These "Masters" create mobile artwork

Do we really need another reality competition show? Yes, if the subject happens to stir emotions. And "Motor City Masters" involves something (car design) that people view passionately. Here's the story I sent to paper: 


In its reality rush, TV keeps trying competitions. It’s had
shows for singers and dancers and models, for designers and stylists and
artists, for make-up people and monster-makers. Even dogs had their day.

But now comes something many people are more passionate
about – car design. “It is a work of art that takes you places,” said Harald
Belker, the German giant who is a “Motor City Masters” judge.

And it’s part of coming-of-age. “I used to date guys
according to if they would let me drive,” said Jean Jennings, the writer who is
a judge. Now she has a Web site ( and a belief that designers
are the most interesting people in the car business. “They are interested in art
and architecture and cooking; they know fabrics and sculpture. They’re very

The show’s judges and host are also interesting sorts who
came to the car culture in opposite ways:

For Brooke Burns, the host, it was gradual. “I
grew up with two sisters,” she said. “We were all dancing ballet,” not worrying
about horsepower. Only later, scooting around Hawaii in a black BMW convertible
during her “Baywatch” years, did she discover open-road joy.

For Jennings, it was instant. Her dad edited
Automotive News in Ann Arbor, Mich. Growing up on a mini-farm, she “played on
dirt roads, fished” and drove things.  She
became a cab-owner and a test-track driver, before writing for Car and Driver
and helping start Automobile Magazine.

And for Belker, it was long-distance. He grew up
as a towering tennis star, in a Germany that lacked muscle-cars. “I was very
passionate about my first car, a Volkswagen Rabbit,” he said. It  only had 60 horsepower, “but I drove the heck
out of it.” Later, he studied auto design.

Belker even has an odd distinction: “I was the dummy for the
Smart Car.” To make sure anyone could drive it, the micro-car was patterned
around him and another designer, each 6-foot-7.

He’s been working for movies lately, ranging from the
Batmobile to Inspector Gadget’s car. (“My job isn’t always about good
taste.”)  It’s fast work, but Belker
marvels at the challenges the show’s contestants faced. “Sometimes, I thought,
‘Thank goodness I don’t have to do something that fast.”

Clever designers are crucial to companies, Jennings said.
Most cars are so well-made that people could keep them for 10 years; the design
nudges them into changing.

And they’re important to the buyer, she said. “To choose a
car is a very emotional decision …. Just because you have a family car doesn’t
mean it has to be a box.” And on the show, 10 would-be masters keep trying to
think outside that mobile box.

“Motor City Masters,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, TruTV
(formerly Court TV); opener (June 24) reruns at 11 p.m. and 2 and 3 a.m.

Opener also reruns at 11 p.m. Wednesday, 4 p.m.
Saturday, 11 p.m. Monday (June 30); also, at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on TNT.


Freedom Summer brought big danger, big change

Amid all its gloss and giddiness, summer TV can also deliver some important documentaries. Consider "The Sixties," Thursdays on CNN: June 19 eyed Vietnam; June 26 has civil rights. Or consider PBS: A week after rerunning "Freedom Riders," it has the debut (9 p.m. June 24) of the superb "Freedom Summer," by the same filmmaker. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Fifty years ago this month, young people – college students,
mostly – plunged into the unknown.

“I really didn’t know what to expect,” recalled Linda
Wetmore Halpern, then a 19-year-old from Massachusetts and now a teacher,
featured in PBS’ “Freedom Summer” documentary.

A previous venture – registering voters in Raleigh, N.C,
during spring break – was jolting, she said. “This was 1964 and you still had
‘white’ and ‘colored’ drinking fountains?”

But now she was heading into Mississippi; it was, filmmaker
Stanley Nelson said, a place that even activists avoided. “The rest of the
civil rights movement was saying, ‘Don’t go to Mississippi. You have to talk
about Mississippi from the outside. If you go to Mississippi, they will kill

Dave Dennis knew the risks. Now a lawyer and educator, he
grew up as a sharecropper’s son in Louisiana. “We were taught … that even
looking white people in the eye” was dangerous.

Fears had grown in 1955, he said, when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old
visiting from Chicago, was killed after reportedly flirting with a white
woman.  “People talked to us in the
churches about: ‘If you see a white woman, just cross the street.’”

In 1961, Dennis followed Bob Moses into Mississippi,
establishing a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in what was considered
the most dangerous state for civil rights workers. This was a state, the film
says, in which blacks who tried to register to vote faced imposing literacy
tests (at the whim of the clerk) and repercussions; some lost their jobs and
their homes.

Three years later, “freedom summer” sent about 1,000
Northerners to register voters and lead “freedom schools.” The danger was soon
clear: On June 16, a small-town church, planned as a freedom-school site, was
burned down; on June 21, three young civil rights workers, visiting the church’s
parishioners, disappeared. Their bodies were found 44 days later.

“In the couple years I’d been in Mississippi,” Dennis said, “I
actually lost about 19 people who had been killed, many of them local people in
the movement.” As one of the speakers at the memorial service, he was asked to
avoid strong emotions.

“I’m looking out at this crowd,” he said, “and I’d gone to a
number of funerals over the past few years and so I just began to feel all of
this anger, disappointment …. It was all just impromptu, just came out.”

Years of pain and frustration emerged. His passionate speech
was rerun often by the news and seen as a turning points. Registrations soared.
The next year, the Voting Rights Act was passed; and 50 years later, TV is
revisiting a perilous summer.

“American Experience: Freedom Summer,” 9-11 p.m.
Tuesday, PBS (check local listings)

More on civil rights: PBS precedes it at 8 p.m.
with a rerun of “The March,” eying the 1963 march on Washington; at 9 p.m.
Thursday, CNN’S “The Sixties” has “A Long Walk to Freedom”

This summer, Eric Dane (and others) safe the world

This Sunday (June 22), TV overloads with new shows and new seasons. It has debuts ("Rising Star," "The Last Ship," "Musketeers"), season-openers ("True Blood," "Wifeout," "Falling Skies"), a terrific movie ("Miracle Landing on the Hudson") and the second half of a smart mini-series ("The Escape Artist," via "Masterpiece Mystery"). All of that is summed up in the Sunday column (click "TV column," above); now let's stop and visit "Last Ship" and its star, Eric Dane. Here's the story I sent to papers:


Often enough, TV characters are content to catch a crook or
two. This summer, the stakes have soared.

There is Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) on Fox’s “24,”
trying (again) to prevent a war. And there are two TNT series Sunday, each trying
to preserve the human race.

On “Falling Skies” (with the season-opener at 10:03 p.m.), Tom
Mason (Noah Wyle) battles outer-space aliens; on “The Last Ship” (debuting at
9), a virus has swept across the globe.

“Society has broken down, the majority of the world is suffering,”
said Hank Steinberg, a co-writer and producer. “And there’s this lone ship of
survivors, led by a captain who has to keep alive his humanity.”

The ship (and Captain Tom Chandler, played by Eric Dane)
happen to be large and impressive. Early scenes were shot on what producer/co-writer
Stephen Kane calls “a $3-billion set,” a Navy destroyer.

“It was enormous,” Dane said, “900 feet long – big in its
depth and its length.” Only the inside headroom, he said, felt small “for
someone who is 6-foot-2 to walk around.”

And in a way, that ship dictated his life and career. Dane,
now 41, had just done his final “Grey’s Anatomy” episodes (the first two of the
2012-13 season) and planned to slow down. “I was going to hang around with my
family” – his wife (actress Rebecca Gayheart) and their daughters (now 2 and

Then? “A few weeks later, we started shooting (the pilot),
as a result of the availability of the ship,” Dane said. And then “there was a
year in between shooting the pilot and starting up with the series.”

It’s sort of the hurry-up-and-wait life familiar to military
people and to actors.

As a kid – a water-polo star whose dad was an architect and
interior designer -- Dane hadn’t thought about acting, he said. “Living in
Northern California, Hollywood seemed a million miles away.”

But in high school, he got a chance to play one of the great
theater roles – Joe Keller, the guilt-ridden dad in Arthur Miller’s “All My
Sons.” He soon landed some little TV roles, then recurring ones in “Gideon’s
Crossing,” “American Embassy” and “Charmed.” He was mostly unknown when “Grey’s
Anatomy” cast him as Dr. Mark Sloan. “It was supposed to be one episode,” Dane

It turned out to be six years and fan-magazine fame. He left
the show (staying long enough for Sloan’s lingering death), then stepped into a
classic captain’s role.

He’s in the middle of what Michael Wright, the TNT
programming chief, calls “a big, fun, exciting action-adventure series.” It has
strategy debates, with Adam Baldwin as second-in-command, and medical rush, with
Rhona Mitre as a paleo-microbiologist, setting up her onboard lab to try to
create a vaccine. It also has military action, Steinberg said, with “people
chasing them who want to get that vaccine.”

And it has Captain Tom Chandler, trying (like Jack Bauer and
Tom Mason) to save the world.

“The Last Ship,” 9 p.m. Sundays, TNT; debuts
June 22, rerunning at 11:05 p.m.

Opener reruns at 11:03 p.m. Wednesday (June 25),
11 p.m. Saturday (June 28), 9 a.m. June 29.

Opener also airs at 11:01 p.m. June 26 on Tru


Cliff Curtis: From a small island to global characters

The list of famous Maori actors is relatively short. There's Keisha Castle-Hughes (no relation to me, or to Cinderella's Castle), an Oscar-nominee in the immensely charming "Whale Rider." And there's Cliff Curtis, who played her father in that one ... then played just about everyone, everywhere. Curtis has become a fascinating actor, spanning the globe. Currently, he's in Fox's "Gang Related"; here's the story I sent to papers:


Cliff Curtis has spent much of his career inside other
people’s worlds.

He’s been Italian and Greek, Russian and Arabian and
Hispanic. He’s ranged from a doctor and a prince to a Colombian drug lord and
(currently, on Fox’s “Gang Related”) a Mexican-American crime boss.

And yes, he said, that range is necessary. “If … my strategy
(was) to wait for roles that were cast around my (Maori) ethnicity, … that
would be slim pickings.”

The Maori, the native people of New Zealand, don’t usually
show up on movie screens. A key exception was “Whale Rider” (2003), about a
headstrong Maori girl. Curtis, who played her dad, wasn’t expecting it to be
noticed. “I just thought, ‘It’s nice to come home and play a character who’s
like me.’”

Then the film soared. It won awards in six countries,
including American ones from the Sundance festival, the Independent Spirit
Awards and the National Board or Review.  Soon, Curtis was up for top roles, including
Javier Acosta. “We needed a force of nature to play that role,” said Scott
Rosenbaum, a “Gang Related” producer.

At first, Curtis imagined a back story, with Javier emerging
from a troubled childhood. The writers apparently agreed; this week’s fifth
episode has a quietly moving monolog about his troubled past.

And in some ways, Curtis said, that’s similar to his real roots.
“When I was 12, I wound up as a ward of the state …. I left school at 14. I
could have easily gone into” a rough life.

Instead, he found performing. As a boy, he had done traditional
Maori dancing, his father’s specialty; as a teen, he did break-dancing, rock
‘n’ roll dancing and theater. “I just fell in love with the idea of telling
stories,” he said.

Shows ranged from musicals to Shakespeare, preparing Curtis
for complexities that would follow: “I had to get a voice coach,” he said.
“I’ve had to re-train (my) mouth. At first, I couldn’t roll my ‘r’s.”

More important are the complexities of character. Chris
Morgan created “Gang Related” with an earnest young cop secretly working for
Javier, a man of warmth and brutality. “Every hero has a dark side,” Morgan
said, “and every villain has something heroic.”

Curtis is used to such complexities. This role also requires
him to deal with:

Age. He’s 45; Jay Hernandez, playing his younger
son, is 36.

Language. Most scenes are in English, his native
tongue, but there are “entire scenes in Spanish. And then they do those changes
….You’re walking on set; you’ve learned three pages of Spanish and they start
tweaking it.”

Life is tricky that way, when you span the globe and step
into alternate lives.

“Gang Related,” 9 p.m. Thursdays, Fox.

The June 19 episode is also set to rerun at 9
p.m. Friday, June 20.

Living a lie? For actors, that's no stretch

At one of his first auditions, Leonard Nimoy did something bizarre: He told the truth.

Asked if he knew how to ride a horse, Nimoy said no. Somehow, he got the job anyway, maybe because he was the only guy who didn't lie about it.

One actor, Richard Tyson, recalled being asked if he could ride. "I said, 'I'm from Alabama?'" He is, but that doesn't make him a cowboy, he later told reporters. "My daddy's a lawyer."

This actor-ly trait is one of the things that has made "Suits" so interesting for Patrick J. Adams: He plays a character who spent three seasons doing what actors do naturally -- lying about his qualifications and then scrambling to keep up. Now the show is starting its fourth season (Wednesday, June 11) and is making a key change. Here's the story I sent to papers:



For three “Suits” seasons, Mike Ross kept barely slipping
by. At an upscale law firm, he convinced people that he’s a Harvard Law School

Now, finally, that’s been set aside; the fourth season has
Mike working for a finance firm and dealing with his old bosses. “It’s
re-energizing for me … like a new job,” said Patrick J. Adams, who plays him.

Still, those first seasons were fun, with an exaggerated
version of anyone who has felt underqualified. “I think that’s why people
connect to Mike,” Adams said. And for actors, it all seemed realistic.

The notion during auditions is to say you can do anything.
Sure, you can ride a horse … swim … walk on stilts; then you try to learn
before filming begins. And Adams once tried that out, big-time.

There he was, a Canadian kid who studied theater at the
University of Southern California. Summers in Los Angeles were “sort of
soul-crushing,” he says, but he heard about dealing blackjack in the Yukon.

“I knew they wouldn’t hire me if I said I didn’t have any
experience,” Adams said. “I stayed up all night studying. Then I said I’d had
all this experience and had worked on cruise ships and everything.”

He got the job and had a fine summer; still, he understands
the fidgety feeling of being out-of-place.

Adams recalls introducing “Suits” producer Doug Liman at a
conference (started by Liman’s late father) for public-interest lawyers. “It’s
the cream of the crop. (I) felt exactly like Mike Ross would feel in this room –
no idea what I was doing there, scared …. I don’t even play a lawyer on TV; I
play a fake lawyer.”

It was a lesson in merely pretending to belong. “We all have
to put on this mask of confidence.”

In show business, masks are common. For actors – who tend to
be loose and creative – wearing a suit and tie can be a transformation. “Just
being in those clothes does something sort of really rigid,” Adams said. “It’s like
putting on a suit of armor …. It’s completely different from our normal lives.”

Inside one of those suits, Gabriel Macht plays Harvey Specter,
intense and imposing. In real life, said Meghan Markle (who plays Rachel Zane),
Macht often gets “a bit of the giggles.”

Colleagues describe the “Gabriel giggles,” which Macht doesn’t
dispute. “I find life in general very funny. I feel like we are all a bunch of
monkeys and I’m laughing at all of us. My attention span is very short.”

Macht, 41, certainly seems to have a pleasant life. As the
son of busy actor Stephen Macht, he grew up in Beverly Hills; he’s been married
for a decade to Jacinda Barrett, the actress who became famous as a breezy
Australian import in “Real World: London,” and they have two children.

Adams, 32, also seems to be thriving. Show business, he
said, lets him know “incredibly creative and engaging people.” Of late, he was
directed by Oscar-nominee Agnieska Holland (in the “Rosemary’s Baby” remake) and
he became engaged to Troian Bellisario, the “Pretty Little Liars” star who is
the daughter of two TV producers. And now there’s this “re-energized” year of “Suits.”

“Suits,” 9 p.m. Wednesdays, USA, rerunning at

Season-opener, June 11, also airs at 11 a.m.
Saturday and 11 p.m. Sunday.