"X" marks the heroic spot for a smal-town guy


Lately, the "heroes" of cable shows have included a Mob boss, a drug kingpin, a serial killer and more. So it's refreshing to see that "Agent X" gives us a true hero ... and that Jeff Hephner, who has the title role, seems to fit that neatly. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

At times, Jeff
Hephner is your average Midwesterner.

He's a small-town
man who was a smaller-town kid. He lives with his wife and three kids
in a city of 5,000, where's he's only the second-most-famous actor.

And at other times,
he saves the world ... often. He has the title role in “Agent X,”
TNT's new global adventure. “I love the fact that it's a real
throwback,” Hephner said. “It's a totally heroic role.”

He plays a secret
agent ... so secret that the only people who know about him are a
long-time aide (Gerald McRaney) and the new vice-president ... played
by the show's biggest name.

“She's Sharon
bleepin' Stone,” Hephner marvelled. “She's an icon .... My first
scene, we were together for four hours. Over time, there's a bonding
that forms.”

Back when Stone was
causing a sensation in “Basic Instinct” (1992), Hephner was at
little Sand Creek High School, in a tiny town at the southern edge of
Michigan; he quarterbacked the football team, played basketball and
was academic all-state.

At 6-foot-2, he
played basketball at Calvin College and then at Ferris State, where
he was a captain without being a starter. The notion of show-business
came slowly. “I was a big TV fan as a kid, but because I was a jock
from a small town,” there wasn't much chance for acting.

After college,
Hephner headed to Florida. He did theater and was a stand-in on the
set of “Tigerland” ... where director Joel Schumacher gave him a
tiny role.

That was enough to
nudge him to New York and Los Angeles – a huge culture shock. “My
dad said, 'Treat every neighborhood like a small town.' He was
right.”

Hephner landed a
role in the Fox series “The Jury” and then starred in “The
Water is Wide” (2006), a classy TV movie based on Pat Conroy's
account of teaching on an impoverished South Carolina island. “I
got really lucky with that. Alfre Woodard was there and Frank
Langella,” who became a key mentor.

Many of Hephner's
recurring roles have filled the usual macho forms – a football
coach in “Hellcats,” firefighters in “Mercy” and “Chicago
Fire,” a politician and philanderer in “Boss.”

Now he an action
hero, complete with big fight scenes. “They trusted me to do a lot
of that myself.”

When the 10-episode
season ends, Hephner can return to his adopted home town (near Ann
Arbor) of Chelsea, Mich. It's a picturesque place of 5,000, where
Jeff Daniels remains the most famous actor.

For his wife –
who's from New York – this is an adjustment. “To my surprise, she
really likes it here.”

And for Hephner,
it's a pleasant place to rest, in between turns saving the world.

-- “Agent X,” 9
p.m. Sundays, TNT

-- Opens Nov. 8 with
two episodes, 9 and 10:01 p.m., repeating at 12:01 and 1:02 a.m.;
next episode, Nov. 15, is 9 p.m., repeating at 11.

 

 

"Evil Dead" becomes never-dead, the eternal movie


The first time I heard of "Evil Dead" was when a guy named Bruce Campbell walked into a newspaper office, insisting he was an actor who'd just made a movie. The latest time I heard of it was now -- 35 years later -- with a cable series opening. By now, of course, Campbell and "Evil Dead" have become key parts of the pop-culture landscape. Here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

Sometimes, things
just don't go according to plan.

Consider “Evil
Dead,” a ragged little movie from some college students.

“We were simply
trying to make a film ... that would be good enough to play in the
American drive-ins,” Sam Raimi recalled. “We were only hoping it
would play two weeks.”

Instead, it's been
part of the horror landscape for 30-plus years. It's had three
movies, plus posters, costumes, action figures, video games, a stage
musical ... and now a TV series.

That's “Ash vs.
Evil Dead,” which debuts on Halloween on cable's Starz. It will
have “the same gruesome horror, exhilerating thrills and outrageous
humor,” said Carmi Zlotnik, the Starz programmer.

It will also have
the original people. All had gone on to bigger things:

-- Raimi directed a
“Spider-Man” trilogy, plus “Darkman” and “Oz the Great and
Powerful.”

-- Rob Tapert
produced many of Raimi's films and three global TV hits, “Hercules,”
“Xena” and “Spartacus.” He also married “Xena” star Lucy
Lawless, who now plays an “Ash” villain.

-- Bruce Campbell
became an all-media figure -- writing books, making movies, acting in
series, from “The X-Files” to the current “Fargo” (playing
Ronald Reagan). “He is one of the funniest and most talented guys
on the planet,” said Jeffrey Donovan, his colleague for seven “Burn
Notice” seasons.

Now all have
re-convened with “Evil Dead,” which is roughly where they
started.

Actually, they
started as teens in Birmingham, Mich. “We met in 8th
grade,” Campbell said. “Sam was dressed like Sherlock Holmes and
was sitting in the middle of the hallway, playing with dolls.”

It turned out that
Raimi had a good movie camera, an active imagination and an ability
to make him laugh. They kept making movies together, even after Raimi
went to Michigan State University and Campbell went (briefly) to
Western Michigan University.

They planned a
low-budget horror film, to be shot in six weeks in Tennessee. The six
weeks became 12; obstacles grew. “Sam and I were stymied,”
Campbell said. “Rob was the one who got us through.”

Tapert – who had
met them as an MSU friend of Raimi's older brother Ivan – handled
the roadblocks. “Evil Dead” was finally finished and
test-screened. Eventually, old-time agent Irvin Shapiro took an
interest, Campbell said, and “treated it like a big Hollywood
movie.”

It was shown at the
Cannes Film Market, where Stephen King proclaimed it “the most
ferociously original horror film of the year.”

Ash (Campbell) was
killed in “Evil Dead,” but such things aren't permanent barriers.
“He became alive after the movie we made after that ('Crimewave')
didn't make any money,” Raimi said.

So there was “Evil
Dead II” and “Army of Darkness” and then no more ... for a
while.

“I got some great
jobs, like 'Spider-Man' ... and I'd go to these conventions,” Raimi
said. “And all people would say to me was, 'Yeah, but when are you
going to make another “Evil Dead” film?'”

Now he's made a
whole series – as messy and zesty and gory as ever.

-- The movies: “Evil
Dead” (1981), “Evil Dead II” (1987) and “Army of Darkness”
(1992). The Starz cable channel shows them at 8, 9:30 and 10:50 p.m.
Friday (Oct. 30).

-- The series: “Ash
vs. Evil Dead,” 9 p.m. Saturdays on Starz, starting on Halloween.
The opener reruns at 9:45 and 11:30 p.m. and 12:12 a.m.; then at
1:10, 2:25, 7:30 and 11:30 p.m. Sunday.

It's fun to be a super star at Halloween time


About this time each year, people grumble that the new season didn't bring many really exceptional TV shows.

This year? Well, the new "Fargo" miniseries is brilliant, "Life in Pieces" is sometimes hilarious, "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" is wonderfully original and some dramas ("Blindspot," for instance) can grab us. Still, we want more ... and now we get it. "Supergirl" arrives belatedly on Monday, Oct. 26, bringing zest, joy and an instantly likable star. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

As “Supergirl”
stardom nears, Melissa Benoist faces a logical question: What will
she be dressed as this Halloween?

“I think I'll be
David Bowie,” she said, but “it would be fun to (trick-or-treat)
as Supergirl.”

It would also
startle people. After massive promotion and warm reviews, CBS debuts
the series Monday and reruns it on Halloween. It would startle people
to see that same hero at their door.

Last year, Benoist
said, she ignored the holiday because she was preparing for her Nov.
1 audition. “The second that I saw in my E-mail in-box the title
'Supergirl,' I just knew automatically that it was something
important.”

She might not seem
to fit the role in surface ways. Benoist isn't:

-- A fan. “I never
read 'Supergirl,' and I didn't read too many of the other comics.”

-- An imposing
force. “I'm terrible at sports; I'm not coordinated in that way.”

What she may have is
Supergirl's attitude. Benoist “has the strength, the hope, the
heart, the humor and just that instant likability,” said Andrew
Kreisberg, one of the show's writer-producers.

And, he said, she
brings a joy. “There are a lot of heroes who are sort of very
ambivalent about their powers and very dour – and we're certainly
guilty of putting some of those people on TV.”.

His other DC Comics
shows, “Arrow” and “The Flash,” started with brooding,
reluctant heroes. Supergirl, Benoist said, is “finding the joy in
being a hero and using her powers.”

In her own
childhood, Benoist said, there was plenty of outdoor time amid the
beauty of Littleton, Colo. She was active, but not athletic; her
early heroes were Judy Garland and Rosemary Clooney. “I watched a
lot of old movies with my grandmother.”

Like Garland and
Clooney, she managed to blend music and acting, playing Marley Rose
for two “Glee” seasons. She also married a castmate, Blake
Jenner.

Other roles have
ranged from serious (the overwhelmed girlfriend in “Whiplash”) to
“Supergirl” fun.

Well, semi-fun. Like
all the previous superpeople, Benoist copes with fake-flying in a
harness. “It's really difficut, and there have been moments where
I'm in that position and they're like, 'Try to look less concerned.
You need to look comfortable.'”

Mostly, though,
she's comfortable with her high-flying role. For some of her
childhood Halloweens, Benoist dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi of “Star
Wars.” Now one of her co-stars – playing a high-maintenance boss
– is Calista Flockhart, the real-life wife of “Star Wars” star
Harrison Ford.

As Flockhart sees
it, “Supergirl” lets women be and feel super. “It's a real
celebraiton of girl power .... I think it's a great show for moms and
daughters to watch together.”

-- “Supergirl”
debut is 8:30 p.m. Monday (Oct. 26), rerunning at 8 p.m. Saturday
(Oct. 31), CBS

-- Then will be 8
p.m. Mondays

 

 

Here's true fame: Yakko, Pinky, Dr. Scratchnsniff and two heroic turtles


It probably shouldn't surprise us that Rob Paulsen talks quickly, easily and well. He is, after all, a cartoon-voice star, a master of heroics and villainry, Here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

Early in his career,
Rob Paulsen saw that casting people weren't terribly interested in
him.

“They were
relegating me to average-looking white-guy roles,” he said. “I'm
in a room full of guys who looked totally like me.”

The solution was to
shed all those physical limits, to use his voice alone. Now he can be
an orphan from Calcutta, a Cockney-accented mouse from a lab
experiment. He's Boober Fraggle and Marco Smurf, Dr. Swindle and Dr.
Otto Scratchnshiff. He's Mother Goose, Ogden O. Ostrich, Spike
Funnybunny, a biker mouse on Mars and a heroic turtle.

Two turtles,
actually, When “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” began in 1987,
Paulsen was Raphael. The new version – launching its fourth season
Sunday – has him as Donatello.

“Arguably, it's as
big as its ever been,” he said. “Who gets a chance to do that
twice, 25 years apart?”

All of this makes an
impression on his “Turtle” colleagues. “I don't think there's
anybody in America who didn't grow up listening top Rob,” Sean
Astin said in 2012, when he became the new Raphael. “He's the voice
on about a thousand signature shows, right?”

Well, close enough.
By his count, Paulsen, 59, has been more than 250 cartoon characters
and has done more than 1,000 commercials, ranging from the Taco Bell
dog to the first “Got Milk?”

And no, this wasn't
by plan. “The only thing I wanted to be was a hockey player,” he
said.

That was logical for
a Michigan guy – a kid in suburban Detroit, then a teenager near
Flint – who grew up as a Gordie Howe fan. He did fairly well in
hockey, he said. “Then some kid from Winnipeg leveled me and I
thought, 'Well, I don't think I'll get much further with this.'”

He'd done some
theater and singing, so acting seemed logical. Paulsen went to Los
Angeles, where he auditioned a lot, worked occasionally ... and then
was called in for the new “G.I. Joe” cartoon.

“I'd played with
G.I. Joe as a kid,” he said. “They weren't called 'dolls' any
more, they were 'action figures,' but I had one.”

Soon, he was two of
Joe's colleagues, Snow Job and Trip Wire. He found he had some
advantages:

-- Singing.
Occasionally, that comes up directly. (As Yakko in “Animaniacs,”
he did a spectacular song, reeling off the names of countries; he
performs that from memory, during his “Animaniacs Live” orchestra
show.) More often, it simply gives him a sense for words and
structure.

-- A standard,
Midwestern accent – which provides an easy jumping-off point. Most
of the busiest cartoon actors, he said, are “very vanilla-sounding
in their regular voices.”

From there, he can
try anything. Hadji, in “Jonny Quest,” is from the streets of
Calcutta; other characters have been Scottish, British and beyond. “I
grew up on a lot of (Monty) Python and 'The Goon Show,' so I've
always liked English accents.”

Indeed, his biggest
honors came for Pinky, a Cockney lab mouse. That brought him three
daytime Emmy nominations (and one win) and four Annie nominations
(and three wins). He also has Annie nominations for Yakko, Eubie (in
“Happy Elf”) and Troubadour (in Disney's “Three Musketeers”).

He's famous, in a
specific sort of way. “My son said I'm going to be the answer to a
'Jeopardy' question .... There aren't too many folks who are still
breathing who get to be two turtles.”

-- “Teenage Mutant
Ninja Turtles,” 11 a.m. Sundays, Nickelodeon

-- Season-opener is
Oct. 25, rerunning at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 26

-- Podcasts and
“Animaniacs Live” info are at www.robpaulsenlive.com

Voice of a hero, image of a zombie survivor


TV is being overrun by zombies, of course. Fortunately, some of the shows also add clever moments and quirky characters -- led by Liv on "iZombie" and Murphy on "Z Nation." Here's the story I sent to papers about Keith Allan, the bright and interesting guy who plays Murphy:

 

By Mike Hughes

If all auditions
were conducted by telephone, Keith Allan would spend a lifetime being
superheroes, commanders and ominous villains.

“Sometimes, people
only recognize me by my voice,” Allan, the “Z Nation” star,
said ... in, of course, a way that was deep and rich and resonant.

But auditions are
visual, too. Allan has patched together a career of small, quirky
roles; one “Buffy” episode simply called him “skinny mental
patient.”

He was semi-ignored
until last year – when “Z Nation” made him the last hope for
mankind.

Allan plays Murphy,
a squirrelly sort who emerged from involuntary testing as the only
person immune from zombie bites; the goal is to get him
cross-country, to a lab where a vaccine might be developed.

It's a big, odd role
that lets Allan visit fan convetions. “It's just a huge dose of
love you get,” he said.

And no, he didn't
expect this. “I did not think I was going to get the role,” Allan
said. “After six or seven auditions (for it), you say, 'Oh sure,
I'll go in again. Why not?'”

Allan has had much
in common with the fantasy fans. “I grew up in the '70s, when all
the sci-fi was big – 'Poltergeist,' 'Star Wars,' that sort of
thing.”

In Sacramento, he
saw well-crafted epics in the big theaters and cheapies at the
drive-in. He did serious theater in high school, then went to the
Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena – a choice that his parents (a
businessman and a nurse) eyed warfily. “They said, 'Don't you want
a back-up plan?'”

Mostly, they were
right; Allan had a string of forgettable day jobs ... and one very
good one.

He was an assistant
at The Asylum, which makes the sort of movies (including “Sharknado”)
he used to enjoy at drive-ins. Soon, he was encourged to audition for
the films ... and then to do more. He wrote scripts (“Zombie
Night,” “Rise of the Zombies,” “Social Nightmare”) and even
directed a film (“11/11/11”) from his script. Then came “Z
Nation.”

Uncomfortable as a
herom Murphy fidgeted. By the fourth episode, his hair began to fall
out. “They said maybe I could wear a bald cap,” Allan said. “But
I like to immerse myself in a role.”

So he stays bald
during the six months a year that “Z Nation” films in the Spokane
area. That time involves long days, he said, starting with two hours
in the make-up chair, followed by “a lot of running around in the
heat and in the forests.”

Second-season work
finished in early October. Now the hair can grow back for a while;
Allan can audition for brief roles, work on a script and travel,
absorbing some of that zombie love.

-- “Z Nation,”
10 p.m. Fridays, Syfy; the Oct. 16 episode reruns at midnight and
then at 11 p.m. Oct. 22

-- Also, Allan will
be at fan events. Next is the Grand Rapids Comic-Con, Oct. 16-18 in
Michigan; see www.grcomiccon.com