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Got into a scrape? It's all good

July 23, 2007|Scott Collins

IT was a banner week for batty actors.

First, there was Isaiah Washington, whose rocky comeback-from-scandal tour has kept celebrity gossips in the chips for months. NBC announced last Monday that it would hire the reputedly gay-baiting star, late of "Grey's Anatomy," in a development deal that includes a temporary featured role on its new remake of "Bionic Woman." Executives then spent some time and energy deflecting objections that this particular brand of stunt casting constituted a big fat dis to the gay community.

Then all of that was overshadowed by some tsoris from Mandy Patinkin. The morning of the Washington announcement, studio publicists spat out a statement saying that Patinkin, who unexpectedly left "Chicago Hope" years ago, had abruptly ditched another popular CBS drama, "Criminal Minds," barely two months before the start of the fall season. The studios seemed in a strangely forgiving mood, mumbling vaguely about "creative differences" (if press releases can mumble). It was an alibi that was subsequently and angrily disputed by the show's executive producer, who insisted on his blog that -- in a rather Chappellian twist -- Patinkin had simply been a no-show at work.

By midweek, reporters at the TV press tour in Beverly Hills were pelting CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler with questions about the odd turn of events, even dredging up the mutiny led by another suffering star, Mark Harmon, who reportedly worked overtime to get "NCIS" creator Don Bellisario bumped off the show this year.

" 'Creative differences' is a euphemism for 'personal issues,' " Tassler said, and then winked. Knowingly. As if to say, "Actors -- they so cuckoo! Whatcha gonna do?"

Well, no arguments here. In the immortal words of William H. Macy, "Nobody became an actor because he had a good childhood."

But wait -- the recent confluence of TV thespians behaving badly defies mere coincidence. And it's not the fault of bloggers, despite the fact that they remain convenient scapegoats for many of the world's problems.

No, it's really that, with network shows on starvation diets for attention and viewers, executives will countenance just about any behavior if it might conceivably encourage what they dub "sampling." They have to forgive the quirks of problem children like Washington and Patinkin, the reasoning goes, because they never know when they might need to call them again -- and besides, scandal sells! We haven't yet devolved to the world of an O.J. Simpson-starring sitcom, but Fox tippy-toed awfully close last year with its bungled book deal-TV interview with the former NFL star-cum-murder suspect.

This isn't great news for actors, at least the ones who take seriously what they do for a living. Television executives, and to some extent the general public, have come to view trained actors much as they do the drive-by stars of reality TV, as "talent" to be exploited rather than talent to be nurtured. The ability to inhabit characters onscreen is beginning to matter less than the ability to be a talked-about character off screen. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean actors have more clout or get higher salaries, the way it did when the old studio system collapsed in the 1950s. It means, on the contrary, that all performers are starting to get tossed into the same bargain bin, their value zooming mostly when they do or say something outrageous or offensive.

The shift is subtle, to be sure; studios and networks have always lusted after headline-grabbing stars, just as they have always quietly appreciated, in their own way, genuine talent. But the change is happening.

That helps explain why, at his highly anticipated debut press briefing last week, new NBC co-Chairman Ben Silverman emphasized stars, stars, stars.

It wasn't just the grab for Washington; Silverman also expressed the hope that Rosie O'Donnell, a veritable controversy magnet, would somehow find her way to working with her No. 1 public enemy, Donald Trump, on a reconstituted "The Apprentice." (O'Donnell's rep said the former co-host of "The View" wouldn't consider it.)

But could such an inspired pairing have made for great television? Well, sure. Anything's possible. That consideration, though -- as well as any serious skepticism whether "The Apprentice" should return at all -- appears to have taken a back seat to the potential marketing angle: "Rosie. The Donald. Grudge match!"

As for Washington, Silverman told reporters that he was surprised to learn that the actor had been dumped from "Grey's Anatomy," which, given the widely publicized tales of Washington's on-set conflicts over the years and oddball interviews in the aftermath of his ouster, would make Silverman a member of a distinct minority in Los Angeles County. Silverman said he immediately resolved to snag this major piece of talent.

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