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ESPN Moves Away From the Playing Field

'Playmakers,' the network's first fiction series, will explore football players' lives off the gridiron.

August 24, 2003|John Crook | Zap2it

With unscripted "reality" series choking the schedules of the commercial networks, it may seem only logical for cable sports giant ESPN to be kicking off its first scripted drama series.

"Playmakers," which premieres Tuesday, focuses on the behind-the-scenes and off-the-field lives of the players, coaches and owners of a fictional pro football team and their families. The cast is headed by Omar Gooding ("Baby Boy") as hotshot young running back Demetrius Harris and Russell Hornsby ("Gideon's Crossing") as Leon Taylor, a fiercely competitive but aging veteran. ESPN has ordered 11 episodes.

"A weekly scripted dramatic series is the natural next step in the evolution of ESPN," says Mark Shapiro, ESPN's executive vice president of programming and production. "We did two movies, and the second one of those was a wonderful experience.

"One-time events like movies bring new viewers to the network, but we don't keep them. We're hoping that doing a weekly series with a wide appeal will attract new viewers who will hang around."

There was just one problem: According to conventional wisdom, sports-themed television series have a limited success rate, as uber-producer Steven Bochco learned with his "Bay City Blues," a baseball drama that ran on NBC for a scant four weeks in 1983.

Not surprisingly, the pitches ESPN heard for its series project included several creative solutions to this dilemma.

"Among our five finalists, we got 'CSI' in sports. We got ... a pitch about an athlete who gets busted for drugs but the CIA tells him he can continue to play as long as he works for them undercover," Shapiro says.

"Another one, called 'A.D.,' was about the ins and outs of a major college sports program through the eyes of the athletic director. The fourth was a series spinoff of Spike Lee's 'He Got Game,' which we may actually do as a pilot for next season."

The winning proposal, by John Eisendrath, also currently an executive producer on ABC's "Alias," was simple: Use sports as a series backdrop, not the prime reason for being.

Most failed sports shows "are just too much about sports," Eisendrath says, "too much about the fourth-quarter push, about getting to the end zone, about winning the game -- moments that are central to the sports world but not necessarily inherently dramatic, because these guys are young, rich, successful and good-looking.

"What is really interesting is what happens to them as individuals and as people, about the relationships they have with one another and with their friends, their wives, lovers, children, parents. That is sort of what is at the core of the series."

Gooding, whose older brother Cuba Gooding Jr. won an Academy Award playing a gridiron star in the film "Jerry Maguire," says he relishes the complexities and contradictions inherent in the arrogant and flawed young athlete he plays on the show.

"As an actor, this role is great because of the range of emotions," Gooding says. "He goes from cocky and sure of himself, then on into his addiction to drugs, plus I get to play football, which is a big plus for me.

"It gets a lot deeper after the first episode, and I'm hoping we'll find some redeeming qualities in him on down the line. I don't want to give anything away. He certainly has a lot of room for improvement, doesn't he?"

The actor jokes that he had a bone to pick with his big brother, who didn't warn him about the physical challenges his new role would present.

"I said, 'Hey, I'm playing a football player,' and he just said, 'Hey, well, good luck,' " Gooding says with a laugh. "The first break I had, I went to him and said, 'You didn't tell me about all the pain.' He said, 'Well, now you know, bro.'

"I was in pretty good shape, but I learned very quickly that stretching is key. I found out later how well Epsom salts work on the muscles. It didn't even take until the next day. I mean, I walked off the set going, 'Ow. Ow. Ow. I need a masseuse, now!' But I've been working out for the past couple of years, so I like soreness. It means you're doing something right as far as working out new muscles."

A more pensive Hornsby, who comes from a theater background, says he is still trying to delve into his more sympathetic but prickly character, who is being tested by his loved ones and, more inevitably, the passage of time.

"I'm still looking for him in some respects," Hornsby says. "I'm still trying to explore and grasp all his dimensions, so I can understand how he will behave in any given situation."

While the sports setting makes it seem natural to tackle issues that have faced black athletes ranging from Gale Sayers to Walter Payton, "Playmakers" also has bigger fish to fry in the dramatic themes it explores, Hornsby adds.

"No one ever truly thinks that Father Time will catch them, and that's true of any profession," he explains. "I'm sure back when Peter O'Toole was making 'Lawrence of Arabia,' he certainly didn't give a thought to the notion that he'd be receiving a special Oscar when he was 70.

"I think what we are trying to do in this series is show the layman how similar an athlete's experience is to his own."

"Playmakers" airs at 6 p.m. and repeats at 7 and 9 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17).

Cover photograph by Bob D'Amico. From left: Marcello Thedford, Jason Matthew Smith, Omar Gooding, Russell Hornsby, Chris Wiehl and Tony Denison.

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