The cover is a picture of Peter Krause, Robert Guillaume, Felicity Huffman, and Josh Charles, with the caption "Rookies of the Year!: Sports Night, a Smart Fast-Paced Comedy, Tries Something Different -- And Scores!"
Their Championship Season: In the Dugout with the MVPs of Sports Night
By Richard Firstman

Peter Krause and Josh Charles are on the move. Really on the move. Portraying Casey McCall and Dan Rydell, a pair of TV sports-anchor buddies on ABC's Rookie of the Year front-runner "Sports Night" (Tuesdays, 9:30 P.M./ET), they're dashing through the show's stylistic hallmark: a breakneck-pace scene that will take them and a steadicam from one end of a cavernous soundstage to the other in an apparently seamless ramble of banter and bustle. Minutes before airtime on their show-within-a-show -- a fictionalized version of ESPN's "SportsCenter" -- the two actors practically gallop through the mazelike faux TV station as their characters debate the outcome of a Kansas-Missouri basketball game, the virtues of vanilla-hazelnut coffee and the name of the guy behind Camera 2.

Such is the kind of on-the-fly sequence that gives "Sports Night" its realistic, behind-the-scenes texture, as well as its distinction as the fastest half hour on network television. "The thing really moves," Joshua Malina, who plays the nerdy sports genius Jeremy Goodwin, says quietly in a corner of the soundstage, and he's not just talking about the show's brisk pace. "Sports Night" has hit its stride by showcasing smart, overworked people in the pressure cooker of a nightly national sports show, stories that often turn on timely moral and cultural issues. This is one show brazen enough to believe America is ready for a network comedy that requires viewers to pay attention. "If I was in the audience," Malina says, "I'd rather be one step behind than one step ahead."

Finding their audience has been a season-long quest for "Sports Night." Many critics have called it the year's most intriguing new program, praising its quirky format and making comparisons to HBO's much-missed "Larry Sanders Show" (Thomas Schlamme, "Sports Night's" chief director and an executive producer, was a director on "Sanders"). Viewers, however, have been slower to embrace the hard-to-categorize program: "Sports Night," the sixth highest-ranked new show of the 1998-99 season, has performed respectably in the ratings, but has fallen short of hit status. A renewal for next season is likely, though not certain.

"Sport Night's" tough road is not entirely surprising. For starters, the show spends only about half its running time being funny, and just as often turns serious, with drama that ranges from the poignant to the preachy. The transition, it might be said, isn't always smooth, and the show's earnestness is no match for the hilarious cynicism that fueled "Sanders." Still, the mix of witty dialogue and sober storytelling has no small appeal, and it brings to the show a sensibility more common to theater and film than to the hidebound world of situation comedy. "It feels like doing a small play each week," says Krause (pronounced Krau-za); and little wonder: The show's creator and principal writer, Aaron Sorkin (see "The Natural," page 18), rose to prominence when his play "A Few Good Men" was made into a hit 1992 movie. "The writing I'm doing now pays very little attention to the fact that this is a television show," Sorkin says. "I leave it to Tommy Schlamme to turn it into a television show."

But it was television that first inspired Sorkin to create "Sports Night." Holed up at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, trying to finish his screenplay for the 1995 film "The American President," Sorkin relied on ESPN's "SportsCenter" for background company. A sometime sports fan, he was mostly drawn to the engaging irreverence of the two anchors, Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick. Sorkin found himself wondering what went on when the cameras were off, and considered writing a book on the subject. His then agent, Rob Scheidlinger, suggested a movie instead, "kind of a 'Broadcast News' set in a "SportsCenter" place," Sorkin says. "But I had a hard time thinking of a two-hour story to tell. It all seemed episodic to me, like small stories. I dismissed it, because it didn't occur to me to do a television series."

Not then, anyway. A couple of years and a series of Hollywood connections later, Sorkin was in business with Imagine Television, pitching an idea for a TV show about a TV show to the Walt Disney Company and the network it owns, ABC (Disney also owns ESPN). Sorkin was unsure which characters he wanted beyond the two anchormen, but he and Scheidlinger (who had become a producer on the project) knew exactly what type of actors they needed. "It's a dialogue-intensive show," Scheidlinger says, "so we needed to find very bright, verbal people." Krause, who had played Cybill Shepherd's son-in-law on "Cybill," was cast as the smoother half of the anchor duo, and Charles, best known for roles in the feature films "Dead Poets Society" and "Threesome," was hired to play Krause's sardonic partner. Stage actress Felicity Huffman was cast as producer Dana Whitaker.

Sorkin and Scheidlinger also wanted a program that would stay close to the real world. One of the more memorable episodes this year involved the "Sports Night" staff's reaction to a sexual assault against the young associate producer Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd) by a star football player booked on the show. "For these stories to work," says Sorkin, "you must believe that these people are really who they say they are, that they're really doing a live sports television show in New York. "Just Shoot Me" is a very, very funny show, incredibly well done. But no one in their right mind would believe that's a fashion magazine. Five people work there. I have no idea what David Spade's job is. And it doesn't matter.

"I'm not nearly as funny as they are," Sorkin continues. "I have to do something else."

Sorkin's "something else" has been built around a tight cast that includes only one big name: Robert Guillaume, who plays "Sports Night's" beloved executive producer, Isaac Jaffee (see "On the Rebound," page 16). Surrounded by actors half his age, the 71-year-old former star of "Benson" has emerged as a Lou Grant for the 1990s. "We hadn't thought of him," ABC Entertainment president Jamie Tarses says. "We were putting together a very fresh-faced ensemble, but he came in and read, and he was the part."

Guillaume was settling into his first post-"Benson" role when he provided the show with a piece of real-life drama. Preparing to shoot a scene in January, he suffered a stroke in his dressing room and was taken to a nearby hospital. "I didn't think it was serious," Guillaume recalls. "I told [the doctors], 'I have to go back to work. I don't know who you work for, but I work for [Disney chairman and CEO] Mike Eisner. They take a dim view of taking off in the middle of the day."

Guillaume missed several episodes, and he asked Sorkin to account for the absence by giving Isaac a stroke. The news will be delivered to the "Sports Night" staff in an upcoming episode. Guillaume's quick recovery allowed a return to the set in March to shoot the season finale.

Shortly before his illness, Guillaume told TV Guide how much he was enjoying his return to prime time, having adjusted to being part of an ensemble. "While I loved the irreverence of Benson," Guillaume said, "this character is legitimately grounded. But when I got the part, I did have to beat back my little demons that tell me I have to be at the center of things."

There's no mistaking that the center of "Sports Night" is the friendship between the two anchormen, played by Krause and Charles. "When we first started," Krause says, "we asked Aaron about these characters, and he said the show was about 'a man and his fine hound.' I looked at Josh and said, 'I've got a feeling you're the fine hound.' Josh hated that. The idea was that Dan [Charles's character] was the loyal friend, but it's turned out to be much more equal. Aaron has created a relationship between two guys that hasn't been seen often on television. There's standard guy stuff, witty banter, but also a depth."

Huffman (who is married to actor William H. Macy) observes that the Casey-Dan friendship appeals to women who might have been put off by the sports theme. In fact, "Sports Night's" biggest struggle has been attracting men under 35.

Back on the set, the cast and crew are too busy swirling through the week's episode to think too much about ratings. And from the looks of things, having too much fun. "Ball, ball, ball!" Charles calls to Krause between takes. Krause heaves a basketball to his partner, who twirls it on his finger. Looks as though he's going to keep it spinning for as long as he can.

On the Rebound

Until a stroke hit Robert Guillaume (below) on January 14, the actor best known as TV's Benson thought he "would go on forever." But despite his confidence and his youthful and robust appearance, the 71-year-old Guillaume had high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and he had already experienced one tiny stroke that left no aftereffects. In his first interview six weeks after the second, more severe stroke, Guillaume, speaking slowly and clearly, describes how the bleeding in his brain left him with a lingering weakness in his left hand and leg: "It's terrifying to walk without a cane," he admits, but says he considers himself lucky. "God was with me, because [the stroke] didn't take my voice." The Emmy-winning actor was hospitalized for three weeks and put on a regimen of blood-thinning and cholesterol-lowering drugs, plus four hours a day of physical and speech therapy. The future? "I will appear on this season's final show, and I insist on coming back full time next year," he says emphatically, then adds with a laugh, "barring any heavenly plans." -- Ileane Rudolph

The Natural

With hit feature films and a Broadway play to his credit, Aaron Sorkin's newfound persona as a TV comedy writer might seem a bit unlikely. But for the 37-year-old lawyer's son from Scarsdale, New York, "unlikely" is par for the course.

Little more than a casual sports fan, Sorkin (left) created "Sports Night" and has, since last summer, written or cowritten all 23 episodes. "It's been alternately fun and terrifying," says the engagingly high-strung writer of the films "The American President" and "A Few Good Men" (and the play on which the latter was based).

After leaving Scarsdale to study theater at Syracuse University, Sorkin was determined to become an actor. "I had never thought about writing," he says. "Writing for me was a chore to be gotten through for English class." That changed after college, when a friend left an old typewriter in Sorkin's New York City apartment. "I just started writing in dialogue form," he recalls. "I immediately felt a thrill and a confidence."

Next for Sorkin is an NBC pilot in development, "The West Wing." The one-hour drama focuses on all the president's men, and women. -- R.F.

Fact vs. Fiction

"Sports Night" strikes most viewers as a barely disguised version of ESPN's "SportsCenter," but ESPN coanchor Dan Patrick can't see the resemblance. Here's why.

Thanks to Angela Olson Halsted for this transcription.