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TV Preview: Swissvale native is major force behind 'Carnival'

Saturday, November 01, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

After 22 years in the TV business, Swissvale native William Schmidt has found his dream job writing one of the strangest shows on the air: HBO's " Carnivale" (9 p.m. tomorrow). "Every day I've been out here [in the industry], I've been counting my lucky stars," said Schmidt, a supervising producer on "Carnivale." "Now I'm not only counting my lucky stars for being here, but to be on this kind of show. It's nice to get up and love what you do."

Nick Stahl, left, plays healer Ben Hawkins and Clancy Brown is Brother Justin Crowe on "Carnivale."

Schmidt, a 1975 graduate of Swissvale High School, acknowledged that the murky, mysterious drama can be difficult to follow for some viewers, but he said the series puts its best foot forward beginning with episode No. 8, airing tomorrow.

Set in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, "Carnivale" follows two central characters: Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl), who works for a traveling carnival and is capable of healing people, and Brother Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown), a Methodist minister with a dark side.

"I would absolutely say we found our voice in episode eight," Schmidt said by phone from Los Angeles this week. "Eight, nine and 10 aren't full of answers, but there's a forward drive to them. In 11 and 12, every scene answers something."

Viewers will get some of the story explained this week, including revelations about what Ben did to get sentenced to a chain gang before the series began. Later in the season, viewers will hear from Management, the unseen force carnival boss Samson (Michael J. Anderson) reports to. Management will be voiced by actress Linda Hunt and may even be glimpsed in season two.

"Basically, what we've been told is barring any unforeseen disaster, we're picked up," Schmidt said. "We've hired two new writers to come in, we're doing the bible [for season two]."

Schmidt, who began writing for TV on the early '80s soap "Falcon Crest," has also written for "Charmed" and created the short-lived "Prey," which developed a cult following on ABC in 1998. He also spent seven years writing TV movies, including "Darrow," starring Kevin Spacey, which was filmed in Pittsburgh.

 
 

"Carnivale"

WHEN: Marathon of episodes on HBO2, beginning at 2 p.m. tomorrow; new episode at 9 p.m. tomorrow on HBO.

STARRING: Nick Stahl, Clancy Brown

   
 

Originally Schmidt had been talking to HBO about creating a series set in a legal Nevada brothel ("It was more of a sorority than it was prurient," he said), but when HBO passed, he landed on the "Carnivale" writing staff.

"It's been a mind-boggling challenge in the sense that, as we've gone along, we've had to figure out deep back story, we've had to figure out the supernatural stuff, we had to figure out where things were going, where they'd head to and how much do you parcel out every week," he said. "It really is one of the most challenging shows I've worked on."

Schmidt said the character he most enjoys writing is Brother Justin.

"Most of my TV movies have been spent in discussion of good vs. evil, and I'm Jewish, so the Holocaust is something I've done a ton of reading on," he said. "He's a very dynamic character. It's challenging to write evil and make it real, and by real I mean the emotional reality, not the real-real. For whatever reason, I've ended up creating his forthcoming theology for next season. It's a scary theology."

Schmidt will stick with "Carnivale" in season two, but he's also got an idea for a Pittsburgh-set series that he hopes to pitch to the networks. In the '70s, Schmidt spent a lot of time at his uncle's pharmacy in the Hill District. A retired African-American policeman named Ollie Mason lived above the store. Mason became a father figure and hero to the young Schmidt, who envisions a series that includes characters based loosely on himself and Mason.

"It would be set in 1970, which was a transition time for the Hill, and I would like to believe, because I spent so much time up there every Saturday for nine years and every summer day for nine years, I have a sense, as much as I think any white person can, of that world," Schmidt said. "Ollie brought me into that world. I'd love not to do a message thing so much as something showing that there are heroes in the world still, and there are ways for different races to come together."

Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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