When George Kennedy coaxed that disabled bird off the runway in 1970, moviegoers begged for more. But post 9/11, can airports be entertaining? "Roger that," says NBC, which has Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood on board for its new LAX.
BY JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN
PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRIAN WINCKLER
harley Random is having a bad day.
The airport director committed suicide last night on a crucial runway, and today the governor is scheduled to fly in. Now, a potentially explosive piece of Samsonite has been discovered in a terminal.
To make matters worse for LAX runway chief Random (Heather Locklear), terminal boss Roger De Souza (Blair Underwood) is already gunning to beat her out of the director's gig. Meanwhile, some drunken pilots have hijacked a jet to Serbia, nearly a dozen flights are backed up to Dallas and a dog is running loose on the tarmac.
When NBC's LAX takes off at Mondays at 10 p.m. this fall, it will soar into uncharted territory — weekly television drama set inside the country's third-busiest airport. The hour-long series follows Harley, Roger and their crew as they wrangle planes, passengers and politics at Los Angeles International Airport. With 9/11 in mind, the security front is covered by Officer Betty (Wendy Hoopes), a customs agent partnered with Wally, a drug-sniffing German shepherd; Nick (David Paetkau), a rookie immigration officer and Henry Engels (Frank John Hughes) of the LAPD. For comic relief, there's Tony (Paul Leyden of As the World Turns), a sexy passenger relations director who soothes frazzled nerves while stirring other longings.
"It's the adrenaline charge of the whole job," Leyden says of the series' scope, "from little issues of ticketing right up to something bigger, like drunken pilots, and dealing with it all with ease."
At a time when TV has more than its share of crime-and-punishment procedurals and docs-on-duty dramas, LAX sets its high-energy, character-driven tales against a unique backdrop. "I just thought that airports were a great arena to do a show in," says creator Nick Thiel, who executive produces the show with noted movie producer Mark Gordon (The Day After Tomorrow). "You've got 50 million people who go back and forth at LAX. They all have stories. When I did the behind-the-scenes research and saw the people who work there, it gave me a great idea of what the show could be."
To pull it off, Thiel enlisted filmmaker-brothers Joe and Anthony Russo as the show's producer-director team. "It's a way to bring a more balanced creative vision," Anthony Russo says of the team approach. "I think it's also a result of the influence of HBO, where they have had more of an auteur focus to the television that they produce, and it's trickling into the major networks. The inclusion of producer-directors is part of the move in television toward a more cinematic form of storytelling."
How do the brothers divide the job? "We don't have a formal division like the Hughes brothers," Joe Russo says, "where one deals specifically with the camera work and the other deals with the actors. We sort of both do everything. But it's been ten years that we've been working together, so you know what your own strengths are, what his strengths are, and you naturally gravitate toward that. Tony's really great with structure and story, and I'm better with dialogue and character work, so that's the way we approach it."
For Hoopes, it's working. "They look at characters as the main ingredient in a show," she says, "and they let us create and open up a world." Adds Hughes: "It almost makes you never want to work for a single director again, because they work so well together. You feel like you have another set of eyes that are protecting you and helping your performance along."
Still, the logistical challenges have been many, not the least of which was where to shoot. "There's a reason you've never seen an airport show on television — because you can't build an airport on a backlot," Russo says. "Only Steven Spielberg can do that."
For his recent feature, The Terminal Spielberg had an elaborate, three-story set built outside Palmdale, California. LAX producers inquired about shooting there, but the electricity costs alone were beyond their budget. Fortunately, a space opened up at Ontario International Airport, thirty-five miles east of downtown L.A. "At LAX a lot of our time would be spent going through security areas," Russo says, "whereas we have our own closed terminal in a non-secure area of Ontario, which makes it a much easier space to work in."
Though not an ideal location for Locklear, who is commuting nearly 100 miles each way from her home in Ventura County. "It's a real trek," says the actress, noting that costar Hughes also has to make the long drive. "He asked me, 'Do you have a helicopter?' I said, 'If it goes past thirteen [episodes], maybe we can work something out with the network.'"
Originally, the network was looking to the former Spin City star to lead a half-hour sitcom but sent her a pilot script of what was then known as HUB. "It was right after 9/11," Locklear recalls, "and I thought, 'This is too soon.'" The script was shelved, but it resurfaced last year with Locklear on board as the idiosyncratic Harley. "I was really drawn to LAX, and to this character and her quirks. Also, I have a dog named Harley, and I thought, 'This all means something.'"
For perennial TV favorite Underwood (L.A. Law, Sex and the City), the series presents a chance to get real. "The kind of acting that I aspire to is work that is connected to reality and a character who has some flaws," says the performer, who was seen on Sex as the dreamy team doctor of the New York Knicks and the main squeeze of Cynthia Nixon's Miranda. With LAX's cunning and self-absorbed De Souza, he gets his wish. "When I heard about this character — who was this political animal and ran the airport, as they say in the promo, 'with an ego the size of a 747' — I said, 'That's going to be fun, but what are his personal demons?' One of the things that I threw into the mix was, 'What if he has a gambling addiction?' And we find that out in the second episode."
Paetkau brings some personal experiences to his role as the softhearted immigration officer. "I've had a lot of experience with U.S. immigration and customs," says the Vancouver native. "I've dealt with people who ask a lot of questions and try to trip you up — hopefully, my character won't be worse."
Overall, the cast has newfound appreciation for airport workers, but perhaps no one as much as Thiel, who admits to being a fearful flier.
"After seeing these people in action, I actually felt better about it," he says. "To them, running an airport is like driving a bus. They're so good at what they do and are very relaxed in their jobs. Now, after 9/11 and with concerns about homeland security, it's important to let people see what happens in an airport to take the onus off, to take the fear out of flying."
Now, if they just get that body off the runway ...