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

 

Beyond the glitter: Vanessa Williams visits a Broadway classic


A lot of different version of Vanessa Williams have flashed past us in the past three decades, from pop to jazz, from comfort to controversy. In a close-up concert and interview, however, she comes across as a skillful jazz and ballad singer and a serious theater pro. Now her "Show Boat" reaches PBS on Friday (Oct. 16); here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

Vanessa Williams'
life has been splattered with sparkly details – hit songs, TV
roles, the rise and fall and rise anew of a Miss America.

Beyond all off that,
however, you have the basics – a Broadway kid, ready to get back on
stage.

“I went to all the
shows growing up,” said Williams, 52, who stars in a concert
version of “Show Boat,” Friday on PBS. “My parents are both
music teachers; so I take my work seriously.”

She had to be
serious this time: She hadn't done “Show Boat” previously and had
to miss the first week of rehearsals, because she was in another
show.

“She got off the
plane (and) came in off-book perfect,” said director Andrew Wilk.
“Unbelievable. Honestly, she was better than some of the other
folks” who'd been rehearsing for a week.

That's part of the
theater ethic ... or, at least, it used to be.

“Broadway has gone
through kind of a pop phase,” Williams said, “where pretty much
anyone's doing it to fill houses .... A lot lof people that are new
to it are surprised that it starts on time.”

This is the world
she knew first. She grew up in Millwood, a New York suburb close
enough to let her catch all the Broadway shows. Her parents taught
music and she studied musical theater at Syracuse ... until the
distractions begain.

In September of
1983, Williams became the first black Miss America. The title was
taken away 10 months later, when nude photos of her surfaced; it
would be 31 years before she was welcomed back this year, as both
head judge and performer.

By then, she'd
become one of the most successful Miss Americas ever, including TV
roles. “I've been getting a lot of scripts as the tough boss ...
ever since 'Ugly Betty.'”

And there's the
music. Williams topped the dance and R-&-B charts early in her
career and topped contemporary jazz in 2009; in between, her ballads
soared on the overall “Billboard” chart. “Love Is” (from
Beverly Hills, 90210) was No. 3; reaching No. 1 were “Colors of the
Wind” (from Pocahontas”) and “Save the Best for Last” ... a
song she says she got third-hand.

“The legend has it
that Streisand passed on it and Bette Midler passed on it,”
Williams said. “So I was very happy when it became a gigantic hit.”

After all that early
fuss, Williams returned to theater. She's done four Broadway musicals
(always as a replacement or in a revival), plus a musical revue and a
play revival. And now she steps into a classic.

This “Show Boat”
has Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein songs tackled by grand voices. Norm
Lewis does “Ol' Man River”; Williams does “Bill,” which
ripples with emotion. “Just singing it is a performance piece,”
she said. “It's heartbreaking .... The lyrics are amazing.”

There's ample
heartbreak for Julie, a black woman who “passed” as white and
risked the Southern laws against inter-racial couples.

The biggest movie
version (1951) rejected Lena Horne for the role and cast Ava Gardner.
A previous version (1936) had Helen Morgan, who “didn't even look
black at all,” Williams said.

Now, quite
logically, Williams sings the role. “We've come a llong way,” she
said. But “it's a story that's still there ... that's part of our
legacy and our history. ('Show Boat') was the kind of prototype to
what we now know as musical theater on Broadway. It was
revolutionary.”

-- “Live from
Lincoln Center,” 9 p.m. Friday (Oct. 16), PBS (check local listings)

-- Concert version
of “Show Boat”

 

Football hero? Rock god? That's not where the real fun is


The first time I bumped into Matt Rogers was at a Hallmark Channel event, on the grounds of the Rose Bowl headquarters in Pasadena. For him, that meant split attention: He's part of Hallmark (as a regular "Home and Family" guest), but he's also part of Rose Bowl history; he re-visited the place's mini-museum.

That's part of a busy life that has included "American Idol" and -- beginning Friday (Oct. 16) -- chatting with prospectors. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

By most standards,
Matt Rogers had quickly achieved life's goals.

He was a starter for
a Rose Bowl champion; he was a finalist on “American Idol.” He
beat Drew Brees and serenaded Simon Cowell. What more could one want?

One thing, he
insists: “I knew when I was 7 years old that I wanted to host a TV
show.”

Forget about being a
football hero or a rock god; staring into a camera, it seems, tops
staring at a blitzing linebacker and/or Cowell. “When that red
light goes on, nothing can compare.” Now he:

-- Hosts “Gold
Rush: The Dirt.” That's the preview hour for “Gold Rush,” the
show (about real-life prospectors) that is Discovery Channel's top
ratings-getter. “I've liked it from the start,” he said.

-- Shows up often on
“Home and Family” (10 a.m. weekdays on Hallmark, repeating at
noon), where, as a father of three, he talks about dad things.

-- Has previously
hosted one show on CBS (“There Goes the Neighborhood”) and
several on cable, including “Coming Home,” “Beat the Chef”
and “Really Big Things.”

Such things – not
football or singing – were his prime goal, Rogers insists. By the
time he was 7, he was reciting “Saturday Night Live” sketches
into a tape recorder. By 5th grade, he'd hatched a scheme
to get sourballs in quantity and sell them individually, raising
enough for a $400 video camera.

Then football
intervened, catching him by surprise. “I was this short, fat, slow
kid .... I always loved sports, but I had no confidence I could play
them.”

A coach injected the
confidence. Rogers was a starting lineman in high school (West
Covina, Cal.) and a junior college All-American; he played his junior
year at Iowa and senior year at Washington.

That's where things
peaked with a 34-24 win over Purdue in the 2001 Rose Bowl. Years
later, Rogers met Brees at a fundraiser. “I showed him my Rose Bowl
ring and you could see that competitive look in his eyes.” Brees
has a Super Bowl ring and six pro records, but this was the thing
he'd missed.

Three years later,
Rogers was singing on “Idol” as a singer, now slimmed from his
football days. (He was listed at 6-foot-5, 290 pounds at Washington.
At times, he said, he hit 330; now he's a mere 260.)

He finished 11th
... then endeared himself to viewers by singing his farewell song,
“Amazed,” as a sort of love song to his most scathing critic,
Cowell.

The music has
continued with occasional gigs, an EP on his Web site
(www.mattrogersusa.com)
and occasionally on the TV shows. He's done Christmas tunes on “Home
and Family” and did the theme song to “Coming Home,” a show
about returning soldiers.

Often, he's a host
now and says he's fascinated by the real-life prospectors, who
started in Alaska and are now in Canada. “I got to go up to the
Klondike to see them at work.”

That was during the
summer mining season. Now Rogers and the miners fly to the Discovery
studios near Washington, D.C., to discuss the episodes. “These guys
are amazing,” Rogers said. “You back them in a corner and they
come out swinging.”

They kind of fit his
“HWPO” (hard work pays off) motto. That's helped an ordinary
student – a 1.96 grade point average, he says – conquer TV, Brees
and (almost) Cowell.

-- “Gold Rush: The
Dirt,” 8 p.m. Fridays, Discovery, starting Oct. 16; opener reruns
at 1 a.m.

-- “Gold Rush,”
9 p.m. Fridays, starting Oct. 16. Two-hour opener reruns at 11 p.m.,
then 4 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. Sunday, 10 p.m. Tuesday (Oct. 20) and 6
p.m. Oct. 23.

-- Also, a “Gold
Rush” rerun marathon goes from 9 a.m. Thursday to the debuts at 8
p.m. Friday.

 

The roaring rage of "Kingdom": Now THAT is acting


OK, we all know that actors are just acting. Carroll O'Connor wasn't really a bigot; Anthony Hopkins has never killed people, much less eaten them.

Still, it's fun to see when an actor gets to leap especially far from his self and his roots. A prime example is Jonathan Tucker, who grew up in an arty family and now plays part of a combative one in "Kingdom." The show returns Wednesday (Oct. 14) on DirecTV; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Every now and then,
an actor gets to ... well, really act.

He gets to rage and
roar, to let loose. That's what people do in “Kingdom,” the
DirecTV series set in a mixed-martial-arts gym. Jonathan Tucker –
the loudest of the ragers – considers it a form of realism.

“We do so many
things in real life that are big and wonderful and strange and
oversized,” Tucker said. “(But) sometimes, as actors, we feel
like that's too much.”

In this high-octane
setting, he said, there's no holding back. “I've had a really good
time chewing it up.”

So have many of the
other actors, leaving Kiele Sanchez playing one of the only semi-calm
forces. “You see all of these wild characters around you and you
get a little jealous,” she said.

She plays Lisa
Prince, the former fiance of Ryan Wheeler (Matt Lauria), who is an
ex-con and a champion. She runs the business side of the gym and
lives with its owner, ex-champ Alvey Kulina (Frank Grillo). She also
manages Alvey's son Jay (Tucker) – who is angry, alcoholic ... and
dangerous enough to make people reluctant to fight him.

Frank's other son
Nate (Nick Jonas) is a promising fighter who is bisexual. Their mom
Christina (Joanna Going) is a former prostitute and drug addict.

More changes are
coming, as Christina grasps for a normal life (working in a fast-food
restaurant), Nate recovers from a beating and Lisa scouts a promising
young fighter, played by Natalie Martinez.

Adding to the plot
was real life: Sanchez was almost four months pregnant when filming
of the second season began; that became part of the show, with a
weary Lisa often angry at Alvey and the excesses around her. “Because
of the pregnancy, she has a little less patience with the animals,”
Sanchez said.

These “animal”
roles let actors stray from their usual turf. Jonas is a pop star in
the teen-idol mode. Lauria, an outgoing guy, is an American native
who spent half his childhood in Ireland, then found success in
“Friday Night Lights” ... which spent its final seasons on
DirecTV. Grillo was already 46 when “Warrior” (2011) cast him as
a mix-martial-arts trainer. “It changed my career,” he said. “I
got put into this niche of the older guy who can act a bit and can be
physical and be convincing.”

But no leap is
bigger than Tucker's. His father is an art professor at the
University of Massachusetts and an expert on Claude Monet; his
boyhood was spent with ballet – including five straight years
playing Fritz in the Boston Ballet's “The Nutcracker.”

Ballet and fighting
are opposite worlds ... but Tucker feels that's not unusual.

“I think Jay is in
two different worlds, as well,” he said. “He's coming from
Alvey's kind of sense of discipline,” yet he's also a raging
addict. “Sometimes, you have to be two different people.”

On one side, Tucker
has needed discipline – constant work-outs, losing 30 pounds. On
the other, he savored Jay's wildly undisciplined moments. That's when
“you don't know I do ballet and my father is an art historian.”
He's simply a gym animal, ready to roar.

-- “Kingdom,” 9
p.m. Wednesdays, DirecTV, Audience Network (Channel 239)

-- Second season
starts Oct. 14

 

Suddenly, Mondays are the promised land for unique (and good) TV


 

In recent weeks, I've been telling about lots of new TV shows, some of them pretty good and some not. But what about shows that are REALLY good and really different? We finally have them, all on one overcrowded night, That's Mondays, beginning Oct. 12, when "Fargo" and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" debut and "Jane the Virgin" returns. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Here's a common
gripe, and a reasonable question:

TV shows are
sometimes good, sometimes bad, but rarely really different. When will
there be something that feels totally fresh and new?

The answer? Monday
nights, beginning Oct. 12. The second “Fargo” mini-series arrives
at 10 p.m., after “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” debuts at 8 p.m. and
“Jane the Virgin” returns at 9.

At first glance,
these have nothing in common – a tough crime story in rural
Minnesota follows sunny tales in California and Miami. The link:
Small networks, willing to let their creators be creative:

-- FX operates like
the best indie-movie studio, with shows (“Sons of Anarchy,”
“American Horror Story,” “Archer”) that don't feel like each
other ... or like anything else. As Noah Hawley, the “Fargo”
miniseries creator, tells it: “I kept waiting for FX to say to me,
'You can't start the second season with a fake, black-and-white
Ronald Reagan movie.'” They didn't; he starts in that wonderfully
inexplicable way, before jumping into the real story.

-- The CW, which had
little to lose, with shows that barely pierce the top 100 in Nielsen
ratings. It handed a spot to Rachel Bloom, who seems stunned by it
all:.“I'm still not convinced that this whole thing isn't a prank
by my middle-school bullies .... Who would give me a TV show?”

Showtime wouldn't;
it rejected the half-hour version of “Crazy.”

The CW, however,
already had “Jane the Virgin,” with big awards, high praise and
low ratings. “We kept thinking ('Crazy') would be the right fit for
'Jane,'” said CW chief Mark Pedowitz.

So he expanded it to
an hour ... a huge task for a show that includes a giant musical
number in its opener. “It took us two days to film that numnber,”
Bloom said. “And we can definitely keep it up every week. Every
episode is going to have two or three original musical numbers.”

She's not kidding
about those bullies, when she was a teenager in Manhattan Beach, Cal.
“I always felt like a neurotic little New Yorker who wanted to be
on Broadway, living in Southern California. And kids were pretty mean
about it. I went through a period of basically, pretty bad
depression.”

Like a character in
a teen movie, she cut her own hair, wore sweatpants to school and was
the target of a 7th-grade prank, with the most popular boy
paid to ask her out. But she went to New York Univeristy, where she
led the sketch-comedy troupe, savored musicals and began creating her
own music videos.

Those attracted
Aline Brosh McKenna, who had been writing movies, some praised (“The
Devil Wears Prada”) and some not (“27 Dresses”). They crafted a
story that puts Bloom's life in reverse – an intense and depressed
New York lawyer moves to California, home of a long-ago love.

The songs we see are
in her imagination, McKenna said. “It brings this whimsy and lets
you get insde her head. It does all of the wonderful things that we
all love musicals for.”

“Fargo” had an
easier route. The 1996 movie is a classic and the first mini-series
drew raves. Like “Jane,” it won Peabody, American Film Institute
and Golden Globe awards; it also drew 15 Emmy nominations. Now the
same writer (Hawley) has a new story, in a different generation.

We're in 1979
Minnesota. Molly – the sheriff in the first mini-series – is 6;
her father (Patrick Wilson) and grandfather (Ted Danson) are cops,
entangled in a local and visiting gangs.

Hollywood actors
capture the feeling of a different world, which they have links to.
Consider:

-- Kirsten Dunst
plays a beautician who keeps plunging her husband deeper into
trouble. “A lot of my family is from Minnesota,” she said, with
roots in an old family farm there.

-- Jesse Plemons is
the butcher who is her overwhelmed husband. He grew up in Mart, a
Texas town of 2,400, near Waco. “There's an isolation to any small
town,” he said.

-- And Jean Smart is
the crime matriarch. She's not Scandinavian, but grew up in a
Scandinavian neighborhood of Seattle, similar to Minnesota. “I
didn't know I was tall until I moved to New York.”

Now Smart,
5-foot-10, pushes to control a crime empire, in a perverse place on a
night of odd TV.

-- Mondays: “Crazy
Ex-Girlfriend” and “Jane the Virgin,” 8 and 9 p.m., CW; then
“Fargo, 10 p.m., FX

-- All start Oct.
12; “Fargo” opener reruns at 11:30 p.m. and 1 a.m.