Pounder is everywhere -- and now at the center of the plot

Even in brief roles, CCH Pounder is a key boost to lots of TV shows. Now -- on the April 7 "NCIS: New Orleans" -- she's at the center of the plot. Here;s the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

CCH Pounder is used
to the routine now.

She walks in, takes
charge, sets the plot in motion. It's what veteran actors do.

She's been the boss
on “The Shield” and “Warehouse 13,” the U.S. attorney on
“Sons of Anarchy,” now a medical examiner on “NCIS: New
Orleans.” It's often important and usually brief ... until now.

On Tuesday's “NCIS:
New Orleans,” a gunman steps into the morgue. “It gets exciting,”
Pounder said.

Suddenly, Dr. Wade
(Pounder) is hostage alongside:

-- Danny Malloy
(Christopher Meyer), a newcomer to the show. “For him, it's just
another day on the corner,” Pounder said. “He's gone through this
his whole life.”

-- Sebastian Lund, a
forensic scientist. He's played by Rob Kerkovich, who, she said, has
mastered the characters tangled verbiage and its humanity. “That
takes him beyond the geeky-guy role.”

Pounder long ago
mastered the art of big-word delivery, after playing a long stream of
doctors, lawyers and authority figures. Still, she did prepare for
this role by sitting in on 23 autopsies in Los Angeles.

“A friend said,
'Don't wear any clothes you'll want to wear again,'” she said.
“'Don't do perfume, because from then on you'll associate it with
that day.'”
But she enjoyed the experience and hearing the
morgue people. “They talked about family .... You thought, 'Oh,
these are people who have a sense of life that the rest of us take
for granted.'”

But what about the
other complications of Pounder's job – moving to New Orleans and
sometimes facing brutal heat? Don't fret about that: Pounder says she
loves the architecture and attitude of a place “where the party is
the work.” She calls herself “a hot-house flower” who has seen
the alternative; and she's spent her life on the move.

She was born in
British Guiana, educated in London; she moved to the U.S. at 18 to
study at Ithaca College. She travels often to Africa, where her
husband is a Sengalese anthropologist. Her theater work took her
everywhere ... including a memorable winter with the Milwaukee
Repertory Theater.

“I was doing
'Mother Courage' there,” Pounder recalled. “On this particular
night, it was freezing. I saw my reflection in a department store
window, with my scarf and coat. Tears were frozen on my eyes, snot
was frozen on my face. I thought, 'Who is this hunchback, this

She promptly phoned
a friend; as soon as the show closed, she moved to Los Angeles. Now,
decades later, Pounder doesn't plan to complain about the New Orleans

-- “NCIS: New

-- 9 p.m. Tuesdays,
CBS; the morgue-hostage episode is April 7


Annie Lennox brings true Americana ... by way of Scotland

In person or in concert, Annie Lennox is a stunning talent. She performed for the Television Critics Association with a stripped-down band ... even improvising by using her hand as a "hand harp," to replace a guitar solo; then she recorded a stunning PBS concert with full band. Either way, her voice delivered jazz classics beautifully. That PBS special is 10 p.m. Friday (April 3); here's the story I sent to papers:


As Annie Lennox
recalls it, she was just another Motown teen.

“We were dancing
in the dance halls to Stevie Wonder and The Foundations and The Four
Tops and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas,” she said. “The whole

Except she wasn't in
the same neighborhood. Hers was a 3,500-mile right turn from Detroit.

Lennox's “Nostalgia”
album is filled with such shimmering classics as “Summertime” and
“Georgia On My Mind”; so is her TV special, which most PBS
stations will pair with a Billy Porter Broadway concert Friday,
creating a night of true Americana.

Yes, that might seem
odd for someone from Scotland. Or maybe it's not.

“American music
has traveled so widely,” Lennox said. “It even came to the
northeast of Scotland in the 1960s .... I was listening to Motown and

She listened to the
radio, but her grandmother also had an old player and some vintage,
78-rpm records. “There were songs like Al Jolson, just weird stuff
like bits of opera and just strange things that I discovered,” she
said. “I would just lie on the floor, keep listening to this music.
(I had) the only-child syndrome that you have to play a lot by

Like many Detroit
parents back then, her dad was a blue-collar worker (at a shipyard in
Aberdeen, Scotland's third-largest city). Unlike most Detroiters, he
also played the bagpipes.

Her own role was
iffy at first. Lennox had a scholarship to the prestigious Royal
Academy of Music in London; she studied flute there for three years,
worked as a waitress and barmaid and shop clerk, even played flute in
a pop band. She linked with Dave Stewart for a band called the

By the time they
created the Eurythmics, their romance had ended but their synth-pop
sound had solidified. “Stewart's studio wizardry provided the
band's foundation,” says the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock &
Roll (Fireside, 2001). “Annie Lennox's theatrical appearance and
beautiful, icy wail ultimately were the duo's calling cards.”

In the U.S., “Sweet
Dreams” hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart, “Here Comes the Rain
Again” was No. 4, “Would I Lie to You” was No. 5.

In the three decades
since then, Lennox has remained vibrant. “I'm proud to say I'm 60,”
she said. “I'm not ageist and I don't think the world should be
.... I haven't had Botox; I haven't done any lifts.

She's had time for a
real life, including three marriages, two children and social
activism -- a tradition that goes back to her paternal grandparents.

“They were going
out and organizing rallies to stop fascism,” Lennox said. “Every
weekend, there would be some kind of gathering. They were very
consicous of the social injustice.”

She's been active on
issues involving AIDS, civil rights and women and children in Africa.
“Annie Lennox is someone I admire tremendously,” said Paula
Kerger, the PBS president.

So it's logical that
PBS' Friday-night performance slot – a Kerger creation – features
Lennox. In this case, it's neatly paired with an hour by Porter.

He's a Broadway
veteran, 45, who finally scored big in the 2013 “Kinky Boots,”
winning a Tony. “There are so many parts of the story that I relate
to personally,” Porter said, “as an African-American gay
Christian man in this world, who was told that everything I was would
never work.”

Sometimes, things do
work out. A kid from the Pittsburgh ghetto conquers Broadway, a
Scottish flutist becomes a pop star, both reach PBS.

-- “Great
Performances: Annie Lennox: Nostalgia Live in Concert,” 10 p.m.
Friday, PBS

-- Follows “Live
From Lincon Center: Billy Porter: Body & Soul,” 9 p.m.

-- Check local
listings; also, look for both on www.pbs.org

"Mad Men" found the perfect time for a long shot

Some evil force must have planned the Easter night TV line-up in an effort to blow out our DVR's. In an overcrowded crunch at 10 p.m., three series or mini-series will debut ("American Odyssey," "Wolf Hall" and "The Lizzie Borden Chronicles") and another will start its season ("Salem"). Yet all four are overshadowed: "Mad Men" -- winner of four Emmys for best drama series -- is starting the second half of its final season. Here's the "Mad Men" story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

At first, this
seemed like the longest of long shots.

“Mad Men” was on
a network (AMC) many people didn't know, with a subject (1960s ad
men) they didn't think about. It had, creator Matthew Weiner said,
“not a lot of murder, not a lot of chases.”

But in its own,
subtle way, it scored big. Each of its first four seasons won an Emmy
for best drama series. There have been 15 Emmys in all, plus more
than 100 nominations and an avalanche of praise.

As it returns for
its final seven episodes, actor John Slattery figures the show had
perfect timing. “'The Sopranos' was very influential in allowing an
anti-hero” to be at the core, he said.

Weiner had helped
write and produce three “Sopranos” season, then started “Mad
Men” at an ideal moment. “It was a very rich time in the
television landscape,” said Jon Hamm, who stars. “There were
stories that were driven much more by character than by genre.”

Weiner would create
a classic enigma, a man who seemed to have it all. His name (Don
Draper) and past were lies; so was his warm-looking home life.

As the final
episodes begin, Don is nearing his second divorce and envisioning a
past lover. He's someone who speaks brilliantly about advertising –
then often recedes into silence. He's “alternately an extremely
eloquent character and a man of few words,” Weiner said.

Casting sessions had
better-known actors, plus Hamm. He'd spent three years as waiter --
“I would have taken the job of a dancing slice of pizza,” he said
-- and then a decade as a TV journeyman.

His audition sold
it, Weiner said. “He wasn't playing the person; he made it into

Hamm is
quick-witted, but also fits into Don's sense of restraint and
distance. He grew up in St. Louis, with divorced parents who died
when he was 10 (his mother) and 20; he semi-mockingly describes his
“Midwesternness” and his compulsive politeness.

That's Don's
surface, with something else inside. “He's not just an empty suit,”
Hamm said. “He has difficulties and challenges – a lot of those
are his own fault.”

Like Don, Hamm has
had an alcohol problem; he recently completed rehab, TMZ has
reported. Unlike him, he's had a stable romance – 18 years with
Jennifer Westfeldt, a brainy actress-writer-producer – and a genial
approach. Instead of star vehicles, he's taken offbeat roles, usually
comedies, “I've had a chance to work with some of the funniest
people on the planet,” he said.

Other characters
have transformed sharply in circumstance, yet remained consistent.
Peggy Olson has gone from ignored assistant to respected ad director,
yet “she actually hasn't changed in a lot of ways,” said
Elizabeth Moss, who plays her. “Which, I think, goes for a lot of
the characters.”

In the first
returning episode, Peggy and Joan (Christina Hendricks) again face
blatant sexism. For all of its evolution, the '60s era kept plenty of
biases; the episode also finds WASP-y admen taking digs at the Irish,
something Slattery – Irish, Catholic, Bostonian – isn't surprised
by: “It wasn't that long before that when signs said, 'No Irish
need apply,'” he said.

The show also takes
lighter looks at the era, including a mid-century modernism design.
Weiner, born in 1965, finds that appealing. “I grew up in the '80s,
with '50s furniture.”

For others, this is
new. “I never really thought about that decade,” said Hendricks,
born in 1975. “Everything on set was so perfect. We'd see Wite Out
and go, 'When did Wite Out get invented?'”

It was invented and
marketed in 1966, patented in '74. But its predecessor was invented
in 1951 by an artist who was a bad typist, but needed the money to
raise her son. It was marketed (eventually as Liquid Paper) in '56
and sold to Gillette for $47.5 million in '80.

The invention would
change office life in the 1950s ... the son (Michael Nesmith) would
be big in the '60s, in The Monkees ... the fortune would help him be
a movie producer and video pioneer in the '80s. Which is the sort of
the accidental history lesson that accompanies “Mad Men.”

-- “Mad Men,” 10
p.m. Sundays, AMC, rerunning at 11:04 p.m. and 12:08 a.m.

-- Returns April 5,
to start the final seven episodes

-- On April 5, the
sixth season will start rerunning at 12:30 a.m. (latenight Saturay);
the seven episodes from the first half of this seventh season start
at 2:30 p.m.


"Cancer" resonates rich emotions from the filmmakers

"Cancer" isn't your usual Ken Burns film. It does have the richly human history that we expect from Burns, but it also has long (and, sometimes, painful) visits with current cancer patients. It's a hybrid, partly spurred by the deep personal histories of some of the people involved. The film airs Monday (March 30) through Wednesday (April 1) on PBS. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For most of their
documentaries, Ken Burns and his colleagues can keep an emotional

They've never been
Civil War soldiers, jazzmen, speakeasy owners or pro baseball

But “Cancer” --
which continues through Wednesday – is different. The issue has
deeply affected:

-- Sharon
Rockefeller, the station-president who launched the project. A decade
ago, she was diagnosed: “I had an advanced, Stage-3B colon cancer
(with) a 20-percent chance of living five years.”

-- Edward Herrmann,
the narrator. “The first day he arrived at our studio to record,
he collapsed,” said Barak Goodman, who produced and directed the
film. “I had no idea.” Herrmann proceeded with the narration,
then explained that he had terminal brain cancer. He died Dec. 31.

-- Laura Ziskin, one of the producers. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, she died at 61 in  2011. By then, she had co-founded Stand Up to Cancer and had obtained film rights to the book "The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer." 

-- And Burns, who
was 3 when his mother, a iotechnician, was diagnosed with breast
cancer. As far as boyhood is concerned, he says simply, “I didn't
have one.”

His family life was
often a blur of doctor visits and insurance worries. He remembers his
dad weeping with relief, when neighbors stopped in to give him “six
crisp $20 bills, to pay for doctor bills.”

Burns was almost 12
when she died; “you never get closure,” he said. As a teen-ager,
he was a film buff in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his dad taught
archaeology at the University of Michigan. As a documentary-maker, he
usually sticks to subjects well in the past ... until Rockefeller

In many ways,
Rockefeller has had a blessed life. Both her father and her husband
were long-time U.S. senators. Her dad (Charles Percy, R-Illinois) was
in the Senate for 18 years, after being a corporate president; her
husband (Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia) was there for 30 years,
after being governor, and is the great-grandson of oil mogul John D.

Still, she's also
known deep tragedy. She was 2 when her mother died of ulcerative
colitis, 21 when her sister was killed by an intruder, 60 when she
was diagnosed with cancer.

“I had every
side-effect in the book – 12 spontaneous spinal fractures, because
your bones are so weakened by radiation, several organ failures,”
she said. “But ... I was lucky. I lived.”

During a hospital
stay she read “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,”
a Pulitzer Prize-winner by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee. As president of
the PBS station in Washington, D.C., she was in a position to get a
TV project done.

She linked with Ziskin -- whose busy producing career had included "Pretty Woman," "As Good as It Gets" and two Academy Award telecasts -- for TV rights. She also insisted that Burns produce it.

Burns – already
with projects planned over the next decade – says he was reluctant.
“There was no way I could stop and be the producer and director. I
also couldn't, because of my mother.”

But he agreed to
produce and co-write it, with someone else in charge. That became
Goodman, who's done 10 films for PBS' “American Experience” and
five for “Frontline.”

The result is a
hybrid – partly following current cancer patients and partly a
Burns-style look at the history of the disease. Helping with both
parts was Mukherjee, an Indian-born Columbia University doctor,
assistant professor and researcher ... and an expert on cancer's

“What surprised me
is how old it is and how new it is,” Mukherjee said.

Egyptians wrote
about the disease 4,000 years ago and had medical approaches. Still,
it wasn't until the late 19th century that doctors began
to understand cancer ... even if it was rarely mentioned.

“Someone with
cancer was sort of exiled to the attic,” Burns said. When a woman
tried to list a breast-cancer support group, she was told: “We
can't say 'breast' or 'cancer' in the New York Times.”

Shortly after that,
priorities shifted. In 1948, the fundraising “Jimmy Fund”
launched a modern push.

Mukherjee has seen
setbacks -- “the budget sequester has cost us a vast drain,” he
said – and progress. “You realize how exciting it is. Some of the
greatest discoveries are being made right now.”

Along with it come
close calls, Goodman said. “One person calls this a profession for
the manic-depressive .... It brings a real roller-coaster of

Still, he sees this
series as hopeful “The pace of discovery in the last three decades
has been astonishing and outshone the pace of discovery for the
previous century. So something has happened.”

“Cancer: The
Emperor of All Maladies”

9-11 p.m. Monday
(March 30) through Wednesday, PBS; also, www.pbs.org



Late-night TV gets a British burst of energy

This is one of the rare times when I'm thoroughly optimistic about a show before it arrives. James Corden seems perfectly suited for late-night TV ... in much the same way that Jimmy Fallon is. His show debuts Monday (March 23); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Leaping into the
late-night TV world, James Corden is juggling two extremes.

Many people have
never heard of him; some already consider him a star. Just ask:

-- Ben Winston, a
producer and long-time friend. “James has an amazing ability to
entertain,” he said.

-- Nina Tassler,
CBS' programming chief: “He's a combination of Jack Black and Fred

OK, the Jack Black
part is obvious; Cordon is chubby and cheery. But Astaire? “Rap and
dance are what I want to be known for .... I'm going to do ballet or
tap or modern on tour,” Corden said.

He's joking about
that, but the guy really has ranged from rap to Broadway. “He's an
actor, he's a writer, he's a performer,” Tassler said. “He's a
singer, he's a dancer .... He's pretty magic.”

And he seems to do
all of it with enthusiasm.

Talk-show hosts have
often kept a cool distance from their guests and their viewers.
Corden describes that in positive terms: “I was amazed at how
relaxed (Letterman) was,” he said. “There is a formal
informality, if you like, to his approach in dealing with you.”

Still, that's not
Corden's style. He praises “Jimmy Fallon's ... absolute core
enthusiasm” and says: “We want to make a warm show, ... a show
that never feels spiky.”

Corden, 36, has
middle-of-the-road roots. “I'm from High Wycombe, which you've
never heard of, in Buckinghamshire” which we also haven't heard of.

High Wycombe is a
city of 120,000, about 30 miles west of London. Corden grew up in a
town next to that; his dad was a Royal Air Force musician, his mom
was a social worker and he loved performing. At 18, he had one line
in a musical; next was TV, where Winston was a production assistant.

“I was 18, he was
20,” Winston recalled. “I would get them coffee and we would talk
about life.”

Winston remembers
seeing Corden dazzle an audience in “the most depressing club in
Europe. I knew then that he was the greatest entertainer I'd ever

Two years later,
Corden co-starred in “Fat Friends,” about a weekly slimming club.
He and one of the stars, Ruth Jones, then wrote “Gavin &
Stacey”; they gave the title roles to slim, telegenic people,
writing supporting roles for themselves. “They were the more
interesting parts,” he said.

The show was a hit
in England. In the U.S., it aired on BBC America, then was remade
with American actors as “Us & Them”; NBC shot seven episodes,
which it dumped.

By then, Corden had
seen an uncharacteristic failure, a sketch show that British critics
attacked and viewers ignored. “I absolutely wasn't putting the work
in,” he said. “It's a really mind-altering time, that first flash
of fame, and you start to perhaps think you're a bit more of a dude
than you really are.”

He went back to
work, succeeding with specials, a sports-talk-variety show and then
“One Man, Two Guv'nors.” That's a comedy play that prospered in
London, then tried Broadway.

“It was so steeped
in British humor, end-of-the-pier humor,” Corden said. “I
remember saying to my wife, 'Babe, there's a real chance this isn't
going to work. So we should rent an apartment when we get to New York
that we can get out of in a week.”

Instead, it ran five
months; he won a 2012 Tony and audience approval. “You knew that
you were in the presence of someone a little crazy and someone
incredibly talented,” Tassler said.

When he pitched
something else to CBS, she said, she and network boss Leslie Moonves
were “mesmerized.” They asked him to take over the late-late spot
Craig Ferguson has vacated.

Corden did a movie
musical (“Into the Woods”), then moved to the U.S. with his wife,
their 3-year-old and a newborn baby. It was time to try latenight TV
– presumably with enthusiasm.

-- “The Late Late
Show With James Corden”

-- 12:37 a.m.
weekdays, CBS, following David Letterman and opposite NBC's Seth

-- Starts March 23,
with Tom Hanks as guest; Reggie Watts (“Comedy Bang! Bang!”)
leads the band