doesn't happen in theatre, these guys. In fact, I don't even think it happens in real life."

By any other name, the series would be "Holmes Sweet House." Such, says Leonard, "was the original intent — Sherlock Holmes in a medical setting, a doctor who has an addiction [Vicodin] and solves mysteries [medical ones]. Wilson is his Watson, but that role changed a bit when he got a diagnostic team of three doctors. Watson's kinda split in half now. The medical team is a bit of the medical Watson — they're, basically, a sounding board for all of the scenes where Sherlock sits in his room and bounces case-ideas off them. I get the ideas bounced around about his personal life."

Laurie and Leonard play effortlessly well together, and it's not all acted. "I love working with him," Leonard admits. "And I love his past. I'm a great admirer of the world he comes from — the world of Imelda Staunton, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, that group of people who came out of that time in London so I knew very well who he was when they cast him. In fact, I was surprised — and impressed and excited — they did. I was expecting someone more TV-like."

The gamble paid off, too: "He's been nominated for everything and won a bunch."

What happens after Season Eight is anybody's guess, but, whatever comes, he'll be grounded — the result of solid values instilled by his father, Robert Howard Leonard, who teaches Spanish in New Jersey. Case in point: "The night I won the Tony, right before the party, my dad called me on my cell. I don't know if he did it on purpose or not. I don't care. I said, 'Hey, I won.' He said, 'I saw you. Your speech was great. By the way, who won the Best Featured Actor Tony last year?' I said, 'Uh, I dunno.' He said, 'Oh. Well, anyway, have a great time.' I thought, 'Wow! That really puts this in perspective.' A little too much perspective, in fact — but he was right."

Let the record show Leonard's predecessor for the Feature Actor Tony was Roy Dotrice for A Moon for the Misbegotten — and, no, he hasn't been back.

Happily, Leonard has his "House" to run to for a season or two more of shelter.

(Harry Haun is a longtime staff writer for Playbill magazine, and pens the Playbill On Opening Night column for Playbill.com.)

Robert Sean Leonard, Nina Arianda and Jim Belushi
Robert Sean Leonard, Nina Arianda and Jim Belushi