Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Remembrances from a Ubiquitous "Law & Order" Guest Actor: An Interview with James Lloyd Reynolds

One of the best things about the epic "Law & Order" TV franchise is how often each series tapped into the reservoir of talented, New York-based actors who come from a strong theater background for guest roles.  The format of each of the "Law & Order" shows--where the regular characters often interacted with potential witnesses, suspects, victims, and bystanders throughout the course of their work--frequently featured meaty one-scene parts for an actor to come in and make a strong impression within a short amount of screen time.  In the last 25 years, the many guest actors who reappeared in different roles throughout the franchise created an unofficial stock company of the best acting talent that New York has to offer.  One of the pleasures while watching all the different "Law & Order" shows is how it allows fans an opportunity to spot the reappearance of a guest actor who already appeared in a different role in an earlier episode from one of the multitude of series set in the universe of New York City's criminal justice system.  In the course of his or her career, a single actor could end up playing a variety of different kinds of characters on one or more of these shows.

One of the many fine New York-based character actors who has appeared multiple times on different "Law & Order" shows is the gifted and talented James Lloyd Reynolds.  A Masters of Fine Art graduate from the Yale University School of Drama, Reynolds has been steadily building a solid reputation over the last several years with numerous appearances in Off-Broadway and Regional Theater productions, as well as film and television.  His recent stage appearances include critically acclaimed performances as Georges in the musical "La Cage Aux Folles" at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut; as Cal in the Philadelphia Theatre Company's production of Terrence McNally's "Mothers and Sons" opposite Michael Learned; as Sidney in Ira Levin's "Deathtrap" at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, Long Island; and as Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird" at the Weston Playhouse in Vermont.  The New York Times recently noted, in its review of "La Cage," that "Mr. Reynolds is a gift as Georges, infusing the ballad 'Song on the Sand' with the necessary romance.  He moves from complication to complication with easy fluidity, active and engaged even at his most restrained.  Charismatic, light with a joke and strong of voice, he anchors the evening."

In his numerous television guest roles, Reynolds has distinguished himself by giving subtle and sensitive performances that have helped vividly illuminate the lives of the clean-cut, white collar business professionals he often portrays.  He applied that same low-key and humane perspective to his nuanced supporting performances on the various "Law & Order" shows.  To date, he has made two guest appearances apiece on the original "Law & Order," as well as "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."  Reynolds graciously found time to speak with Hill Place Blog to share his memories of working on the "Law & Order" franchise.  Even though the modest nature of his "Law & Order" roles caused Reynolds to humbly chuckle at the start of the interview, "I don't know how much I can tell you about them, but I'll try and share whatever anecdotes and information I can think of," he ultimately had great insights and perspectives concerning both his own personal experiences on these shows, as well as how integral they were in the careers of countless New York actors who, like himself, are interested in remaining well-rounded and maintaining a strong presence in the theater while continuing to pursue opportunities in films and television.  In our conversation, Mr. Reynolds comes across as intelligent, articulate and humble, with a sincerely kind and friendly demeanor.  I'd like to thank Mr. Reynolds for opening up his heart and memories for this interview.  (A special Thank You as well to Mr. Reynolds' agent, Peter Kaiser, at The Talent House in New York, as well as my good friend Tom Lisanti, for their efforts in helping to arrange this interview.)

James Lloyd Reynolds made his debut in the "Law & Order" universe in the brief role of a TV news reporter covering the search for a missing young woman's body in a Long Island marsh area in the "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" episode titled "In the Wee Small Hours," which aired November 6, 2005.  Reynolds recalls that he was cast in the role with the help of a classmate from Yale who was working as a casting associate on "Criminal Intent": "Anne Davison called me in and she booked the first couple of different reporter roles that I played on 'Criminal Intent.'  So that's how I got started on those shows.  And, in fact, I had met a friend of hers who was, a few years later, the casting director for 'SVU'  at a party one night with Anne and then a couple of weeks later was brought in on an audition for him and booked that one.  That's often how these things work, honestly.  I think the casting directors for all of those shows--well, all television shows that are cast in New York--are constantly going to theater across the city, even the smallest little Off-, Off-, Off-Broadway stuff, just to try and find new talent.  Even in a pool of talent as big as New York City, or Los Angeles, trying to constantly find new faces or new talent is their eternal challenge."

Even though Reynolds' role as a TV reporter in his first "Criminal Intent" was not a huge acting challenge, it was still a memorable experience in terms of becoming acquainted with the responsibilities and nuances of working on a major location shoot involving multiple variables.  Reynolds' vignette involves a continuous, almost unbroken shot that starts with the camera documenting the efforts of rescue workers and frogmen searching for the missing girl on land and in the water at the marsh location, panning from right to left as we follow a helicopter racing across the water to participate in the search, eventually coming upon Reynolds and other reporters who are standing on a bridge overlooking the water commenting on the search unfolding before them, as the camera rises up over the bridge to reveal the continued search for the girl on the other side of the marsh.  Reynolds chuckles warmly as he recalls "That was a huge, two-hour episode and I'd never been involved in a shoot as big as that before, because it had a helicopter and boats and scuba divers.  It was just insane.  The woman who is now on Broadway in 'Hand to God,' Geneva Carr, was playing that Nancy Grace-type character.  She was hysterical in that role and we actually got to know each other that day on set.  Anyway, we had a helicopter and the director comes to me and he's like 'Well, listen: Your lines HAVE to be coordinated with this helicopter shot.  Now, I don't want to make you nervous, but every time that helicopter takes off and flies over, it costs $5,000.  Let's try as hard as we can to get it right the first time!  OK...Go!'  (laugh)  I think we ended up shooting it, like, three or four times, not because of anything that was going on with me, but just to get it all right.  Here's an instance where you have a small role, but you get thrown into a position of potentially costing the company thousands and thousands of dollars if you don't know what you're doing.  The one thing I would say--for any young actors who are starting out in the business, or just seasoned theater actors who are trying to break into doing more film and television roles who might be reading this--going in to do one day on one of these episodic shows is really, really challenging and difficult.  It's because you don't know anybody, nobody knows you and, yet, the expectation is that you know what you're doing, you know your lines and you're not going to waste anybody's time.  Nothing will upset a film crew faster than a day player coming in and not being prepared.  So it can be nerve-wracking, but just do your work, pay attention, stay focused and it can be a really rewarding experience."

For his next guest appearance a year later on "Criminal Intent," Reynolds returned to play another TV reporter in a scene where his character, along with other journalists, descend upon a murder suspect as he is getting out of his car right before he is arrested by Detective Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio).  In the scene, Reynolds' character rushes up to Jason Raines (Joel Gretsch) and follows the suspect as he gets out of his car and walks onto the sidewalk where he is confronted by Goren.  Reynolds' character is in the thick of the action as Raines and Goren throw punches and struggle with one another before Goren slaps the handcuffs on his suspect and whisks him away.  Despite the brief nature of his role, Reynolds recalls how the staging and coordination of the actors and action in this scene was, again, a challenging experience: "That was an interesting one because Vincent D'Onofrio just doesn't like to rehearse.  He's just so organic as an actor.  I know it's a cliched term, but it's appropriate because he just does not like to rehearse.  And, in fact, I remember the director that night said to D'Onofrio and to Joel Gretsch--the guest actor from LA who had tons of episodic work under his belt and knew what he was doing--'We've got the fight choreographer here on set and let's plot this out.'  And D'Onofrio was like 'No, no.  Absolutely not.  No, no, no.  Let's just shoot it.  We know what we're doing.'  And so they did, and it was OK, but there was something off and they wanted to shoot it again and both these guys were going, I would say, full out.  I mean, there was nothing pulled back in their fighting.  In fact, at one point the director came over and said 'D'Onofrio, listen: You know, we gotta do this several more times.  Let's back off, just give 50%' and D'Onofrio said 'Absolutely not.  I do not do anything 50%.'  And, in the very next take, I don't honestly know what happened, but I remember the actor from LA's ear ended up bleeding.  And I think that was probably the take they ended up using.  There was a little bit of a challenge for me and the other actors playing reporters to stay in the shot and not end up being caught up in the fight and injured.  But, you know, they shoot it in a way where they edit it down and it looks like you're more in harm's way than you actually are.  But D'Onofrio was something else.  He was just wild to watch.  He just had a very animal-like quality.  'Controlled chaos,' I suppose.  He was great.  His partner, Kathryn Erbe, was of course the calm, soothing force, as is her character, but even on the set her personality was the opposite of D'Onofrio's.  They worked well together.  It was really exciting to film that scene because you've got cars pulling up and doors slamming and people screaming and extras running by and it is kind of amazing how it ends up coming off so well."

The next time Reynolds appeared in the "Law & Order" universe was in the February 2, 2007 episode of the original "Law & Order" titled "Talking Points" as a TV interviewer speaking with Judith Barlow (Charlotte Ross), a right wing political pundit modeled after Ann Coulter, who Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) is watching on the television in his office.  It was a very brief appearance where Reynolds' character is only shown from the back, and his face never appears on camera.  Reynolds recalls that, "They shot that whole exchange between me and Charlotte Ross over my shoulder and over her shoulder, not knowing what they were going to end up using.  They ended up only using a tiny bit of it at best.  But there wasn't much more.  There was just two or three or four more questions that were asked."  Even though Reynolds remains appreciative and grateful with how these early appearances in the "Law & Order" franchise allowed him an opportunity to hone his skills working in film and television, he also acknowledges that "Honestly, at first, the roles were not challenging even though they were all great experiences.  On the 'Criminal Intent' appearances, it was a couple of lines here and there as a reporter and it was, you know, quick and flashy.  But after, I guess, essentially proving myself, the casting director would bring me in for larger things.  So I found that the more I went in and proved myself with the 'Law & Order' casting directors, the more I was given larger chunks of material where I got to sort of chew up some stuff and demonstrate what I could do."

One of the notable guest roles that allowed Reynolds more of a challenge was on the original "Law & Order" in the January 23, 2008 episode titled "Driven."  He played the father of a murder victim being questioned by Detectives Ed Green and Cyrus Lupo (Jesse Martin and Jeremy Sisto).  Reynolds was subtle and excellent in underplaying the father's reaction while learning the news of his son's death, choosing to portray his character's stunned silence rather than going for the obvious over the top emotions that another actor might have brought to the scene.  Reynolds fondly recalls how "I had a good part as a grieving father.  That was a really good experience.  To try and cry on cue, you know, trying to do that kind of stuff is not easy.  That was an interesting afternoon because Jesse Martin was winding down his role and was planning to leave the series.  He had already been on there for years, and he was very assured in his role.  He was very nice to work with.  And I think it was Jeremy Sisto's fifth episode and so he was all new to it and still working on finding and developing his role and getting his bearings.  So that contrast was interesting to observe.  We shot that in somebody's apartment.  Most of the 'Law & Order' stuff--unless it's a courtroom scene, or it's a police station scene--everything else is shot on location.  So we were in somebody's apartment that they had rented on the Upper West Side and the family was there because I think they had a daughter who was in love with Jesse and wanted to meet him.  There we were, with the family present, trying to film this really emotional scene.  (laugh)"

After appearing multiple times on the original "Law & Order," as well as "Criminal Intent," Reynolds finally made his way to "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" where he played part of a team of security personnel investigating the disappearance of a woman in a posh commercial office building in the March 10, 2010 episode "Confidential."  Reynolds enjoyed working on this episode because "I loved Russell Jones, who played the building's head of security in that segment.  Oh my God, he's so wonderful and he's such a nice man.  I had previously met him through some other friends and I had actually seen him do something on stage so I was thrilled when I got there that day and realized I would be working with him.  He's just a fantastic, fantastic actor.  He's just terrific.  That episode was also fun because that scene involved our characters working with a lot of technology, and you've got multiple people in the scene, and it was fun to do.  You just kind of have to relax and just enjoy it and not try to get too much in your head about it."

In his most recent appearance on "SVU," the January 30, 2013 episode titled "Criminal Hatred," Reynolds had probably his most challenging role role in the franchise as one of a trio of closeted married businessmen who have been raped by sadistic and ruthless male prostitute Jeremy Jones (Max Carpenter).  Reynolds was sympathetic and touching in the courtroom testimony scenes where his character, as well as ones played by actors Paul Fitzgerald and Jeff Talbott, not only recall the cruelty and brutality of the sexual assault perpetrated against them, but are put in the awkward position of publicly acknowledging their sexual orientation while on the stand.  The testimony in the courtroom continually cuts back and forth between each witness, as the victims recall their sexual assault at the hands of the defendant.  The net effect of the scene is to have each victim's testimony overlap and echo each another, so that it appears in the final version as if it is a single, continuous speech made by one individual instead of bits of testimony culled from three different witnesses.

Reynolds recalls how "When we auditioned, we all had all of the testimony, as if it was just one person.  I think I knew that there were going to be at least two people testifying, but none of us knew until later how they had split those lines up."  When asked whether each actor filmed the entire speech, allowing the editors flexibility during post production to choose the most effective moments from each individual, or whether they only filmed the individual lines of dialogue spoken by each of their characters in the final version, Reynolds says, "I think that Jeff and I both filmed all of the lines from that speech from beginning to end, and then they decided in the editing how to split those lines up between us.  Because otherwise it would have been challenging to get the proper performances for those characters if we only filmed just those short snippets of dialogue that we have in the final version.  We both would have had to film all of that speech to get the right performances from us."

Reynolds also recalls how, "We shot all of the stuff on the stand at 9:00 in the morning.  So we got there and got into costume and got into makeup and there was three of us testifying.  There was the main guest star for the week, Paul Fitzgerald, and then there was Jeff Talbott and myself.  I honestly didn't get to know Paul Fitzgerald at all because he was working on what else was to be shot for his scenes, so he was really working on his lines and so he spent most of his time in his dressing room.  And Jeff and I didn't know each other at all but, you know, you're sitting around and you get to know the people you're working with.  And it turned out that Jeff and I knew a bunch of people in common.  And so we sort of spent the morning laughing about that.  And we also talked a little bit about the fact that we were playing rape victims and there was a little 'Do I want my mother to watch me in this episode?' kind of thing.  And so we shoot all the stuff for the people that are testifying.  And then we think 'Great!  We're finished!  Fantastic, we're done!' and it's like 11:00 in the morning, 11:30, something like that.  'We're going home!'  And then they come and they say 'Well you can get out of costume and you can get out of makeup, but don't leave because Mariska Hargitay is scheduled to come in the afternoon to film her reaction shots to your testimony.'  (laugh)  So we hung out on the set that afternoon and Jeff and I really got to know each other well during those few hours.  And then Mariska Hargitay arrives at 4:30 and they set it up to film her reaction shots.  Jeff and I and Paul Fitzgerald have to do the whole thing again, except now we're not in costume because the camera is not on us.  I remember at the very end that Mariska Hargitay was basically chuckling to herself about the testimony that we had to make because some of those lines unintentionally sounded funny when you hear them out of context.  When you see it on film, it's really quite moving and powerful because it's such a serious subject matter but, when you're filming it, some of it sounded kind of humorous and incongruous at the time."

Even though his experience working on this episode was as positive as all of his other appearances in the "Law & Order" franchise, Reynolds admits that this was a particularly difficult role to play "because as much as you want to prepare for a character, you did have to sort of put yourself in the situation of playing someone who had been raped.  To me, rather than trying to generate some image in your mind of what that character experienced, if you really just listen to the words that you're saying...if you really are present with what is actually coming out of your mouth, it's really kind of enough.  I don't use sense memory, I don't use those sorts of techniques that other actors might refer to by taking memories from the past and trying to put that on top of the scene that you are working on.  I think it's really enough to just be present with what you are saying and let the language be the driving force of what you are performing."

While discussing his work in the multitude of shows in the "Law & Order" franchise, Reynolds recalls the differences that he noticed in the atmosphere and work environment of each series.  Reynolds opines that "the 'Criminal Intent' set was always a little high strung, at least the times I was on there.  And maybe it appeared that way to me because of the type of scenes I was involved with on that show.  And 'SVU' episodes just tend to be of a higher drama, higher stakes because the subject matter they cover is more intense.  The original 'Law & Order' was also a different atmosphere because it was much more intellectual in general.  I think each show definitely had its own feel and it showed itself on-screen.  Sam Waterston, on the original one, he's just such a solid, stoic kind of force that it felt that that was kind of where that show got its central feel."

Outside of his film and television work, Reynolds continues to successfully forge a solid and respected reputation in theater.  With great enthusiasm, Reynolds shares how, "I just recently did Terrence McNally's 'Mothers and Sons,' in Philadelphia this past Winter and Spring with Michael Learned from 'The Waltons.'  It was just a joy to be onstage with her every night and spending nine weeks in Philly working with somebody like that who is such an icon and who brings so many layers to whatever she's doing.  So that was a fantastic experience."  Reynolds also recently assumed the challenge of playing the iconic role of Atticus Finch in the Weston Playhouse's production of "To Kill a Mockingbird," for which he received rave reviews.  Reynolds proudly recalls how that experience "was a joy.  Weston, Vermont couldn't have been more beautiful to work in and everybody at the Weston Playhouse are such genuinely good people.  But, yeah, that was a little intimidating to take on a role that everybody knows.  The challenge is to try and not do Gregory Peck.  I remember the costume designer at the costume meeting said, 'Listen, I know, I get it.  You don't want to imitate Gregory Peck.  But you've got to have a white linen suit.  You've just got to.  There's nothing in the script that says he's got to have a white linen suit, but that's what people expect and that's what people want to see.'  And so there it is.  But I do think that the way the role is written, his dialogue is just out of the ordinary enough that if you say the lines, it almost feels like you're listening to Gregory Peck in the movie.  It's really because of the way the dialogue is written.  In the script he says things that are not part of our daily routine, so you have to give yourself over to it and just accept 'It's OK.  This is Atticus' and then bring your own perspective to the role.  That was a lovely, lovely, lovely production and I had a fantastic time doing that."

This summer, Reynolds is playing the lead role of Georges in the Goodspeed Opera House's production of "La Cage Aux Folles," the landmark Harvey Fierstein/Jerry Herman musical depicting the loving relationship between a gay couple who manage a Saint-Tropez nightclub featuring drag entertainment.  When asked what performances from his career he is particularly proud of, Reynolds readily mentions how this show has been a particularly satisfying and rewarding experience, "This has truly been a highlight of my career so far.  I'm having a very good time playing this role.  I'm doing things that I don't normally get to do.  I'm singing a lot more than I've ever sang in a show before.  There's a little dancing, there's a little soft shoe.  And it's just a very, very funny script and I don't get to do comedy very much.  It's a joy and for some reason this show is resonating with audiences in Connecticut this summer like I've never experienced before.  People are coming up to us and just saying amazing things about this central relationship.  There's just something about the relationship of Georges and Albin which is resonating very strongly with people.  You think that we would sort of be beyond 'La Cage' at this point, but in fact the character of the conservative politician in the second act is ever present today, so it's resonating really well with a lot of people.  As far as being challenged by something and feeling like for whatever reason the challenge was accepted and I'm happy with the results, I would say that I'm really proud of what I'm doing with 'La Cage.'  It's because the three things I get to do in this show--the singing, the dancing, and the comedy--were so not in my wheelhouse.  I'd never worked with this director Rob Ruggiero before, but I'd worked with the Goodspeed twice before, and I know that he was first and foremost looking for an actor, not necessarily a musical theater performer who is primarily a singer.  He was looking for a person who could negotiate the dialogue scenes, as well as the singing and dancing, and so it was a challenge from the beginning.  I've always sung, but I never have had to sing this much.  And even learning how to negotiate eight shows a week vocally--because Georges does a lot of shouting and singing and he has to be the master of ceremonies at the La Cage nightclub--has been challenging as well.  For all of these reasons, I'm having the time of my life right now."

While I am confident that Reynolds has great potential to continue to progress to where he will eventually be widely recognized as a preeminent film and television character actor, he intends to continue maintaining a strong presence in theater and does not plan to focus on one medium at the expense of another.  As he explains, "I enjoy working in all of the mediums.  I don't have an emphasis on one over the other.  I would be unhappy if I would have to decide, you know, that I was going to do one thing.  But, listen, if I were fortunate enough to get offered a recurring or contract role on an episodic television series, that would be thrilling because I've never done that.  I've never had that experience where I get to go back regularly on a series where it becomes my day job.  There's just a confidence and ease that one would experience that would go along with that.  The closest that I have had to that sort of experience is with the Showtime series 'The Affair.'  A grad school friend of mine, Sarah Treem, is the showrunner on that series.  I did a small part on that last season and I've been doing table reads for them on my day off here in New York.  Last week I was out there because Dominic West was not able to be there for the table read, and so I sat in for him and read his part while they all sat around a table and that was really thrilling.  You've got 50 people sitting around the table and all the main cast is there and you've got Showtime executives from LA on the speaker phone in the middle of the room and you've got wildly successful people all around you and there you are reading a script for the very first time so that everybody can hear it.  So that's pretty exciting.  That was the third table read that I had done for them this season and the two leads knew me from last season.  They're all fantastic, they're all nice.  There's not a person involved in that show who is not approachable and cool.  So it's exciting.  That's where I'm at in my career, still.  I still get a little starstruck and I really appreciate these opportunities to work with these people.  I'm not jaded about it and I don't take any of it for granted.  So 'The Affair' is the closest I've had so far to the experience of being part of a series because I've been involved with working with those people several times.  You walk in and they really take care of you.  I would welcome more opportunities to have an actual role and really be part of a series like that."

James Lloyd Reynolds remains grateful for the opportunities he has enjoyed in his career thus far and looks forward to what lies in his future.  He is appreciative of how his "Law & Order" roles allowed him to hone his craft while building a solid list of credits.  Reynolds recognizes how the franchise was very important to New York actors like himself because "Honestly, it kept people financially in a position where they could afford to take riskier parts in theater--sometimes out of town, or for less pay--because then they could come home and they could bank on the idea that they were going to do one or two 'Law & Order' episodes a year.  They paid well enough, and the residuals continue, and so it allowed people to have a certain degree of stability, interestingly enough, so they could practice their craft.  I think it's a constant struggle for theater actors to negotiate the difference between earning a living and pursuing their passions and the different 'Law & Order' shows allowed actors to do that.  And I'm proud of the work I did on the shows, particularly the 'SVU' where I played the closeted rape victim.  I think what I got to do on the witness stand was fulfilling because I was given something substantive where I was able to master that character's emotional journey.  And I felt the same way about the grieving father role that I played on the original 'Law & Order.'  I think both of those provided me good opportunities and challenges.  I'm pleased to have worked in the 'Law & Order' franchise.  I would be glad to work with those people and appear on their shows again anytime."

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Unresolved Love Between Marshal Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty Russell on "Gunsmoke"

In order to understand how television has changed through the years, one would have to consider the on-screen relationship between Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) and saloon owner Miss Kitty Russell (Amanda Blake) on the classic Western series "Gunsmoke," which ran on CBS from 1955 to 1975.  When the series began, "Gunsmoke" was a fairly straightforward, intelligently made Western, that ran 30 minutes and was shot in black and white.  As the popularity of the show continued to grow through the years, the show's running time expanded to 60 minutes a week and was eventually filmed in color.  But it wasn't just the appearance of the show that changed, as the format and perspective of the show continued to grow as well.  While Matt Dillon remained the central protagonist, and Dodge City remained the main setting for the series, later episodes would allow other members of the ensemble, or a guest star who either lived in Dodge City or had some tangential relationship with the core cast or locale, to take center stage.  This allowed later seasons of "Gunsmoke" to push the boundaries of the weekly Western format and become more like an anthology series at times.  In so doing, the characters and situations on "Gunsmoke" continued to evolve as the series explored deeper, more psychological and emotional territory than it had at the beginning.  There was always much more than met the eye with this series.

Even though the show continued to evolve, and the characterizations developed more resonance, one aspect of the show that remained enigmatic at times was the nature of the relationship between Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty.  It's been argued that they were lovers the entire time of the series, while others view the relationship more as a platonic friendship.  James Arness and Amanda Blake wisely played their scenes together with restraint and warmth, yet infused with genuine sexual chemistry, so that it worked on multiple levels as both a friendship and a romance.  Arness himself acknowledged in an interview before his death that the series intentionally kept their relationship alternately vague and unresolved because the producers felt that allowing them to have a full-blown on-screen relationship would drastically change the nature of the show.  In its decision to not further develop the Matt/Kitty relationship, I don't think "Gunsmoke" was afraid of allowing the show a level of complexity so much as not wanting to make the show focused solely on them.  I believe the producers of "Gunsmoke" wisely decided to allow it to remain an ensemble piece about the characters that pass through Dodge City and the surrounding environs.

However, if the show was made now, I have no doubt that the Matt/Kitty relationship would be the central thrust and focus of the entire series, at the expense of all the other elements that made it unique and successful.  I think such a tactic would deprive the show of the air of mystery and wonderment that defines the relationship between Matt and Kitty.  As fans of the show, we want to imagine that there is something deeper, more resonant going on underneath the surface that underscores the love and caring the exists between those characters.  At the same time, I think "Gunsmoke" fans also appreciate how Matt and Kitty feel a genuine friendship and respect with one another that they wouldn't want to see ruined if they ended up having a full blown affair that brings with it all the complications that would entail such a relationship.

Through the years, the show gave us little glimpses and hints as to how Matt and Kitty feel for one another, but no other episode addresses it more directly than the epic, exciting three-part segment from 1971, "Gold Train: The Bullet."  In it, Matt Dillon is shot in the back, with the bullet dangerously lodged near his spine.  Doc (Milburn Stone) fears that he does not have the proper training to operate to remove the bullet, so he decides to have Matt transported by train to a surgeon in Denver, while lying face down in the freight car.  Kitty, Festus (Ken Curtis) and Newly (Buck Taylor) also accompany Doc and Matt on their journey.  During the trip. the train is hijacked by a band of outlaws determined to steal the U.S. Army gold shipment that is on board.  The leader of the outlaws is Jack Sinclair (Eric Braeden) whose hand was wounded years earlier by Matt Dillon.  In order to protect Matt from being killed by a vengeful Sinclair, Doc lies to the outlaws that Matt is a patient under his care who has died and that his name is Walters.

A shifty female prisoner being escorted by law enforcement officials back to Denver named Beth Tipton (Katherine Justice) correctly deduces Matt's identity and begins taunting Kitty that she'll reveal the truth to Sinclair if it will ensure that he will take her along with him once he is finished looting the train.  At first, Kitty tries to play dumb and act as though she has nothing to do with the dead Mr. Walters in the freight car.  Beth Tipton sees through Kitty's subterfuge and tells her that, when she saw the level of concern Kitty felt for Matt as he was being loaded onto the freight car, "I could tell that he was your man....They just said his name was Walters.  That's very strange.  When I got on the train, I heard the conductor say his name was Dillon.  Marshal Dillon...If the name isn't Walters, then maybe he isn't dead either."   Amanda Blake's low-key, poker faced reaction to this threat helps underscore Kitty's level of concern and love for Matt.  By not overacting (and overreacting), Blake demonstrates the fear Kitty feels for Matt's safety, as well as her decisiveness in choosing to do what she can to prevent Beth Tipton from informing Sinclair as to his identity and presence on the train.

Later, when Kitty notices Beth chatting with Sinclair, the fiery redhead confronts the unscrupulous woman, in order to learn whether Beth has revealed what she knows, and finally admits her true feelings for Matt and the nature of her relationship with him.  Kitty warns Beth that revealing Matt's identity and whereabouts on the train will cause him to get killed.  Beth glibly replies, "So what?"  An outraged Kitty strikes Beth across the face and says "Don't you try buckin' me, honey.  As tough as you think you are, I'm a lot tougher.  You're right.  He IS my man.  And I'll do anything to keep him alive, even to killing the likes of you."  Again, Blake underplays what could have been a melodramatic moment by having Kitty issue her threat to Beth in a restrained, yet determined, manner.  In so doing, Blake brings a sense of assurance and authority to the character that demonstrates Kitty's ability to hold her own against dangerous adversaries even in times of crisis.

But no other scene in this three-parter underscores Matt and Kitty's relationship better than a quiet, lengthy monologue and soliloquy that she has later on.  Matt has started to lose feeling in his legs due to the bullet, and Kitty tries to convince Doc to operate immediately.  Doc refuses to operate on Matt for fear that his lack of experience with spinal injuries will either cripple or kill Matt.  A resigned and exhausted Kitty goes back inside the freight car, sits next to Matt's unconscious body and reminisces about the day she first met him.  Blake's amazing monologue has always blown me away and I'm surprised it hasn't been acknowledged or written about more often by television fans and critics.

Leaning back against the wall, while looking straight off into the distance, Kitty recalls her arrival in Dodge City: "Seventeen years ago this month.  I'll never forget that first day as long as I live.  It was raining.  And I was cold and hungry and miserable.  When I stepped off that stagecoach, and saw those ugly buildings, all those muddy streets, I hated Dodge City.  I was down to my last forty dollars and it couldn't have taken me much further.  But you couldn't have paid me to stay in Dodge.  I waded over to the cafe and was hurrying through breakfast so I could get back on the stage.  Then a man came in and he sat down across the room from me.  He was the biggest man I have ever seen in my life.  And he also ate the biggest breakfast I've ever seen in my life.  He was so busy polishing off all his eggs and ham and biscuits and he didn't even notice me.  But I noticed him.  I noticed him so much that I decided to stay for awhile.  And stay I did, despite of the fact that I found out that the big man wore a big badge and he didn't think he had any right to get involved in any kind of permanent relationship.  Oh, we REALLY fought some battles about that.  Seems to me that I left three or four times, just swearin' up and down that, under any circumstances, was I gonna see him or his damn badge again.  I always came back.  And, once, he even came to get me.  Now, here we are.  After 17 years, and that's got to be the LONGEST, non-permanent relationship in history.  But I wouldn't change one day of it...not one day."  In response to Kitty's heartfelt remembrance, Matt regains consciousness, struggles to raise his torso while wincing in pain, turns partway towards Kitty, and says (while not looking directly at her), "I noticed that day, Kitty.  I noticed."

James Arness, in the aforementioned interview, indicated that fans frequently wrote to the show's producers complaining that the relationship between Matt and Miss Kitty remained low-key and unresolved.  The fans wanted the producers to finally bring the relationship to fruition, perhaps to even allow them to get married on-screen.  However, I think it's because the show hasn't beat viewers over the head with the romantic aspects of their relationship that Kitty's monologue in the "Gold Train: The Bullet" episode, and Matt's acknowledgement of it, carries such weight and resonance.  We've already seen, in the 17 years leading up to this episode, the warmth and respect that these characters have for one another (while they are involved in story lines that aren't always, directly or indirectly, about their relationship) that we don't need to see or hear about it all the time.  Even if the moments concerning their relationship mentioned by Kitty sometimes took place off-screen, Kitty's monologue still feels believable because we already sensed something was going on between them that her reminiscence simply helps to fill in the gaps as to what we know.  As such, when it came time for "Gunsmoke" to really address Matt and Kitty's love for one another, it never feels forced or artificial, and the result is that it carries tremendous feeling and impact.  The scene, and Kitty's genuine love and concern for Matt throughout this particular three-part episode, would not have worked as well if their relationship was a constant, heavy-handed element in the series.

What makes Kitty's monologue carry even more resonance is our knowledge that Matt and Kitty don't end up together in the long run.  Amanda Blake left the series in 1974 when she decided not to appear in the 20th and final season of "Gunsmoke," and in the reunion movie "Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge" (1987), Matt and Kitty are reunited, but ultimately part for good at the end of that story.  In subsequent "Gunsmoke" reunion movies that feature Matt Dillon (which were made after Blake died in 1989), Kitty is nowhere to be found.  I think stories that involve an unresolved romantic longing between individuals always carry with it more impact than ones that end conventionally.  (Look at "Gone with the Wind" if you doubt what I'm saying.)  Even though I would have liked to have seen Matt and Kitty spend the rest of their lives together, I'm still satisfied knowing that they had a special friendship that lasted through the years, and that they had a positive impact on each other's lives that we were fortunate to have witnessed and experienced.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Christina Pickles & Priscilla Barnes Teach a "Class" Worth Attending

Last week, a good friend suggested I watch them in an episode of a web series they worked on called "Break a Hip."  The series focuses on the burgeoning friendship between a young, aspiring actor struggling to survive in Hollywood named Wincy (Britt Hennemuth), and the reclusive English actress Elizabeth Bumstead "Biz" Brantley (Christina Pickles) who hires him to help with errands and chores around her tiny apartment.  Over the course of each episode, which run no more than 10 minutes apiece (but which resonate with more depth, nuance, and humor than most TV sitcoms three times its length), Wincy and Biz grow close to one another as they help fill the void that exists in each others lives.  What makes the show work is how writer/director Cameron Watson (who based the premise and characters on his relationship with an actress who he helped run errands for when he first arrived in Hollywood) allows the situations to be as quirky and outrageous as they need to be without completely overdoing it.  By not making fun of these characters, and by being consistently compassionate about them, he brings enough genuineness to the proceedings that allows the audience to be easily pulled in to the story.  I was surprised at how taken I was with the series, particularly it's sixth episode entitled "The Class."  I've been quoting its endlessly memorable lines to friends and colleagues ever since seeing it.

In "The Class," Biz insists on attending Wincy's acting class to see who he is training with.  She is horrified to discover that the class is taught by crazy, eccentric Sabina Klinefelter (Priscilla Barnes), who is teaching her students acting techniques that would make even the Lee Strasberg cult from the Actors Studio roll their eyes.  After witnessing Sabina's bizarre theories on acting, Biz confronts her and the two veteran actresses have it out with one another regarding their individual approaches to the craft.  What I liked about the episode, besides the fact that it was incredibly honest and funny in its parody of the LA acting scene, was the fact that Watson plays fair with both Biz's and Sabina's perspectives and doesn't show favoritism with either.  He allows both characters to represent the different kinds of actors, and acting styles, that make up the entertainment industry and lets them both have their say.  Even though Biz is outraged at Sabina's teaching style, Sabina never comes across as a one-dimensional antagonist worthy of contempt.  In her skillful hands, the underrated and fearless Barnes (who is also genuinely funny in her supporting role on the CW's critically acclaimed series "Jane the Virgin") allows the audience to recognize how Sabina is sincere about her teaching methods and that she genuinely believes her students have talent.  The scenes depicting Sabina's acting class are indeed outrageous, but Barnes plays the scenes with a level of conviction and sincerity that allows the character to come across sympathetically.  She is particularly terrific when Sabina is incensed at how Biz has criticized her students and her teaching methods.  Barnes ensures that Sabina's not a contemptible charlatan out to scam her students.

At the same time, Watson also shows respect to Biz's more traditional approach to acting and allows her an opportunity to underscore the basic components of what makes a good actor when she tells Sabina, "These beautiful young people want to learn how to act, and you are screwing around with them!...You should be teaching them how to listen, how to speak to one another, how to feel a real, true feeling, to tell the truth!  Not rolling around on the floor like a dying otter!"  Watson avoids making Biz a sanctimonious character by reminding the audience, through Wincy's embarrassed reaction, that Biz is actually out of line by insulting both Sabina and her students with her unsolicited comments.  We might personally agree with Biz when she admonishes Sabina to return to the basics of acting, but the way she goes about it is undiplomatic.  Even though she's one of the lead characters, Watson doesn't completely excuse Biz for her blunt rudeness, even if what she's saying is true, by allowing a supporting character like Sabina her own perspective.  Because Watson remains objective about his central character, doesn't try to make Biz always right about everything, and paints her as a multi-dimensional, flawed individual with both weaknesses and strengths, we find that we ultimately admire her forthright honesty and ability to get to the heart of the matter, despite the occasionally misanthropic way she goes about it.

What ultimately makes "Break a Hip" work as a series is the skillful lead performance by Christina Pickles.  Particularly in "The Class" episode, Pickles underscores the delicate radiance and stubborn persistence that underscores her character's ability to survive the ups and downs of being a working actress in Hollywood.  I particularly enjoyed the moment when Wincy introduces Biz to Sabina and the class by calling her "a wonderful actress."  Pickles effectively conveys Biz's sincere and glowing vulnerability when she thanks Wincy for showering her with praise.  You get the feeling that it's been a long time since anyone has given Biz the respect that she deserves and Pickles sells that moment without sentimentality that would have made the character come off as self-indulgent.  When she tells the class that she studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and that she worked with Gielgud, Olivier and Richardson on the West End of London, and that she guest-starred on "Rockford Files" and "Big Valley" in her youth, it could have been an overly self-aggrandizing moment, but Pickles's sincerity makes it come across more like an effort on her part to establish herself as a peer with the students in the class.  I don't believe Biz is trying to impress the students so much as trying to say to them "I know what you're going through, I've been there as well.  Let's share our experiences so we can help one another."

Even though "Break a Hip" is a comedy, and a very funny one at that, I haven't emphasized or quoted the witty lines and quirky moments that comprise much of the series because I don't want to ruin it for people who haven't seen it yet.  You have to see it for yourself to appreciate the humor and satire that distinguishes this from other shows, both on TV and the internet.  In some ways, because it addresses the plight of mature actresses in Hollywood, "Break a Hip" could be considered a companion piece to HBO's brilliant "The Comeback" starring Lisa Kudrow.  I think what makes "Break a Hip" so special is that it allows mature actresses like Christina Pickles, Allison Janney and Priscilla Barnes an opportunity to play meaty showcase roles that stands in contrast to our overly youth-obsessed media and industry.  I also like how the show dramatizes the friendship and interaction that can exist between mature and young characters, which you rarely get to see in other programs.  But even with its young characters, "Break a Hip" defies convention.  Wincy is indeed a character still in his 20s, but Hennemuth's warm performance thankfully ensures that he never comes across as hip or trendy--and nor do the other young characters on "Break a Hip."  The young people on this series all come across as nice, well-meaning, off-beat individuals who are refreshingly without irony or snark.  They are the kinds of people I can relate to more than the people who populate most TV shows these days.  Because of its unusual perspective, and its highlighting of mature, talented actresses who don't always get the attention they deserve, "Break a Hip" is a web series worth seeking out.  I look forward to its Second Season and hope these characters get expanded to a weekly series or feature film in the near future.