It took a mere half-century for two sorta-neighbors to meet and work together.
That’s on “Prodigal Son” (9 p.m. Tuesdays on Fox), which has just returned from a month-long break. Michael Sheen co-stars and Catherine Zeta-Jones has joined the cast; they play doctors at a prison (shown here), with a key difference: She’s an employee, he’s a prisoner.
Here are two people who grew up in the same southwestern area of Wales, at the same time, yet never quite met. “We actually have childhood friends” in common, Zeta-Jones told the Television Critics Association. “My mom and dad know his dad.” And yet, they’d “never met before; I’d admired (him) from a distance.”
That distance was about 5,000 miles. Zeta-Jones, 51, became a Hollywood star – an Oscar-winner (“Chicago”), married to an Oscar-winner (Michael Douglas) – while Sheen, 52, was starring in British theater and TV.
His breakthrough came in roles as real-life people – three times (including “The Queen”) as Prime Minister Tony Blair and once (“Frost/Nixon”) as David Frost. In each, he played clean-shaven, well-spoken types. Now “Prodigal Son” has him as Martin Whitley, with wild hair and wilder eyes.
“He looks more like the Welsh men that I grew up with than the other characters he’s played,” Zeta-Jones said. “Tony Blair would not hang around our village, but people who look like Martn Whitly did, very much so.”
These actors are part of the British infusion that keeps boosting “Prodigal Son.” Tom Payne, who stars as a police profiler (and Martin’s son), is from England; Alan Cumming, who has a spectacular guest shot (April 13) as a British investigator, is from Scotland.
“We have these fun, flashy characters come in,” Payne said. “Like Alan Cumming’s character … and then Catherine.”
They’re part of the British tradition of doing theater, early and often. Zeta-Jones was taking dance lessons at 4, playing one of the “Annie” orphans on the West End (London’s version of Broadway) at 9, starring in “Bugsy Malone” on the West End at 14.
She was the second understudy in the West End’s “42nd Street,” the show that tells an understudy: “You’ll go out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star.” She did go on one night (the star and first understudy were unavailable) at 17, drawing praise; and she did, later, become a movie star.
Zeta-Jones eventually returned to the stage (winning a 2010 Tony in “A Little Night Music”) and to TV. She was Olivia de Havilland in the 2017 “Feud,” starred in the 2018 mini-series “Cocaine Godmother” and reached “Prodigal Son” in mid-season.
That’s during a tricky time. As “Prodigal Son” writer-producer Chris Fedak put it: “When you write someone kissing in a script this year, with COVID protocols, it does require a HAZMAT suit.”
For now, that’s no problem for a character who has no desire to kiss anyone nearby. She’s “sequestered in the bowels of this facility,” Zeta-Jones said. And she’s confronting a fellow doctor (played by a fellow Welsh actor) for whom she shows a steely disdain.