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PopEntertainment.com > Feature Interviews P to T > James Pickens, Jr.

James Pickens, Jr.

Into The Lyon's Den

by  Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright 2003   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 9, 2003.

Every year, TV Guide does a special issue called “The Best Show You’re Not Watching.”  In it, they champion a TV series that has fine acting, excellent writing and good production values, but somehow has not seemed to attract a huge audience.  Sometimes the honor has helped a show find its footing (The Practice, The Gilmore Girls, Seventh Heaven).  Other times it has helped a terrific series last a little longer than it may have otherwise (Homicide: Life on the Street, Sports Night, Once & Again).  But mostly, it just helps to open people’s eyes to a show they may not have sampled.

This year, I’d like to nominate The Lyon’s Den.

Looked at by most of the world (at least the ones who haven’t watched it) as Rob Lowe’s post-West Wing series, the show has so much more to offer than that.  It is a complex and interesting drama exploring the machinations of a venerable Washington D.C. law firm, from the vaunted halls of power to the modest paralegals.  It isn’t just a typical law series, though.  The politics and backstabbing that go on at Lyons, LaCrosse and Levine give it more of a breathless tempo like creator Remy Auberchon’s previous show, 24. 

Unfortunately, the ratings have been somewhat hampered by the fact that it has a difficult timeslot; Sunday night at ten.  Also, the show is up against another lawyer series, the strangely resurgent The Practice, which was nearly cancelled last season and was only able to come back if they fired more than half of the cast.  Though The Practice isn’t nearly as good as it was in its heyday a few years ago, it does have the familiarity factor.  Plus, they showed some savvy in hiring slumming former movie star guests like Sharon Stone and Chris O’Donnell to drive up ratings.  If you still need your Practice fix, fine.  Set the VCR to tape it and watch it some other time, because you’re missing a better show in The Lyon’s Den

The series started on a grabber of the premise.  An elderly lawyer (and former ethics professor) named Daniel Barrington stands on a window ledge of the huge old office.  The audience watches in horror as he plunges to the ground.  But did he jump?  Was he pushed?  Why did it happen? 

It turns out that Barrington was the senior partner of the firm of Lyons, LaCrosse and Levine.  In an emergency meeting, the lawyers feel they need to find a new managing partner for the firm.  They choose Jack Turner (Rob Lowe), the estranged son of a Senator (Rip Torn).  Turner runs the firm's pro-bono division and has a reputation for scruples.   He would make a good face man.  Turner resists the idea, but finally gives in when the firm threatens to close down the law clinic.  That would not only put Turner’s friend and co-worker George Riley (Matt Craven) out of work, but it would also take away the opportunity for the poor to get legal representation.  In return for a promise of continued pro-bono work, Turner agrees to become managing partner of the firm.   

Not everyone is thrilled with the idea, though.  Grant Rashton (Kyle Chandler) is a corrupt partner who felt he should get the job.  With his assistant (Frances Fisher), he plots to find dirt on Turner.   He forces his mistress Ariel Saxon (Elizabeth Mitchell), a recovering alcoholic associate, to spy on Turner.  Ariel feels horrible about having to find dirt on her old friend Turner, and soon is trying to find information to discredit Rashton.  A paralegal with a crush on her (David Krumholtz) tries to keep Ariel from falling back off the wagon.

Standing watch over Lyons, LaCrosse and Levine is Terrance Christianson.  He is a powerful attorney who is ruthless in protecting his practice and his clients.   Christianson will do anything, including possibly unscrupulous things, for the firm.  But you can tell that in many ways he is a righteous man, who truly believes in the long run he is doing more good than bad.

“I think that’s the road Christianson’s taking,” says James Pickens, Jr., who plays the role.  “We don’t know how much of his soul he has had to sell to get to where he is.  I honestly believe he is basically a good man.  Because of his position and where he came from, he has had to do some things.  In the lonely, quiet times he thinks and wonders [how he came to this].  But, he is caught in this web.  He is going to have to maneuver to get what he wants, as well as fulfill the agendas of others.” 

Not a bad role to play for a guy who never even planned on being an actor.  Pickens had never even considered acting until it just sort of happened while he was in college, where he was pursuing (and achieved) a degree in Art.  But in his senior year, one of the other students had to direct a play to gain his doctorate.  A mutual friend suggested to the guy that he ask Pickens to take a role. 

“He walked over and introduced himself and said ‘you look like an actor, and would you want to audition?’” Pickens recalls.  “After kind of going back and forth, I said why not?  One thing led to another, and the rest is history.” 

Soon, Pickens had thrown himself into the theater with a passion, moving to New York in 1978 and playing significant roles in shows like A Raisin In the Sun.  Pickens was part of the historic original off-Broadway cast of Charles Fuller’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning drama A Soldier’s Play, with some other little known actors like Adolph Caesar, Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington. 

“Theater is my first love,” Pickens says.  “You get an immediate response.  It’s always fresh.  You come back the next day of the performance and do it again.  With theater, I think the ultimate thing is that you feel like you have a little more control, as far as an artist is concerned.  With TV and film, there are so many things that are kind of out of your control, as far as technical things and stuff.  You may not feel like that was your best take, but they feel [since] the lighting was right and everything, it’s fine.  Press on.  In a nutshell, the freedom of the creative process in theater is probably more to my liking.”

Through his appearances in the theater, he got a bit part in the popular 1986 thriller FX.  Soon he was cast in the long-running soap opera Another World, playing the role of Zack Edwards for four years.  By the early 1990s he moved to Los Angeles to make his way into the movies and TV.  Almost immediately, he was offered a guest role on the sitcom Roseanne.  They were so happy with his performance that they wrote him a different role as Chuck Mitchell, the husband of one of Roseanne’s co-workers.  One episode became two, two became four, and suddenly Pickens was playing the role for six seasons on the show.

This became a recurring motif in his career.  Pickens has become sort of the king of recurring roles – getting hired for roles that ended up being brought back over and over again.  Those recurring roles have included stints on shows like The X-Files, NYPD Blue, Beverly Hills 90210, The Practice, Six Feet Under, Philly, City of Angels, Brooklyn South and Something So Right. 

“I consider it an honor that a lot of times those roles weren’t meant to be recurring,” Pickens says.  “I guess I’ve been fortunate enough, and hopefully the talent as well, [that] prompted producers to look at the characters I play.  They say, ‘hey, he brings something to the table there we hadn’t expected, let’s try and create something where we can bring him back again.'  That’s usually been the case.  They started out as just maybe one guest spot, or the infamous words you see on casting calls, ‘possible reoccurring.’  That’s an incentive to get you to come in and read for them.  But, I’ve been fortunate and blessed enough that they have turned into recurring.  I was able to leave a small mark wherever I went.  I feel good about that.”

Another mark that Pickens was able to make is that he was one of the actors tapped to appear on the final episode of the legendary sitcom Seinfeld.  “It was very surreal.  I had auditioned for Larry David for something else, early on when I was here in California.  And he remembered me.  I get a call, and it wasn’t an audition, it was just ‘Would you like to do the final episode of Seinfeld?’  I said, sure.  I’d been a big fan of Seinfeld for a long time.  My wife and I had always liked the show.  But, it was kind of crazy, with all the press around.  Everybody was very nice, but there was some melancholy there.  It’s funny to look back on it and say, wow, I was a part of television history.  I was on the last Seinfeld episode.” 

Pickens has also made a mark in feature films, appearing in such titles as Traffic, Liberty Heights, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Bulworth, Nixon, Menace II Society, Dead Presidents, Sleepers, Ghosts of Mississippi, Gridlock’d, Sphere and Rocket Man. 

But it is his work on The Lyon’s Den that most excites Pickens.  ‘It’s been one of the real highlights of my career so far,” Pickens says.  “It’s a great character."

Pickens is fascinated by Christianson’s complexity, his complete control, and his appearance of having some moral ambiguity.  He touches on some traits that Pickens finds in himself, but in most ways it is a treat as an actor to portray a character somewhat foreign from his own experience. 

“How is he like me?  He likes to wear nice clothes and he has a mustache,” Pickens laughs.  Then he gets serious, “I guess there’s something of an actor in every character he plays.  That’s why some actors are so successful at what they do.  I guess his underlying integrity and his wanting to do good… I think those are some of the traits that I’d like to think I have.  But other than that, I hope that I’m not that demagogic and manipulative.  I don’t feel that that part of me is close to him.”

In fact, Pickens feels that we have only seen the surface of Christianson in the early episodes of the series.  So far, Christianson has been shown mostly as in complete control of situations.  He hopes the writers will be showing more shades of his life.  Turning him into a more flawed character could make him more intriguing. 

“I would love to see more dimensions than just him up here, in the crystal palace, on the top of the firm.  I would like nothing more than for folks to see that he’s a three-dimensional person.  There is something to him other than this kind of stern, and what may appear to be manipulative man.  He does have a soul.  He wants to do the right thing.  I guess if he had his druthers, he wanted to be what Jack is, I honestly believe.  But because of where he is and who he is, that’s not possible.”

That kind of deep inner conflict also shows itself in the other characters.  Even Jack Turner, who is perhaps supposed to be the moral center of the show, has dark impulses and some secrets that he hides beneath the surface.  At the same time, Rashton seems in many ways to be a bad guy, but he does show great concern and will go way out of his way to get a fair ruling for his clients.  In the immortal words of Jean Cocteau, there are no good guys or bad guys, because everyone has their reasons.

“I think what makes this series so wonderful and sets it apart from other law dramas,” Pickens agrees.  “The inner workings of these people, and yes, they all have agendas, I think they are all basically good people who have been caught up in the machinations of this huge monolithic structure which is Lyons, LaCrosse and Levine.  They’re trying to make whatever works, work… you know, for lack of a better term.  And still, hopefully not get caught in the quagmire of all of this deceit, and what looks like corruption.”   

Luckily, the series has a solid cast of television, film and theater pros who can convey these apparent contradictions and complicated characters.  Obviously Rob Lowe has a long career in films, and has proven the ability to do a smart TV drama with The West Wing.  Kyle Chandler was greatly underrated in the role he played on the long-running series Early Edition.  Matt Craven has done stellar work in some terrific short-lived dramas like High Incident and LA Doctors.  Elizabeth Mitchell became something of a sensation as Dr. Kerry Weaver’s lesbian lover in ER and she also starred in the adventurous TV news expose The Beast.  Frances Fisher has a long resume of fine film performances like Titanic and Unforgiven.  David Krumholtz has been the best thing in several bad series like Chicago Sons, Monty and The Trouble With Normal.

“I was so excited when I finally saw the whole cast kind of unmasked.  It was so exciting because I’ve been a fan of all of them.  As coincidence would have it, David and I worked together before.  Not in the same scene, but we did a film for Barry Levinson called Liberty Heights.  So we met each other on the set in passing, but we hadn’t worked together, but I’d really enjoyed his work.  I’d seen him in several other things.  I’m a big fan of Frances.  Have been for a long time.  As a matter of fact, we kind of knew one another in passing back in the New York days, when we were both doing theater.  I always have been a big fan of hers.  And Rob as well.  I didn’t know Matt’s work quite as well, or Elizabeth’s.  I knew Kyle from Early Edition.  When I saw this cast kind of put together finally, I was very excited.  Obviously I’m biased, but I think this is one of the strongest casts assembled on nighttime drama.  I’d put this cast up against anybody.”

The show also has brought in a series of intriguing guest stars.  Steven Weber was chilling as a serial killer in a recent episode.  Singer Jewel, Kelli Williams (The Practice) and Peter MacNicol (Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal) also add their talents to the series.  Recurring roles have also been played by Rip Torn as Jack’s father and Cliff Robertson as the firm’s head of security.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Rip Torn and also I’ve had quite a few scenes now with Cliff Robertson.  I mean, these are legends.  And now we have Kelli Williams.  She was wonderful in that other law show.”  Pickens laughs.  I haven’t seen any of her work, but I’ve heard she’s just doing a killer job.  Also, Peter MacNicol was just devastating.  All I heard the other day was just about the stuff he’s doing.  That’s exciting. 

“They are the other pieces that make up the puzzle, which is the show The Lyon’s DenThe casting people have done an incredible job.  Not just because they’re names, but some of the most talented actors in Hollywood are doing these guest spots on here.  They’re really interesting to look at, and have these really original takes on stuff.  I think it can do nothing but advance what’s happening with the show.”

So the only other thing that can truly advance the show is for more people to watch it.  That’s where the TV Guide story comes in.  This is a quality drama that deserves to gain a following.  But the fact the Nielsen ratings have not been quite as high as they should doesn’t worry Pickens too much.

“It’s been the lot of most well made dramas over the years,” Pickens says.  “You can look at it time and time again with other successful dramas.  We’ve held our own, I think, considering the night and the time, and opposite that other law show.  I applaud NBC and everybody for backing the show, and giving it a chance to find its audience.  That’s the biggest thing.  Great drama finds an audience.  Folks will gravitate to it if they get the chance.  They start watching it and the show picks up momentum.  If the quality of the show dictates that the network lets it run, I think the audience will say, we like this thing, let’s see more of it.  I am nothing but positive.  I’m having folks call me and the feedback on the show has just been incredible.”  

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Photo Credits:
#1 2003 Frank Ockenfels - Courtesy of NBC Television.
#2 2003 Paul Drinkwater - Courtesy of NBC Television.
#3 2003 Chris Haston - Courtesy of NBC Television.

Copyright 2003   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 9, 2003.

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Copyright 2003   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 9, 2003.