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FALL TV PREVIEW | `SMITH'

Cozying up to the bad guy next door

Enough With Heroic Crime-stoppers. Creator John Wells Thinks It's Time To Appreciate Criminal Hearts And Minds.

September 17, 2006|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

BY now, John Wells, one of television's producing giants, knows a thing or two about the number of script pages it takes to fill an hour's worth of episodic drama on a broadcast network.

Then why did his new show, "Smith," come in 20 minutes longer than what is acceptable? And why was CBS, with its conservative reputation, so willing to reportedly spend $7 million on the pilot alone and work around its length?

One reason is the in-demand Wells, who hasn't written a pilot since he co-wrote "Third Watch" but has been busy running "ER" and "The West Wing" for several years. Then there is an ensemble cast headed up by Ray Liotta and Oscar nominee Virginia Madsen. And, thirdly, a network that ranks as the most popular but still yearns to be among the most talked about.

"It's a great way to work and a luxury I don't expect to have often in my career," said Wells, referring to the atypical creative process that allowed him to develop a drama about criminals that isn't really about crime.

Premiering Tuesday at 10 p.m., "Smith" has already impressed critics as it follows the double lives of five master thieves whose ringleader is Bobby Stevens, played by Liotta, starring in his first TV series since he started on the daytime soap "Another World" in 1978. Bobby's band of specialists includes his lieutenant, Tom (Jonny Lee Miller of "Trainspotting"); firearms aficionado Jeff (Simon Baker of "The Devil Wears Prada"); transportation expert Joe (Franky G of "The Italian Job"); and master of disguises Annie (Amy Smart of "Crank"). Bobby is also a suburban married father of two and Madsen ("Sideways") plays his intriguing wife, Hope. "Smith" refers to the name FBI agents give the elusive Bobby.

"I watch a lot of television and I noticed that we were catching all these criminals but we weren't getting to know much about them," Wells said. "I started thinking that maybe we could do a show that focuses completely and wholly on the criminals and what makes them tick and how their lives work."

As Wells started to flesh out his lead character, he thought of someone he'd been trying to persuade for a year to work in the medium. With only a sketch in his head, Wells met with Liotta, who had won an Emmy for a guest role on "ER" in 2005.

"It wasn't really a concrete idea but the fact that it was coming out of his mouth was enough for me to trust that it was going to be classy, inventive and a different idea just based on his track record," said Liotta, taking a break while shooting a scene at a warehouse in Lancaster recently. On this hot summer day, Lancaster posed as Tucson and the thieves were at it again, stealing an armored car and reconvening at the warehouse where Bobby inexplicably threw away the cash in a dumpster. The robbery, it turned out, was only a minute part of an intricate scheme, one that involves the use of the truck -- but not the money.

"I had been approached for a while about doing a series and I saw that the landscape of the business was changing a lot, where movies are getting safer and safer and television is becoming more interesting," Liotta said. "I also liked the fact that the character was a leading man where I'm usually playing some wacko. I didn't have to gain weight, put crazy makeup on to make me look older or drugged-out."

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THEIR VOICES IN HIS HEAD

WITH Liotta's consent, Wells sat down to write. But other actors kept popping into his head: Would Madsen be interested in TV? Would Miller, whom he'd been courting for a while, take to this idea? Would Franky G, the star of Wells' failed Fox drama "Jonny Zero," want to work with him again? Would the all-American girl-next-door Smart want to play a bad girl for a change? Wells approached each of them with his ideas and they all agreed to be in it, provided, of course, that the script lived up to its billing.

"He told me the basic outline and it sounded very adventurous and something I hadn't done before," Madsen said. "John writes so beautifully for women and, frankly, that's hard to find on whatever size screen you're working in. It just sounded delicious to me."

The informal casting meetings also helped Wells develop his characters and their story arcs, making it easier to write the story for the pilot.

"The show is a little unique to me because I was able to write each part specifically for an individual actor, except the part for Simon Baker, who I didn't approach because I had approached him so many times in the past and he'd always told me to get lost," Wells said. "I had specific notes for each character and then every one of the actors gave me input into who they are and their background. All of those things got worked into the characters."

When he completed the script, Wells got a surprising phone call from Baker's agent. Sitting in his trailer after finishing the warehouse scene, Baker, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his work on "The Guardian," grinned at the suggestion that he had played cat-and-mouse with one of TV's most celebrated producers.

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