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
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
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.
- "Our Dan is smarter, better looking and has much better hair."
- "Their competition is a young woman named Felicity. Ours is a middle-aged
man named Olbermann."
- "'Sports Night' creator Aaron Sorkin wrote [in 'A Few Good Men'], 'You
can't handle the truth!' I wrote the more pithy, 'The whiff.'"
- "'Sports Night' is in the midst of a 26-week run. Only 986 more weeks to
Thanks to Angela Olson Halsted for this transcription.