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LEADING MEN : PRIME TIME

TV breeds the new male star

December 09, 2007|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Casting director Jane Jenkins remembers Patrick Dempsey in his pre-McDreamy doldrums. So did a lot of other people in Hollywood. For no apparent reason, she said, "We had to fight with everyone to hire this guy." In 1989, he had been the romantic lead in "Loverboy"; by 2000, he was the cop in "Scream 3."

Then, of course, "Grey's Anatomy" popped like a Champagne cork.

"It took a hit television series for him to suddenly become everybody's leading man," said Jenkins, co-founder of the Casting Co., a firm that has helped film and television directors narrow down their casting choices for 27 years. Known as sexy neurosurgeon Derek Shepherd on ABC's four-season medical-show phenomenon, Dempsey is now starring in Disney's big-screen hit "Enchanted." Next year, he'll play the romantic lead in Columbia's comedy "Made of Honor."

As the class divide between TV and film keeps shrinking, TV has been solidifying its role as a maker of leading men. Original shows, on cable as well as network TV, are shifting attention to more mature and complex characters. The small screen is now crowded with charming, smart, confident, humorous grown-up men who are riveting critics' attention.

Kyle Chandler's manly, moral husband/father/coach centers NBC's "Friday Night Lights." Jon Hamm's mysterious, unfaithful husband/father/ad executive takes charge of AMC's "Mad Men," and Jeffrey Donovan, the intelligent, haunted and irreverent bachelor/ex-CIA agent adds depth to USA's "Burn Notice."

Jenkins said it doesn't matter if Donovan's isn't a household name yet. She's confident it soon will be.

"People in the business have all taken notice at this point, and the world will follow," she said.

Donovan, who described his pre-"Burn Notice" career as having "risen below the radar," just landed a part opposite Angelina Jolie in director Clint Eastwood's film "The Changeling."

Likewise, Hamm, who seemed to come from nowhere last summer, has since been pictured as his glamorous 1960 character Don Draper in leading magazines and newspapers. Though Hamm said he's not exactly getting Hollywood's "Vinnie Chase" treatment, he still sits in meetings he wouldn't have had six months ago. And he's now starring in an independent film, "The Boy in the Box."

For his part, a grateful Dempsey credits the nature of his "perfect man" character, the writing and the visibility television offers. "Studios are willing to bankroll you because of that exposure," he said.

A certain comfort level

These TV-bred leading men are clearly men, not guys. But befitting the medium that created them, their masculinity seems to be a rather domesticated one, signifying perhaps a cultural shift in what audiences -- both men and women -- want from men. Where film's leading men from the eras that spawned, say, Cary Grant and Paul Newman had a special-occasion remoteness, a sense of formality, TV's leading men have issues: families, children, wives and ex-wives, problems at work. Television offers a familiarity, an intimacy, that brings actors not only into everyone's homes but also into their everyday lives for weeks on end. It's no wonder that in the end, they come off as everyday men, not larger-than-life superheroes -- even in the case of Hamm, whose character actually does come from the Cary Grant era.

The actors who embody this new masculinity have gained career options along with their aura of self-effacing approachability.

Chandler, 42, ("King Kong," "Grey's Anatomy") said he enjoys the growth he's found in roles he's played on stage, screen and TV. "TV's been good to me," he said. "If I can keep doing all three, in the end, I'll call that successful."

With the substantial improvement in television quality, it may in fact be difficult for the actors to find movie roles that are as interesting as the ones they've had on TV, said film historian David Thomson. Because more people are watching television, "to be in a hit television series now is almost a more impressive kind of stardom than movie stardom," he said.

In the past, the fortunate few who crossed over from television into Hollywood's pantheon of leading men never looked back. Clint Eastwood ("Rawhide") led the way, to be followed by Warren Beatty and Robert Redford ("Playhouse 90," among others), Bruce Willis ("Moonlighting"), Johnny Depp ("21 Jump Street") and George Clooney ("ER") -- arguably the only leading man of the day who could rival Grant or Clark Gable for a knowing, twinkly eyed smirk. The envy of many actors today, Clooney famously parlayed his appeal into a producing and directing career as well.

"The Sopranos" raised the bar for high-class television and made careers for its stars, Thomson said. "James Gandolfini was made by 'The Sopranos.' He will never do anything like it," Thomson said.

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