> Feature Interviews P to T > James Pickens,
by Jay S. Jacobs
All rights reserved. Posted: October 9, 2003.
year, TV Guide does a special issue called The Best Show Youre 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 peoples eyes to a show they may not have
year, Id like to nominate The Lyons Den.
at by most of the world (at least the ones who havent watched
Rob Lowes 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 isnt 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 Auberchons previous show,
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 isnt 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 ODonnell 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 youre missing a better show in 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?
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
law clinic. That would not only put Turners
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.
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,
believes in the long run he is doing more good than bad.
think thats the road Christiansons taking, says James Pickens, Jr., who
plays the role. We dont 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.
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.
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.
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
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 Fullers 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning drama A Soldiers 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.
Its 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, its
fine. Press on. In a nutshell, the freedom of the creative
process in theater is probably more to my liking.
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 Roseannes co-workers. One episode
became two, two became four, and suddenly Pickens was playing the role for
six seasons on the show.
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.
consider it an honor that a lot of times those roles werent meant to be
recurring, Pickens says. I guess Ive 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 hadnt
expected, lets try and create something where we can bring
him back again.' Thats usually been the case. They started out as just
maybe one guest spot, or the infamous words you see on casting calls,
possible reoccurring. Thats an incentive to get you to come in and read
for them. But, Ive 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.
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 wasnt an audition, it was just Would you like to do the final
episode of Seinfeld? I said, sure. Id 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. Its funny to look back
on it and say, wow, I was a part of television history. I was on the last
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,
Gridlockd, Sphere and Rocket Man.
is his work on The Lyons Den that most excites Pickens. Its been
one of the real highlights of my career so far, Pickens says. Its a
is fascinated by Christiansons 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.
he like me? He likes to wear nice clothes and he has a mustache, Pickens
laughs. Then he gets serious, I guess theres something of an actor in every character he
plays. Thats 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 Id like to think I have. But other than that, I hope
that Im not that demagogic and manipulative. I dont
feel that that part of me is close to him.
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.
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 hes 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, thats not possible.
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.
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. Theyre
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 Weavers 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.
so excited when I finally saw the whole cast kind of unmasked. It was so
exciting because Ive 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
So we met each other on the set in passing, but we hadnt worked together,
but Id really enjoyed his work. Id seen him in several other things. Im
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 didnt know Matts work quite as well, or
Elizabeths. I knew Kyle from
When I saw this cast kind of put together finally, I was very
excited. Obviously Im biased, but I think this is one of the strongest casts assembled on nighttime drama. Id
put this cast up against anybody.
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
(The Practice) and Peter
MacNicol (Chicago Hope, Ally
also add their talents to the series. Recurring roles have also been played
by Rip Torn as Jacks father and Cliff Robertson as the firms head of
had the pleasure of working with Rip Torn and also Ive 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 havent seen any of her work, but Ive heard shes
just doing a killer job. Also, Peter MacNicol was just devastating. All I
heard the other day was just about the stuff hes doing. Thats exciting.
are the other pieces that make up the puzzle, which is the show The
Lyons Den. The casting people have done an incredible job.
Not just because theyre names, but some of the most talented
actors in Hollywood are doing these guest spots on here. Theyre really
interesting to look at, and have these really original takes on stuff. I
think it can do nothing but advance whats happening with the
only other thing that can truly advance the show is for more people to watch
it. Thats 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 doesnt worry Pickens too much.
Its 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.
Weve 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.
Thats 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, lets
see more of it. I am nothing but positive. Im having folks call me and
the feedback on the show has just been incredible.
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