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'The Guardian': The Pittsburgh Connection

Sunday, September 16, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

CULVER CITY, Calif.-- Tucked away on soundstages in the back of the Sony Pictures Studios lot, the sets for CBS's new Pittsburgh-set legal drama "The Guardian" are under construction. It's mid-July, and workers are busy building rooms that will replicate the interiors of a Pittsburgh law firm and bar.

When complete, these stages will be the primary location for filming "The Guardian," the story of selfish, hotshot lawyer Nick Fallin (Simon Baker), who gets busted for drugs. He's sentenced to serve 1,500 hours of community service working for Children's Legal Services under no-nonsense director Alvin Masterson (Alan Rosenberg). At the same time, Nick continues to work in the firm founded by his father, corporate lawyer Burton Fallin (Dabney Coleman).

Production has already begun on the show's second episode, with filming under way on the one set that's complete, Children's Legal Services. (The pilot was filmed mostly in Toronto, so the offices in the premiere episode will look a little different from what viewers will see in coming weeks.)

The show's other regular standing sets -- the Pittsburgh law firm Fallin & Associates and a Downtown restaurant/bar called the Incline -- remain a work in progress.

In the sleek, fake marble-tinged law offices, no pictures have been hung. The cityscape backdrop that will be seen through office windows isn't actually a picture of Pittsburgh, but it's a believable substitute.

On the Incline set -- inspired by the bars in the Sewickley Hotel and the bar at the William Penn that existed before its renovation -- dark woods predominate in the chairs, booths and faux hardwood floor. A picture, used on the set of the now-canceled "Gideon's Crossing," waits to be hung on the wall.

And then, finally, there's a true sign of Pittsburgh. It's a small detail, one that may not even show up on camera, but its presence gives the joint a certain credibility. There, lying on the bar, waiting to be installed, is an Iron City Beer tap.

Reality meets fantasy on the set of "The Guardian" and in the show's stories. But it was a long road to get the series this far.

Michael Pressman, left, director of hte pilot for "The Guardian" and a guest star in the premiere and Scott Hollader,m a local child advocate and part of the inspiration for the CBS series, wait for a scene to be shot along Grant Street. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

"This was one we hadn't seen"

In late summer and into the fall, networks begin plotting their strategy for the following fall television season. Even as they boast about the new programs about to premiere, they know the odds of any show sticking around are slim. And so, they develop replacements. And then they develop some more.

For this fall, CBS ordered scripts for 70 new drama series, according to Entertainment president Nancy Tellem. "The Guardian" was one of nine scripts selected to be filmed. Among those, five made it onto the fall schedule.

Last year at this time, CBS development executives first learned of writer David Hollander, read his scripts from other projects and decided to give the Mt. Lebanon native a shot.

Once "The Guardian" pilot was given a go-ahead, CBS president Leslie Moonves, a former actor and president of Warner Bros. Television, orchestrated the pairing of Hollander and Australian actor Simon Baker, cast as Nick Fallin, the guardian of the title.

CBS higher-ups are confident 31-year-old Baker is the right man for the job, in no small measure because of his handsome looks (think a younger, leaner Russell Crowe).

"When he came into the room, I sat there like a schoolgirl," said one female CBS executive, who asked not to be named.

"We felt he has the potential to be a big TV star," said Lucy Cavallo, CBS vice president of casting. "He has all the things you look for, including a great sense of humor."

"I think Simon could be a huge superstar," Moonves said. "If this series doesn't work, he's going to be a movie star. You can bet on it."

Casting wasn't the sole reason for the show's appeal.

"You want to have an interesting franchise," Tellem said at a CBS party in July. "This was one we hadn't seen: The corporate legal franchise with the child advocacy franchise."

That stemmed from Hollander.

"This is truly an intelligently written show," Moonves said. "We think this writer could be the next Aaron Sorkin. We really think this kid has great talent."

"This kid," 33-year-old television novice Hollander, got a crash course in TV production this summer. Once "The Guardian" was named to CBS's fall schedule in May, Hollander faced the prospect of assembling a team of writers and working with veteran executive producers Michael Pressman ("Picket Fences") and Mark Johnson ("L.A. Doctors," "Falcone") to get the series ready for a mid-July production start.

Hollander, a 1986 graduate of Sewickley Academy and 1990 graduate of Northwestern University, was primarily a playwright before getting into television. His five produced plays include "The Sun Dialogues," "Faith" and "The Things You Don't Know." He also wrote Showtime's "Rated X," a cable movie that premiered last year.

"I never really had a love for television," Hollander said in July, sitting on a sofa in his sparsely decorated office. Framed Pirates cards from the 1968 starting lineup are among the few things in a bookcase next to his desk. "When I first talked about writing TV, I wanted to write a show in Pittsburgh first and foremost. It's where I'm from; it's where a lot of my stories come from."

One inspiration was to write an "Upstairs, Downstairs"-type story set in the industrial world based on the Michael P. Carlow check-kiting scandal. He tabled that feature film script but came back to the germ of the idea after spending time on the job with his brother, Scott Hollander, executive director of Pittsburgh's KidsVoice, a nonprofit child advocacy organization based on the South Side.

"I was actually sitting in a halfway house with my brother, and I wasn't watching the workers, I was watching the kids, and it just struck me as being remarkably complex," Hollander recalled. "They were victims and victimizers, a wild assortment of humanity, and that interested me a lot."

Hollander was also interested in telling a bit of his family's story. His father, lawyer Thomas Hollander, is a second-generation Hungarian immigrant.

"His parents are immigrants who worked the coal mines and steel mills outside the city," Hollander said. "And I was always looking for a way in to telling the story, one, of a man who works his way up in an industrial city, who is still strongly connected to those industrial roots; and two, of a man in that position who finds himself engaging so many different areas of the city through his work. It fascinated me when I was growing up to see the different people that came through my home that my father represented."

So it comes as no surprise in episode No. 2 of "The Guardian" that viewers learn more about Nick's father, Burton. There's even a scene at a run-down steel mill "near the Monongahela River," according to the script, where Burton talks about the time his father spent working in the mills.

Hollander put together all these elements -- prodigal son Nick and his relationship with his father; Burton's family history; wealthy corporate legal firm and poor child advocacy organization -- to create the series.

In the premiere, Nick must represent a child at a custody hearing after the boy, Hunter Reed, witnesses his father kill his mother. Though "The Guardian" won't usually have continuing stories, Hunter's case will continue in subsequent episodes.

The idea of featuring children in jeopardy every week is not many people's idea of entertainment. Nor is it Hollander's.

"Kids in trouble was never my interest," he said. "You read these horrible things where a parent pours gasoline on a child and lights the child up in flames, but that's never going to happen on this show because that's a black- and-white issue. Instead, I'm drawn to situations where the thing that meets the eye is not the thing at all."

In the case of Hunter's story, that involves his father's mental state when he committed murder, which could have been aggravated by an experimental drug.

The show will move away from children after the first six episodes, when the Children's Legal Services office accepts a grant that requires it to work with adults. Hollander said that move is to prevent the show from becoming too difficult to watch each week. Hollander said his brother, Scott, a technical adviser on the series, will continue to consult, but less frequently.

CBS executives praised Hollander's writing style and his willingness to collaborate.

"He doesn't fall in love with his writing," said Laverne McKinnon, CBS director of drama development. "He'll write an entire script and throw the entire thing away and start from scratch. That's incredibly rare in writers."

Actor Alan Rosenberg, a veteran of Steven Bochco's "Civil Wars" and the final season of "Chicago Hope," said the "Guardian" pilot was the least sensational script he's read in a long time.

"David's a very subtle writer. You don't see it all when reading a script," Rosenberg said. "I have this scene coming up with Dabney Coleman -- he's Nick's father and I'm the other father figure in this guy's life -- and very little of the scene is written. We say these words, but you know there's important stuff that goes on underneath in subtext. David writes the words and wants that stuff underneath."

Admittedly, Hollander is not enamored of writing that spells everything out.

"I'm not big on exposition," he said. "I just want to tell a story and let the exposition come through the action. A lot of TV writers like to pull back and [have the characters] say, 'Here I am, here's my life story, know me.' That's not the way I want to tell stories. If you keep watching the show, you're going to learn a lot about the characters. As the weeks pass, we'll watch Nick in Pittsburgh, in his life. That will tell us what happened to him [to get him where he is today]."

"Yinz go Dahntahn"

The set of Children's Legal Services looks authentically Pittsburgh. Exposed brick can be seen everywhere in the cramped, cluttered office. Children's artwork hangs from the walls. Out the windows, a visitor can see a giant photo backdrop of other brick buildings with fire escapes. According to a script, "The Guardian's" version of CLS is located on the South Side, and that's easy to believe from the look of the set.

Baker films a scene with co-star Charles Malik Whitfield, who plays CLS employee James Mooney, and recurring guest star Rusty Schimmer, who plays secretary Barbara Ludzinski. They search through boxes, trying to find a file relating to the case of a girl who claims abuse at the hand of her stepfather.

Between takes, Baker said he agreed to star in the series for the regular hours. After appearing in films ranging from "L.A. Confidential" to "Red Planet," he wanted to keep his family (including his wife, actress Rebecca Rigg) together in one place.

As someone with a natural Australian accent, playing a Pittsburgher is a challenge. Baker said some Australian actors who come to America adopt an American accent and use it all the time.

"I have trouble doing that and not feeling like I'm a phony," he said. "But my American accent slips at times, and it [ticks] me off because I should probably walk around with an American accent. I'm a contradiction."

Though he doesn't affect a Pittsburgh accent for "The Guardian," Baker is happy to demonstrate one for a visitor to his trailer.

"Yinz go Dahntahn," he says, a big smile on his face.

"It's a hard accent, and I don't want to butcher it," Hollander said. "I think it will be a long time before you hear that, unless I can get actors from Pittsburgh in the show."

When Hollander writes scripts, he uses real names and places, and then the CBS legal department, fearful of lawsuits or unable to get permission from the real institutions, makes changes. That's how, in the premiere, Western Psychiatric Hospital became Southwestern Psychiatric.

"Guardian" property master Matt Cavaliero said he tries to fill the set with as many authentic Pittsburgh props as possible. That includes copies of locally published newspapers and publications from the Allegheny County Law Review. The show has gotten clearance from the NFL and NHL to use props featuring Steelers and Penguins logos. They're still attempting to get permission to use Pirates merchandise.

Cavaliero, a Boston native, has also gotten cooperation from local merchants. Mineo's sent pizza boxes and menus to use on the set, and Nicholas Coffee in Market Square donated mugs and to-go bags. Rolling Rock beer sent mugs for use on the set of The Incline.

"This is the first time I've worked with someone who's from the place where we're basing the show," he said. "It comes right from the top. ... David Hollander wants to make sure we're representing Pittsburgh in an accurate fashion."

Production designer Maia Javan said the greatest challenge when filming East Coast-set programs in Los Angeles is to avoid palm trees. When that's not possible, they sometimes wrap the trunk in fake bark to make it look like an oak tree.

Before building interior sets for the series, Javan consulted with Al Tannler of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, which provided the production with information on the history of local buildings and architecture.

Javan said the walls of the Incline are covered with historic images from Pittsburgh, including lithographs by John Stobart, and the interior of Fallin & Associates features large pictures of local landmarks by Pittsburgh photographers Jim Judkis, Mark Bolster, Scott R. Goldsmith and Scott Smathers. In addition to those photos, Javan said marble, granite and steel surfaces were purposefully incorporated into the design of the Fallin & Associates set.

"We tried to pay tribute to the industry of Pittsburgh within the architectural design of the building," she said.

That also explains the exposed brick on the CLS set. Javan said she imagines it's in a South Side warehouse that was renovated in the 1970s.

"We tried to layer the life of the city in the interiors," Javan said. "You'll see a lot of archways in CLS, a reference to [architect] H.H. Richardson."

Early scripts for "The Guardian" are dotted with references to Western Pennsylvania locations, including the Mon Valley, Donora, Bethel Park and, most specifically, the Allegheny County Courthouse. Hollander said he wanted "The Guardian" set in Pittsburgh because, when concocting stories, it helps him to know the environment the characters live in.

"I wouldn't call Pittsburgh a character as much as it is an inspiration for me," Hollander said. "I felt like I needed that to effectively write the majority of the shows."

So far, Hollander has written five of the first eight scripts and contributed to or rewritten the other three. This may be his first job in series television, but "The Guardian" is clearly his baby.

Ratings, buzz, likability

Whether or not "The Guardian" succeeds or fails will be determined by a variety of factors, not the least of which is a tough time slot opposite NBC's "Frasier," ABC's "Bob Patterson" and "Spin City" and the new Fox critical darling "24," which premieres Oct. 30.

CBS research guru David Poltrack said "The Guardian" and "The Agency" scored the best of all CBS dramas this year in screenings with test audiences. He said "The Guardian" scored marks similar to what "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" received before its premiere.

"The Guardian" generated little interest at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Lately, CBS dramas that fare best are those with little or no buzz before their premieres, including "Judging Amy," "The District" and "CSI."

Media buyers, who pick shows to place commercials in, gave "The Guardian" mixed reviews. Optimedia International picked it as one of its "Lucky Seven" hits -- shows likely to last the entire season and increase ratings in the time period. But a report from marketing agency Campbell Mithun is less optimistic, saying the series "will need its own guardian angel" to survive.

"What people liked about it the most was the uniqueness of [Nick] living in two worlds," said CBS's Poltrack. "Particularly, women really like him. They liked the scenes of him [in the pilot] with the boy and also liked the idea that he was not initially accepting, that he was reluctant to get involved."

CBS's McKinnon said Nick was seen by women in test screenings as a flawed but worthy work in progress.

"Women don't want him to have a girlfriend, they don't want him to get married," she said. "They see this flawed character and the fantasy is, 'I can fix him.' "

Looks like they'll get what they want. Hollander said he has no intention of writing about Nick's personal life.

"We won't go home with Nick. You'll probably never see him out of his tie," Hollander said. "The point being, this character does not have any time. He's trying to bill 2,600 hours for a corporate firm and 1,500 hours to community service. He doesn't have time to stop."

Ratings and the reaction of test audiences aside, the biggest challenge facing "The Guardian" may be "The Guardian" itself.

In the first episode, lead character Nick Fallin doesn't come off as the most likable guy. He seems irritated to have to help a boy whose father murdered his mother, and he becomes invested in the case only when he discovers a way to make a quick buck on the side.

Hollander concedes that Nick won't turn warm and sunny anytime soon, but he thinks viewers will accept the character, warts and all.

"The most famous characters in the history of television are not likable," Hollander said. "Archie Bunker, Seinfeld, some of the best characters you really love are characters you feel are human and flawed -- more than flawed, outlandishly difficult. I feel Nick is in the middle of that.

"I want him to be honest and I want him to be straightforward, and sometimes that's painful. Sometimes his honesty and directness may be off-putting. I hope as you watch, you grow to understand him and grow to empathize with him. But I'm certainly not going to be pushing him toward likability for the sake of likability."

That's fine by Baker, who was drawn to the character's complexity.

"He's someone [who is] reattaching himself to his emotions again, and that doesn't happen overnight," Baker said. "The character's a constant work in progress. He's damaged goods. He's detached from his father, and the trouble he's gotten in is his own fault. And it's forcing him to have to deal with the emotions he's suppressed through the majority of his life."

Co-star Rosenberg agreed.

"In television and books, the greatest heroes are those who have to overcome obstacles in order to become heroic," Rosenberg said. "That's what David's built so beautifully with his lead character. It's tough to crack his shell."

Hollander said CBS hasn't been as concerned about Nick's likability as much as about his accessibility.

"They felt he was maybe so distant people weren't getting a window into him, and you address that by writing another script and another script and suddenly he's in situations that are opening him up and he lets his guard down," he said. "In the first episode, he's in a world that he simply does not want to be in, doing something he doesn't feel he has the time to do. The more he gets into it, the more engaged he'll become. He'll evolve into somebody who is the guardian."

Hollander fully accepts that "The Guardian," like the more than 30 other shows premiering in the coming weeks, is not a lock for success.

"Simon doesn't give a lot in the pilot, and we were aware of that when shooting," he said. "But Simon and I made a choice, and we're going to live or die by it and we may die by it. We really might."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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