The other leads in the series are a trio of younger actors playing do-good attorneys. We're talking politically correct territory here, with a scrappy, Pacino-esque guy (Joseph Lyle Taylor), a WASPy-rich white girl (Paula Devicq) and a sexually flamboyant Latin (Manny Perez). Needless to say, they are in acting heaven, knowing the man at the helm holds their interests first. ("Cut the hair, hair don't act!" Lumet yells at one point for the camera to pull in to see only the actors' faces.)
"Sidney is very specific; he can give you one word and you know exactly what to do," says Devicq, best known as Kirsten in "Party of Five." On this day of shooting, she has just completed what amounted to a four-page monologue, almost unheard-of in prime time. Though she has only kind words to say about her previous experience on the Fox series, clearly this is something unique. "I don't know if I'm acting better, but I've learned an incredible amount in 13 weeks. There's a completely different energy. It's Sidney and the fact we're in New York. It's more real, and there is just no ego."
Much of the show's success may depend on Devicq's chemistry with polar-opposite Taylor, who had performed in the award-winning Broadway show "Side Man" and wasn't looking for life in television. "But with Sidney Lumet I'd have gone to Siberia," says the intense young actor, who may be the breakout star here. "Sidney just captures live moments on film like no one else. He sets it up so these moments can take place. He has an overall view of what he's trying to create."
While Lumet claims he is not giving up on movies, the ugly truth is that he and contemporaries like Arthur Penn (who has taken over the helm at "Law & Order") are finding friendlier waters on the small screen. "In every medium right now, there's terrific work and terrible work going on," he says diplomatically. "It's true movies are very driven by focus groups, but God knows, all of America is. The truth is, I always felt I never left TV, I felt it left me."
Now it's up to audiences to find "100 Centre Street." Its home is a network of older demographics, flocking mostly to its signature show, "Biography." Will they buy into the bleaker stuff of contemporary life?
"It's risky in that we've never done a dramatic series," says A&E's Sabinson, "but we put our money on Sidney Lumet. We have a lot of permission with our viewers, and don't forget, this is also the house that 'Law & Order' built." (The series is rerun consistently on the network.)
So is renewal a sure thing? "There isn't an individual at A&E who doesn't think there will be more episodes," is the response.
If that renewal comes, Lumet is ready to go back to work and is already fielding calls from veteran and younger directors alike who want a chance at this new technology. Not just for the look but for the speed. This day, for example, the cast and crew had been hired for a full day, but the seasoned, well-prepared director, aided by his fancy new machines, had managed to wrap the work by lunchtime.
Leading him to announce: "Well, gang, what are we going to do the rest of the day?"
*"100 Centre Street" premieres tonight at 9 on A&E. The network has rated it TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under 14, with special advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language).