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TV Preview: Hopper puts in time as villain on '24'

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

As the Fox drama "24" careens toward its first-season finale, Dennis Hopper joins the cast tonight at 9 as the mastermind behind the plot to kill presidential candidate David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and the wife and daughter of government agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland).


WHEN: 9 tonight on Fox.

STARRING: Kiefer Sutherland, Dennis Haysbert and Dennis Hopper.


To reveal the identity of Hopper's character would spoil what might be a surprise -- although many will have guessed it -- but he's guaranteed to become a linchpin in the show's final hours.

In a conference call last week, Hopper acknowledged it's the latest in a long line of bad guys on his resume.

"Sometimes I'd rather play a different part, but [villains are] usually very interesting," Hopper said. "They give you a lot more leeway and emotional dexterity. I started out in Shakespeare, and the great roles in Shakespeare are always the villains."

Hopper said he was first cast in evildoer roles early in his career on TV Westerns. Because the series star was the hero, Hopper said, he'd guest star as a "crazy psychopath or a young gunfighter coming into town getting into trouble."

On "24," he is an Eastern European war criminal, a role that intrigued him because of the show's revolutionary format. Each one-hour episode of the series happens in real time and comprises one hour in "the longest day of my life," as protagonist Jack Bauer says at the start of each episode. The series began at midnight; it's now 7 p.m.

Throughout the season, "24" has produced edge-of-your-seat, tense television. Whether it's a life-and-death escape from armed captors or a strained relationship between a candidate and his wife, "24" is truly worthy of being called "drama."

For some viewers, it's probably gotten overly soap opera-like, particularly the trauma-induced amnesia Jack's wife, Teri Bauer (Leslie Hope), suffered. Executive producer Howard Gordon called "24" a "turbo-charged soap opera" and admitted the just-concluded amnesia arc was over the top.

"We all feel the amnesia, at some level, may have been stepping a toe over the line," he said. "In retrospect, it may not have been the strongest story, but Teri has been a very tough character to write, to sustain her dilemma for that period of time."

The show's most powerful character transcends soap trappings and rises to a Shakespearean level.

Sherry Palmer, played by talented character actress Penny Johnson Jerald ("ER," "The Larry Sanders Show," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine"), has earned the fan nickname "Lady MacPalmer" through her treachery and deceit -- and Jerald's forceful, strong-willed performance.

"Once upon a time we were going to have Sen. Palmer hold a secret from his family, but we decided it would be stronger if we had him discover something had been withheld from him by his own family," Gordon said. "That left [Sherry] to be the Lady Macbeth. There's complexity to her character. She's the best character for me to write. She's the most fun."

Last week, Sherry coldly slithered past her husband after he went against her will and revealed to reporters a murderous conspiracy by the men funding his campaign. Tonight her cold-shoulder act creeps closer to sub-zero.

"I just hope your conscience comforts you when you finally realize this is all over," she says to her husband.

"You mean the campaign or us?" he replies with his own steely resolve.

The spousal grousing only gets juicier in a showdown between the pair late in tonight's show. Forget about following Bauer in the show's second season -- "24" should become the Sherry Palmer show.

That's not likely to happen. Sutherland's Bauer will remain at the show's center, Gordon said, but its real-time format may be discarded if "24" is renewed (ratings are decent but not stellar).

There's concern some viewers didn't watch "24" out of a fear they wouldn't be able to follow what was happening if they hadn't committed to watching every episode starting with the premiere. Another reason for change: Serialized TV shows don't repeat as well as programs with close-ended episodes.

If the real-time structure is abandoned, producers instead may write each episode to cover a 24-hour period.

"What's most compelling about the show is the real-time aspect," Gordon acknowledged, "but I don't think we'd do another day unless we're convinced the format could sustain an equally compelling or more compelling story."

(No one asked, but I'm voting for "24" to remain in real time. That element -- the cliffhangers, the twists, the feints, the continuing stories -- makes "24" stand out. Take it away, and "24" becomes just another law enforcement show.)

The real-time conceit certainly challenges producers. Gordon said the show's entire first season was plotted in broad strokes, but writers were initially unsure where to take the story after Bauer rescued his wife and daughter from kidnappers at the halfway mark.

"We wondered how do we re-ignite the story and populate the cast with new bad guys who are more formidable?" Gordon said. "A lot of invention had to go on, but we knew the rhythm of the show and learned from the first 12 episodes and recharged our batteries to get through the season."

Except for a pre-emption April 30, new episodes of "24" will air until the season finale on May 21. That episode was being written late last week, and Gordon wouldn't hint at its contents or whether all the characters will survive.

"That's something we're going to be arguing well into the night," he said. "The final draft's not out yet."

Hopper, for one, doesn't expect his character to remain standing.

"I don't know how I end up, but I hope badly," Hopper said. "I don't think this guy should be around too long."

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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