A thriving writer, 78, re-creates a dying poet at 39

We really don't expect this, you know. On a Wednesday, in the middle of all the Halloween gore and goofiness, we don't expect a richly crafted drama about a dying poet. But there it is, at 8 and 11:30 p.m. Oct. 29: "A Poet in New York" is one of the year's best TV films; here's the story I sent to papers:


In the proper Welsh
tradition, Andrew Davies grew up savoring the words and world of
Dylan Thomas.

“I found that his
background was very similar to mine,” Davies said. “And I had
dreams – rather than ambitions – of being a writer.”

His ambition was to
become an English teacher, which he did. The dreams were fulfilled
much later; he became an award-winning screenwriter whose Dylan
Thomas film airs Wednesday on BBC America.

“Here was a man
who just poured his heart all over the place ... yet was suffering
all the time,” Tom Hollander said of Thomas, whom he plays in the

Now “A Poet in New
York” catches the final days, when Thomas' fame and drinking
soared, while his health crashed. “He was horribly neglected
physically,” said Hollander.

He was 39 when he
died. Davies, now 78, was older than that before he wrote the TV
screenplays -- “Sense and Sensibility,” “Vanity Fair,”
“Middlemarch,” more -- that make him a PBS favorite.

Davies grew up in
Rhiwbina, a village-looking suburb of Cardiff, Wales. In a school
competition, he recited “The Hand That Signed the Paper,” by
Thomas, “and that led me to want to read more of him.”

His own writing came
later, after six years of teaching in London. He had his first radio
play broadcast when he was 28, his first TV play at 31, his first two
TV series when he was 44 and 50.

As he reached his
60s, he began his strongest stretch. Davies won Emmys for “Little
Dorrit” and the original “House of Cards,” nominations for
“Bleak House” and “Pride and Prejudice,” praise for more.

Davies tried
something new last year, being the creator and showrunner of “Mr.
Selfridge.” He didn't enjoy the showrunning part, returned to a
writer's life ... and was asked to write about Thomas.

For the first time,
Davies visited Laugharne, the seaside town (seemingly the inspiration
for “Under the Milkwood”) where Davies spent his final years.

Thomas' home (shown
in the film) is still there, preserved museum-style, Davies said.
“You can go and drink in the same pub, Brown's Hotel, where he used
to drink. You can (go where his wife) Caitlin used to dance. She was
a professional dancer before she got into that whole domestic swirl
of drudgery, which she resented so much.”

Caitlin and Dylan
drank heavily and fought often. Their two sons had troubled lives,
Davies said, but their daughter “remained very fond of her father
and had happy memories of her childhood.”

As the drinking
accelerated and the finances dwindled, Thomas made his speaking trip
to Boston and New York. Davies visited those spots, too. “The
Chelsea Hotel and the White Horse Tavern look so rundown and seedy
now. And the Welsh scenes look extraordinarily beautiful and
peaceful. He had such stark contrasts in his life.”

Now “A Poet in New
York” finds both extremes. Flashbacks capture the beauty of Wales;
New York scenes catch the torment of a brilliant poet, fading from

-- “A Poet in New
York,” 8-9:30 p.m. Wednesday, BBC America; reruns at 11:30 p.m.

It's kind of nice to host an eternal show

In all of commercial TV, which shows have had the longest prime-time runs? The list has some high-profile shows -- "60 Minutes" (47 seasons), "Monday Night Football" (44), "20/20" (37) and Walt Disney (34). But right behind those -- wedged between "The Simpsons" (26) and Ed Sullivan (24) is the quiet success of "America's Funniest Home Videos," which just started its 25th season. Hosting is Tom Bergeron, who proved two decades ago that he's a quietly clever guy. Here's the story I sent to papers:



This seemed like endgame duty – closing the shop, pitching
the final inning.

When Tom Bergeron took over “America’s Funniest Home Video,”
it had already been around for a dozen years. Its early whoosh (with Bob Saget
hosting) was gone. “It was a series of specials, with Daisy Fuentes or John
Fugelsang hosting,” Bergeron recalled. “ABC would just order a few episodes at
a time.”

Clearly, it was shutting down … except that never happened.
“AFHV” has just started its 25
th season and Bergeron’s final one.
“It just felt like the right time,” he said. “I really wanted to go out in the

Afterward, he won’t have to spend his time whittling and
grumping. Bergeron also hosts “Dancing with the Stars,” guests on other shows
and jets cross-country. “My heart is always on the East Coast,” he said.

But his work is in California, where “AFHV” seems to last forever.
“There’s the eternal joy of slapstick,” he said. “It’s what (Charlie) Chaplin
and (Buster) Keaton did, long ago.”

In this case, it involves the sight gags of our daily lives.
At first, Bergeron recalled, things were recorded by “camcorders the size of a
small refrigerator.” Picture quality was low and mailing the videotapes was
difficult. Now “it looks a lot better; the show has changed a lot.”

The hosting style has also changed: Saget liked to add
comments during a video; Bergeron prefers to introduce and step aside. “It’s
like how Johnny Carson would just kind of dial it back.”

That reflects opposite roots. Saget, as a stand-up comic,
looks for quick laughs. Bergeron started in radio, where there are hours to

He started at 17, at a station in his home town of
Haverhill, Mass. Then came radio and TV work in New Hampshire and Boston and
beyond. Along the way, he studied mime (there’s that sight-gag thing) and improvisational
acting and more.

Then came the national leap in 1994: “Breakfast Time” (on
FX) and “Fox After Breakfast” (on Fox) were amiable daily shows, with clever
people winging it. “That was my favorite job ever,” he said.

It folded after two years, but Bergeron kept getting more
jobs, daily (“Hollywood Squares”) and annually (“A Capitol Fourth,” Muscular
Dystrophy Association telethon). He showed the rare ability to be clever, yet
quiet. And next year he’ll take it slightly easier.

Bergeron has said he once had anger issues, none of which
seem apparent. He’s the easy-going guy at 59, married to a former producer for
32 years and (next year) quitting a show that just won’t quit.

“America’s Funniest Home Videos,” 7 p.m. Sundays,

Started its 25th season Oct. 12. The second
episode, Oct. 19, has a Halloween theme.

Will be pre-empted Oct. 26 by the animated “Star
Wars Rebels,” but returns the next week.

Also, reruns on cable. Weekdays, that’s 11 a.m.
on TBS and 6 and 7 p.m. on WGN America, sometimes moving into prime time.

In a flash (and with a virgin), the CW turns visible again

At their peaks, the WB and UPN networks gave us wonderful shows -- "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Felicity" and "Star Trek: Voyager" and "Everybody Hates Chris" and more. At their low points, they merged into the CW, which almost disappeared.

But now the CW has started a surprising comeback. Here's the story I sent to papers:



The CW network suddenly has two things it’s not used to –
ratings and respect.

Ratings? The debut of “The Flash” drew 4.8 million viewers,
triple what the CW usually gets.

Respect? In a poll, Television Critics Association members
put the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” second (to Fox’s “Gotham”) as the most promising
new series. Gina Rodriguez, who plays Jane, was the overwhelming choice for potential
breakout star … with Grant Gustin of “The Flash” finishing second.

Add other mild successes and the CW seems to have recovered
from a long bout of invisibility.

The network was created in 2006 by merging WB and UPN, but
the sum soon became less than its parts. During the “sweeps” month last May,
the CW averaged only a million viewers; CBS had 11 million. For last season,
one list of 181 shows (some counted twice because of changed nights) saw the CW
with nothing in the top 127 … but 17 in the bottom 21.

“When we lost ‘Smallville’ (three) years back, we lost men,”
said Mark Pedowitz, the network’s programming chief. “So we tried to balance
out and broaden out,” to show “we were no longer (only for) a teenage-girl

“Arrow” arrived two years ago, becoming the network’s top
ratings-getter … and helping launch “The Flash.” The latter show skipped the
usual temptation to cast a beefy, square-jawed hero. Instead, it chose Gustin –
slender, likable, 24 and happy to play the world’s fastest being.

“I actually was very fast as a kid but, ironically, hated
running,” Gustin said. “I quit soccer because I thought it was ridiculous that
we were running back and forth.”

The CW’s other breakthrough star had shown patience. In
2012, “Filly Brown” was nominated for a grand jury prize at the Sundance Film
Festival; Rodriquez, its star, won Imagen Award and ALMA Awards; she signed a
holding deal … then turned down a role in the “Devious Maids” cable series.

“I found it limiting that that was the one that was
available to me,” Rodriguez recalled. “I found it limiting for the stories that
Latinos have, for the stories that Americans have.”

Then came producer Ben Silverman, who has had his best luck
importing shows – “The Office” from England and “Ugly Betty” from a Colombian telenovela.
He pitched several ideas to Pedowitz, who jumped at a Venezuelan soap opera
about a virgin who is accidentally inseminated.

“I wanted it to sort of have a fairy tale, whimsical
quality,” said Jennie Snyder Urman, who molded that into “Jane the Virgin” for
the U.S. “(It’s) somewhere between ‘Ugly Betty’ and ‘Gilmore Girls.’”

The central character is an ambitious young Miamian, working
toward her teaching certificate. For Rodriguez, 29 -- who grew up in Chicago, “English
being my first language, Spanish being my second,” with a sister who’s an
investment banker – Jane fits neatly. “I waited for her patiently,” she said.

Rodriquez grew up with “The Cosby Show” and “Growing Pains,”
but her co-stars know telenovelas, the soap-style miniseries that rule prime
time in Latin America.  “I grew up watching
telenovelas in Puerto Rico and … did telenovelas for Telemundo for a while,”
said Ivonne Coll, 67, who plays her grandmother.

Now this series includes a telenovela that Jane watches with
her mother and grandmother. “We have lots of wonderful moments, where we can be
over-the-top funny,” Coll said. “In the real telenovelas, they don’t even know
they’re over-the-top and they’re funny.”

A comedy-drama, English-Spanish, silly-serious show, “Jane”
is sort of the ultimate hybrid. The CW needs that, as it recovers from invisibility.

CW season

“Jane the Virgin,” 9 p.m. Mondays (starting Oct.
13), after “The Originals”; reruns at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17

“The Flash” and “Supernatural,” 8 and 9 p.m.

“The 100” will be 9 p.m. Wednesdays (starting Oct.
22), after “Arrow”; on Oct. 15, that slot goes to a “Flash” rerun.

Also: “Vampire Diaries” and “Reign” on
Thursdays, “America’s Next Top Model” on Fridays.

Mid-season shows are “iZombie” and “The
Messengers,” plus the return of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Hart of Dixie.”

Like Joe Kennedy, Letscher has his path to world domination

This was a bit of dialog on a TV comedy a few years ago: "Who's that guy?" "What guy?" "The guy who's in every movie." "Oh, Jeff Daniels."

And now Matt Letscher, Daniels' former protégé, seems to be that guy. He's everywhere, from CW to HBO, from ABC to indie movies. Here's the story I sent to papers: 


Maybe this should be a defining question for actors: How
many Kennedys have you played?

Matt Letscher has now done the ones on each end – Joseph
Kennedy Sr. and his youngest son Ted. At 44, he has plenty of time to do more,
in a busy career.

He was Ted in the 2001 mini-series “The Women of Camelot”;
he’s been Joe in three “Boardwalk Empire” episodes, one rerunning this week.
Alongside acting, he’s been a playwright, director and screenwriter. “I have a
mind that always wants to be busy,” he said.

The Kennedy roles could keep any mind busy. “Ted’s entire
life was a public one,” Letscher said. “Joe’s life was not so public, (but) he
definitely had his plan for world domination through his sons.”

Joe brought a mixture of charm, cunning and sheer
determination. “He was constantly the underdog,” Letscher said. “He was a first-generation
Irish-American; no favors were done for him.”

 And that requires
acting; no one refers to Letscher as an underdog.

He grew up in Grosse Pointe, a high-end superb of Detroit.
His dad was a general contractor, his mom taught special education and his only
wayward moments came in his teens. “It’s not like I was cooking meth in Grosse
Pointe,” he said. “But I definitely was making poor choices.”

His parents insisted he find something new. “From the first
audition on stage, I knew I loved acting.”

He studied theater at U-M and landed a spot in a workshop
that Broadway great Uta Hagen held in Detroit. Next came his professional
debut, in a comedy Jeff Daniels wrote for the theater (Purple Rose) he started
in his home town of Chelsea, Mich. “It was one of the best summers of my life,”
he said.

And it led to more: Daniels was about to star in TNT’s
“Gettysburg.” When the director came to talk to him in Chelsea, Daniels asked
him to see Letscher. That led to a small role and the start of a big career.

Letscher has had recurring or regular roles in at least 13
series. Of late, he’s been Carrie Bradshaw’s widowed dad in “The Carrie
Diaries,” Eli’s brother in “Eli Stone,” the vice-president’s chief-of-staff and
campaign manager in “Scandal” … and now Joe Kennedy.

That – and playing sports with his two sons – should be
enough to keep him busy, but Letscher uses Daniels as an example: “Jeff is
always doing something else – writing plays and scripts.”

Letscher has returned to Purple Rose twice – once as actor,
once as playwright-director -- and expects to be back. He co-wrote, directed
and acted in the pilot for the Web comedy series “One & Done.”

And he’s done indie movies, including “Teacher of the Year,”
now heading to film festivals. (“It’s in the ‘mockumentary’ style, very funny .”)
He keeps trying new things; Joe Kennedy would understand.

“Boardwalk Empire.” Letscher’s third Joe Kennedy
episode reruns at 8 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 1), 10 p.m. Thursday and 11 p.m. Saturday on
HBO. Also, 10 p.m. Wednesday and 1:15 p.m. Sunday on HBO2, 11 p.m. Friday and
5:45 p.m. Saturday on HBO Signature.

Also: Movies (most recently, “Her” and “Teacher
of the Year”) and TV guest roles. On Monday (Sept. 29), he was a witness/suspect on “Castle.”

In Shondaland, life is always busy and sometimes controversial

When you go to ABC on Thursdays, you're stepping into Shondaland. All three shows -- "Grey's Anatomy," "Scandal" and the new "How to Get Away with Murder" -- are produced by Shonda Rhimes and have key things in common. But does that make Rhimes a dictator, in the manner of some of her characters? That question bubbled up anew this week and I had a chance to ask about it this summer. Here's the story I sent to papers today:


Just so we’re clear on this, Shonda Rhimes is not,
apparently, an angry black woman. Any similarity to Annalise Keating, the
powerhouse character in her new show, is slight and coincidental.

That question came up this week, after a New York Times
piece tried to praise Rhimes and her “How to Get Away with Murder.” The result
drew complaints and apologies.

But the question also came up in July, when she met the Television
Critics Association. We asked her then if Keating – very much in control,
ruling the room – felt autobiographical. “I didn’t write it and so it’s not
about me,” Rhimes said. “She’s not like me at all.”

Would she like to be like Keating? “I find her … a
fascinating, interesting character who’s writ incredibly complex … There are
aspects of her that we all wish we could be like,” Rhimes said.

What about the younger “Murder” co-stars? On the show, they
play new law students intimidated by Keating, their professor; do they find
Rhimes or Davis intimidating?

“Definitely,” said Karla Souza. “They demand a presence when
they walk in the room. And it’s invigorating to feel on your toes all the time ….
They’re people we obviously admire a lot.”

Rhimes is, after all, not your usual TV producer. She has an
entire night of scripted TV dramas – something that apparently hasn’t happened
since Aaron Spelling in the early 1980s.

It’s easy to envision her as a domineering auteur, molding
everything under her “Shondaland” production banner. Those shows have similar strengths
(vivid dialog, strong visuals and music, award-winning diversity) and flaws
(plot twists that sometimes spin wildly into soap/telenovela turf).

So it’s simple to imagine Rhimes as a real-life Keating or
Bailey (“Grey’s Anatomy”) or Pope (“Scandal”). In the Times piece, Alessandra
Stanley praised her, saying she took “the trite but persistent caricature of
the angry black woman, recast it in her own image, and made it enviable.” She
also opened by suggesting that Rhimes’ autobiography be “How to Get Away with
Being an Angry Black Woman.”

That drew the complaints and the Times apologies.

Certainly, TV has had its auteurs. There were seasons when
Aaron Sorkin and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason each wrote all 22 episodes of “The
West Wing” and “Designing Women,” respectively.

But auteurs usually only do one show; the notion of
producing several shows is better left to an easygoing delegator, in the
Spelling style. Rhimes created “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Scandal,”
but out of 437 episodes, she’s listed as the writer of only 41 and the director
of zero. She didn’t create “Murder”; that was done by Peter Nowalk, a
Shondaland producer-writer.

“Putting normal people in extreme circumstances (is) very
appealing,” Nowalk said. “What’s more extreme than being a first-year law
student who’s kind of innocent and naïve and thrust into a murder?”

Then he created a role strong enough to lure Oscar-nominee
Viola Davis. Her movie roles, she said, are “like being invited to a really
fabulous party, only to hold up the wall. I wanted to be the show.”

“How to Get Away with Murder,” 10 p.m.
Thursdays, ABC; debuts Sept. 25