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Messages From Beyond

The makers of 'Living With the Dead' talk about spooky coincidences during the filming of the CBS movie.

April 28, 2002|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To hear the participants describe it, CBS' four-hour movie "Living With the Dead" was literally a spirited production. "There was definitely some intervention from the other side on this miniseries," said executive producer Stanley M. Brooks.

"Living With the Dead," which will be shown on Sunday and Tuesday, is based on the life of James Van Praagh, who purports to talk with people who have died. The author of the bestseller "Talking to Heaven," Van Praagh claims he's been seeing dead people since he was a youngster. "When I first saw the movie 'The Sixth Sense,' I said, 'That's my childhood,'" he said.

Though a skeptic might dismiss it as so much movie hype, Van Praagh and Brooks say they are at a loss to explain all the odd coincidences that occurred on the set last summer in Vancouver. For example, they say, the actress who plays Van Praagh's mother as a young woman, without prompting, combed her hair exactly the same way his real mother did.

"The actual wallpaper in the bedroom was exactly the wallpaper I had as a kid in my bedroom," Van Praagh said, listing a series of events that he says occurred without him giving the filmmakers advance information. "Then they [the producers] wanted me to do a cameo in the show, so it just happened the day I was up in [Vancouver], they wanted me to be the organ player. When I was a little boy, they wanted me to be an organ player for the church. Even Jack Palance [who plays his father] uses expressions as the character that sound exactly like my father."

The spookiest occurrence for Van Praagh involved his grandmother, who had died before he was born. There is a scene in the first evening of the miniseries in which the ghost of the grandmother appears at the hospital after Van Praagh's mother has suffered a severe stroke.

"I showed the miniseries to my sister," Van Praagh said. "My sister knew my grandmother. My sister starts crying her eyes out. I said, 'What's the matter?' She said, 'You don't understand--that looks exactly like how Grandma used to look!'"

"Living With the Dead" stars Ted Danson as Van Praagh, a divorced man with a failing business who comes to terms with his psychic gifts and begins to help police solve murder cases. Mary Steenburgen, Danson's wife, plays a police detective; Diane Ladd plays Van Praagh's mother.

John Pielmeier, who penned the play "Agnes of God," wrote the teleplay; Stephen Gyllenhaal ("A Killing in a Small Town") was the director.

Two years before the production, Danson and Steenburgen had several readings with Van Praagh. "I almost didn't want to do it," Danson said of the project. "A lot of times, I prefer keeping what I care about in life separate from what I do acting-wise. We reluctantly came to it, but I am thrilled that we did it."

The Emmy Award-winning actor said that Van Praagh is just a regular guy with amazing abilities. "It's so funny: When you are around him, it is so mundane. It is almost like [he says], 'Do you want to speak to somebody who has passed over or do you want to get a cappuccino?'"

Danson is a bit reluctant to talk about his experiences with Van Praagh. "The only thing that is tricky about it is, it is either part of your belief system or not," said the actor. He eventually reveals that his relationship with his late father changed after his meetings with Van Praagh.

"My father had died about six months beforehand," Danson said. "I went from one kind of relationship of lingering sadness and a low-grade kind of depression....I used to wake up mildly depressed. After that evening with James, I wake up mildly amused and delighted."

He continued: "I think it is far easier believing what James said than it would be to come up with a different angle or explanation. I think the real communication that the film captures is James' message in life that there is nothing but, ultimately, love and forgiveness. You certainly walk away from an evening with James with that kind of message."

The first two hours of the miniseries follows Van Praagh's early life and his experience with the Catholic Church, but the murder mystery that dominates the second half is fictional. "It was gleaned from many situations and experiences that I had working with police departments and working on kidnappings," he said. "And one kidnapping in particular--a case of a 3-year-old girl in Louisiana."

The girl's kidnapping and murder were so grisly, he said, that he informed the police it would be his last case.

Van Praagh, who will host his own syndicated TV series in the fall, says he can turn his powers on and off like a radio. "I tune myself to a certain frequency," he said. "It is where you put your awareness and focus. I put myself in that receptive place and become very aware of spirits. That's when I begin my work. When I finish, I turn off the radio and I take away any of that power of awareness, if you will."

"Living With the Dead" can be seen Sunday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be inappropriate for young children), with an advisory for violence on the second night.

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