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Book ’em: A salute to tv crimefighters

by Jim Longworth

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Photos courtesy Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Any other use or reproduction is prohibited.

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Let’s face it, we are a society of crime junkies. In the mornings we read about crime in the daily newspaper. In the evenings we watch crime stories on the local television news. Then at night we tune in to watch crime dramas on primetime TV. We just can’t get our fill of crime, especially the fictional kind where bad guys are brought to justice in one short hour by heroic detectives, federal agents, investigators and consultants.

Back in November, I was privileged to spend the evening with some of those elite TV crimefighters at an event for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in Hollywood. The panel I assembled included Matt Bomer (“White Collar”), Thomas Gibson (“Criminal Minds”), Angie Harmon (“Rizzoli & Isles”), Marg Helgenberger (“CSI”), Boris Kodjoe (“Undercovers”), Mary McCormack (“In Plain Sight”), Matt Passmore (who plays Jim Longworth on “The Glades”) and Kelli Williams (“Lie to Me”).

We covered a variety of topics during our time on stage together, ranging from how they audition for roles to which TV crimefighter they most admired.

Since the event took place on election eve, we began by discussing whether it is appropriate for celebrities to get involved in politics.

Helgenberger: “If someone is passionate about something, whether it’s a cause or a candidate, I say go for it. If you really want to get someone elected and you feel that your celebrity can help, that’s okay.”

Kodjoe: “I think it should be more about getting people involved in the political process rather than getting behind one particular candidate. People need to be more involved in the decision making, rather than believing whatever someone else is force feeding them.”

Bomer: “I’m sort of with Boris. I think it’s a very personal matter, but I think everyone should get more involved at the local level.

It all sort of trickles up from smaller levels.”

Angie Harmon, an avid conservative who spoke at the 2004 GOP convention, alluded to negative ramifications when an actor takes a political stand, much as what happened with celebrities like the Dixie Chicks. But she also took aim at fellow conservatives who seem to be extreme in their criticism of liberals.

Harmon: “I hope everyone as an American would be able to speak without fear, without being worried that you’re ever going to work again. We’ve got to come together and realize there’s a happy medium. It doesn’t require beating up on the other person or squashing the other person’s reputation. The nastiness has got to go away.”

And while the eight actors might hold differing political views, they were all in agreement about the need for celebrities to support worthwhile charities and organizations. I gave each of them a chance to plug their favorite cause.

Passmore: “I’m involved with World Vision International. It helps to locate children in third-world countries into good homes.”

Harmon: “I’m on the board of the Alliance for Children’s Rights and the Children’s Institute. They work with orphans who are abused. There are 500,000 orphans in this country, and both of these organizations try to keep the kids inside their family unit, with grandparents, aunts or uncles.”

Williams: “I work with CARE, and they finance loans to women in third-world villages to start businesses. That helps the entire village instead of just one family.”

Kodjoe: “My daughter Sophie is 5 years old, and she was born with spinal bifida. My wife [actress Nicole Parker] and I founded Sophie’s Voice to raise awareness and let every woman in this country know how important it is to take folic acid.”

Bomer: “I work with kids in hospitals, particularly burn victims. We do improv with them, and also art projects. The goal is to take their minds off of what’s going on in their lives and entertain them for awhile.”

McCormack: “One in three Americans will be diabetic in five years, and it’s affecting children and adults. My husband is diabetic, so selfishly I want him to stick around, that’s why I work with the juvenile diabetes board.”

Helgenberger: “My mother is a 30-year breast cancer survivor, so I’ve been involved in raising awareness for a long time through the National Breast Cancer Foundation and through Susan Komen. Also through local hospitals in my home state of Nebraska where we provide mobile mammography for rural areas.”

After exploring such serious matters as politics and personal causes, we turned the discussion to lighter topics, beginning with having each panelist own up to an embarrassing incident in their life. For example, Angie Harmon admitted to having been stopped while driving naked when she was in high school.

Harmon: “I was on the high school drill team and was going home after a game. I couldn’t find my keys, so I sat down on the ground to look for the keys in my purse. The problem is I sat down in a nest of fire ants. I got in the car and suddenly had to get out of all my clothes. All I had on was a T shirt and nothing else. I then got pulled over for rolling a stop sign. The officer approached, flashed a light at me and told me to get out of the car. I said, “No, I’m not dressed.” He then asked for my license, but I had left it behind in my purse. I so did not roll that stop sign, and I was never charged.”

Bomer: “I was walking across Sunset Boulevard and a car swerved towards me, and I had to jump off onto the side of the road. The guy rolled down his car window, and in the ultimate insult yelled, ‘I thought you were the guy from “White Collar.”’ I tried to tell him I was, but he peeled off.”

I then asked Boris Kodjoe, a former tennis star at VCU, if it was true that he once bragged that he could wipe the floor with Serena Williams.

Kodjoe: “That’s true.” Longworth: “So if she was here right now, you could beat her in a tennis match?” Kodjoe: “Well, I’ve never lost to her.” Gibson: “I was playing Prince Hal at the Public Theatre in New York and one day I was walking my dog in Central Park and trying to get him to go to the bathroom so I could hurry up and get to the theater. He wouldn’t go, so I let him off the leash. A park policeman saw it and caught me red-handed. When he approached me I went into a German accent and said I was walking a friend’s dog, and didn’t know about the leash law. Turns out this park patrolman hated Germans, so he arrested me. I ended up in jail and missed a performance.”

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After learning that Thomas Gibson once landed in jail, I then wanted to know how our crimefighting actors landed their current TV roles. While a few of the panelists were hired quickly, most had to endure numerous auditions and call backs to secure their jobs.

Williams: “I had to work my ass off for the role [in “Lie to Me”]. I went in to read five times, then waited a month until they found Tim Roth, then had to go in again and fight for the part.”

Harmon: “They never have you in mind first. At “Rizzoli & Isles” they wanted four other actresses before they wanted me.”

Boris Kodjoe, whose series “Undercovers” was cancelled by NBC the week following our event, almost didn’t audition for the role of the suave super spy.

Kodjoe: “I didn’t want to be the affirmative-action guy again.”

Longworth: “Explain that.” Kodjoe: “I have been doing camera tests for years and the feedback is always amazing, but then they always go with somebody else who happens to be white. So these highprofile projects become very elusive.”

Kodjoe had a right to be cynical. In the history of television, less than a handful of prime-time dramas have starred men of color in title roles, and those were short-lived (“Gideon Oliver,” “Paris,” “Shaft”). But Kodjoe felt comfortable with “Undercovers” producer JJ Abrams, and agreed to audition. And just to demonstrate his versatility, the multi-lingual actor (Boris was born in Germany) read for his part in French.

McCormack: “I also read for ‘In Plain Sight’ in French. It’s sort of my signature thing, so that’s weird that Boris does that too.”

Once they were eventually hired as TV crimefighters, several of our panelists revealed that they did a lot of research for their roles. Harmon, for example, spent time with the Boston PD and helped to investigate a homicide. Meanwhile, Marg Helgenberger, now in her 11th and final season on “CSI,” was exposed to a more bizarre crime scene.

Helgenberger: “I rode with Yolanda McCleary, the woman who my character is based on, and we went to investigate a home robbery in suburban Vegas. It was a modest home and the couple who lived there were older. While investigating, we opened a door and there was a shelf full of sex toys, handcuffs, lubricants, the works. My job was to dust a package of cock rings for finger prints. It was all in a day’s work.”

As our Academy event wound down to a close, I asked the actors to name favorite TV crimefighting shows as well as all-time favorite TV crime fighters.

Australian Matt Passmore loved Tom Selleck’s charisma in “Magnum PI.” Angie Harmon was a big fan of “Charlie’s Angels,” but was in love with Edward Woodward from “The Equalizer.” Both Matt Bomer and Boris Kodjoe named “Simon & Simon” as their favorite crime series, and both cited Gerald McRaney as their favorite detective. Kelli Williams named “Cagney & Lacey” as her favorite TV cops, while Marg Helgenberger identified most with Angie Dickinson of “Police Woman.” Mary McCormack’s favorite cop show was “Hill Street Blues,” but she had a major crush on Kevin Tighe from “Emergency.” And Thomas Gibson said he loved all of the detective shows from the 1970s especially “Mannix,” starring his real-life golfing partner Mike Connors.

Appropriately, I then called Connors to the stage to receive a special award from the academy for being a pioneer in the TV Crime Fighter genre. Said Mike, “There’s a lot of talent on this stage.” Connors then remarked on how he envied Boris Kodjoe.

Connors: “He starts the show in bed with some beautiful gal, and ends the show with a gal in bed. I used to close my show getting hit on the head.”

I then asked Lee Meriwether, co star of “Barnaby Jones,” to present Connors with a special plaque. Meriwether who had also guest starred on “Mannix” quipped, “Mike you must remember that you and I DID get into bed.”

Said Connors, “I’m glad my wife didn’t show up tonight.”

Maybe so, but 700 Academy members were glad that they showed up. They got to meet eight current prime-time crime fighters, and one very legendary private eye. And, as a bonus, not one crime was committed in the theater while the TV cops were on duty.

As Marg Helgenberger said, “It’s all in a day’s work.”

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