I enjoyed this interesting piece from yesterday's paperNY TimesOctober 30, 2008A New York Actor Moves on by Going Back to 1973
By FELICIA R. LEE
Michael Imperioli, these days sporting long hair, sideburns and a mustache, doesn't much resemble Christopher Moltisanti, the drug-abusing (and clean-shaven) New Jersey Mafia character he played to Emmy-winning effect on The Sopranos until last year. But his newest television role does allow him to stay in New York, though it takes him back to 1973.
The New York City of 35 years ago is the setting for the genre-bending new ABC series Life on Mars, which on Thursday nights resurrects a year in which the World Trade Center was formally dedicated, Watergate began to erode Richard M. Nixon's presidency and the Vietnam War dragged on. Mr. Imperioli plays Ray Carling, a bitter, sexist yet dedicated detective in the fictional 125th Precinct of New York.
The series is part science fiction (the main character, Sam Tyler, is a detective from 2008) and part police drama. Each week Sam, played by Jason O'Mara, tracks down a new set of clues to figure out how he was hit by a car in 2008 and regained consciousness in 1973. Is he in a coma? An alternate reality? There are many possibilities, but there is still police work to be done, in a time before DNA testing and other high-tech techniques.
When this came along I really liked the character, I really liked the story, I liked the ideas they had for casting, and I liked being able to stay home with my family, said Mr. Imperioli, 42, a soft-spoken father of three. Home means New York. Mr. Imperioli, who grew up near New York City in Mount Vernon, was interviewed last week in his nondescript dressing room at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. The set is all gritty, peeling walls, hulking typewriters and black rotary telephones. Production types scream if a stray Starbucks cup is left behind.
There's an intelligence that goes with being a good cop, Mr. Imperioli said of why he likes the role. Intuitiveness: they have to be actors, they have to have deductive reasoning, knowledge about a great deal of subjects.
Mr. Imperioli, who has a long list of film and TV credits, is identified with very New York, very Italian characters, like Spider in the Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas and Detective Nick Falco on television's Law & Order. The dangers of typecasting don't appear to bother him, and his new character isn't Italian.
I think everybody's Italian, he said with a laugh. Everybody I play probably has some Italian in them.
The thing is, he added, it becomes up to you as an actor to make certain choices.
Playing Christopher was satisfying and door-opening, allowing him and his wife, Victoria, to venture into independent filmmaking and start a theater company, Studio Dante, in Chelsea. She produced and he wrote and directed The Hungry Ghosts, a film about a handful of New Yorkers at pivotal moments in their lives, which the couple recently submitted to the Sundance Film Festival And although money woes led them to close Studio Dante in June, they plan to continue producing plays.
With those creative offshoots, Mr. Imperioli says he feels good hanging out at the 1-2-5. The precinct boss is Lt. Gene Hunt, played by Harvey Keitel, another quintessential New York actor (Mean Streets, Bad Lieutenant) playing another foulmouthed, wisecracking police officer. Gene likes using his fists on suspects and kicks down doors without the permission of a search warrant.
Last Thursday, filming an episode in which Sam gets to interrogate his own 1973-version father about a kidnapping, Mr. Keitel and Mr. Imperioli made use of their New York swagger.
Michael Imperioli is a perfect example of an actor who exudes a New York attitude, said Gary Newman, co-chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, which is producing the show along with ABC Studios. His look and his talents are perfect for this series.
Mr. Imperioli was part of the radical makeover of Life On Mars. David E. Kelley (Boston Legal, Ally McBeal) departed after the initial pilot, all new actors were hired except for Mr. O'Mara, and the setting for the series was shifted to New York from Los Angeles. (The ABC series is based on a British original set in Manchester.)
It is rare that a show gets piloted twice, Mr. Newman said. I think a big part of it was, you look at the version shot in Los Angeles, and it just didn't feel like 1973; it wasn't authentic. The wardrobe, the hair, the music, the buildings it honestly is a kind of an amazing reproduction of the era.
The new Life on Mars team includes the executive producers Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec (both involved with Alias and October Road) and Scott Rosenberg (October Road). Mr. Appelbaum applauded the locale shift. What New York gives you, unlike Los Angeles, is the cultural epicenter of a very tumultuous time in American history.
Life on Mars,' among many things, is a homage to the 1970s cop drama, and that speaks to New York, Serpico' and The French Connection,' he said.
But do all the changes foretell challenges? While Life on Mars has received favorable reviews, its audience has steadily shrunk to 7.9 million from 8. 2 million from 11.3 million in the show's three airings since it began on Oct. 9.
Drastic rewrites and changing producers are not a good sign and in fact are often seen as the kiss of death' for a new series, Tim Brooks, the co-author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows: 1946-Present, wrote in an e-mail message. A clear, singular vision by a creative team that is able to bring that vision alive on the screen is usually the best indication of success.
One notorious example of a shape-shifting bomb, according to Mr. Brooks, was Hanging In, a spinoff of Maude in the 1970s that went through four incarnations and lasted only four episodes. But the birth pangs endured before the 2006 debut of the successful ABC series Brothers & Sisters a lead character was recast, a story arc was altered, the executive in charge quit demonstrate that happy endings are possible in these cases.
Mr. Appelbaum is betting that viewers might find inspiration in looking back at a very different era with some of the same problems as today. And the science-fiction police drama speaks to the existential dislocation felt by almost everyone at some time.
Mr. Imperioli said he had no idea how to solve Sam's mystery, or even whether Ray will show a softer side. But he said he had fun researching his part by talking to people who worked as detectives in the 1970s, and he enjoyed listening to what comes out of Ray's tough-guy mouth.
P.C. has not even been a blip on the radar screen yet, Mr. Imperioli said of the 1973 setting. To be a big-city detective is a very cool thing.http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/30/ar...ref=television