Fasten your seat belt for a flight back to the 1960s.
By definition, a series titled "Pan Am" would have to be set in an earlier era, since the title airline went out of business in 1991 after 64 years of operation. However, it's now back in business for ABC: With an emphasis on escapism, a drama about the personnel and passengers of Pan American World Airways premieres Sunday, Sept. 25.
"What really locked in for me when we were developing the project," says series creator and executive producer Jack Orman ("ER"), "was this concept of the Jet Age. The idea that you could get to go on an airplane was part of the whole trip; it wasn't something you wanted to 'get through.' It almost feels like science fiction now. You went through no security, there was a lounge, they were having martinis. It was a lot of fun, and it was real."
Christina Ricci, Margot Robbie, Kelli Garner and Karine Vanasse play stewardesses, with Mike Vogel and Michael Mosley among the pilots. Known for often-edgy roles in such movies as "Monster" and "Black Snake Moan," Ricci embraces the idea of playing an air hostess without her character, Maggie, being any sort of stereotype.
"There is sort of this misconception," she reflects, "because in reality, the job allowed these women to have a freedom they weren't really given in a regular role in life at that time. Yes, they did have to pass through the girdle checks and the grooming checks ... but having met the education qualifications and all these other things, they were then allowed to travel freely and see the world in a way that other people didn't, and be in charge of their lives in a way that women at that time weren't necessarily."
Another executive producer of "Pan Am" knows that well, since Nancy Hult Ganis actually was a Pan Am stewardess from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. "We would become friends with our passengers," she recalls of that era. "We would know them by name, we would know about their children, where they were going. Because the flights took more time and there wasn't entertainment or iPads or any of that, it was much more interactive.
"In those days, nearly 80 percent of Pam Am crews represented 70 different countries," adds Ganis, wife of former film studio executive and Motion Picture Academy president Sid Ganis. "That was part of the discovery, too, learning about each other. The experience opened the world to us and helped us understand and appreciate those different cultures and customs."
The Pan Am experience played a role in another significant career: Patricia Ireland was another stewardess who eventually would serve as president of NOW, the National Organization for Women, for a decade. It was her legal challenge to Pan Am's employee insurance policy, which she ultimately won, that prompted her to pursue law studies and begin doing volunteer work for NOW.
"Pan Am" co-star Vogel ("Poseidon") brings true knowledge to his scenes at the controls as youthful pilot Dean, since he's a licensed aviator in real life. He readily admits "there's a massive difference between a little Cessna and a 707, but it gives Mike (Mosley) and me a great opportunity when we get in that cockpit to not be just, 'Grab this here and do that there.' We actually have business that we can do, and it's authentic business."
For Kate, played by Garner, "Pan Am" business also involves secret espionage for the U.S. government -- complicated by the airborne presence of her fellow stewardess sister, Laura (Robbie), who bailed on her wedding at the last minute.
"The Cold War was at its height in that time period," Orman explains, "and Pan Am was this international airline. They had a very cozy relationship with the State Department. On a show that can go anywhere in the globe at the time, it's an aspect."
Also key to the "Pan Am" creative team is Emmy winner Thomas Schlamme, previously an executive producer (and co-creator) of "The West Wing" as well. He directed the "Pan Am" pilot episode that sets the distinctive, retro-looking style for the series, and he's satisfied that it already has a thumbs-up from one of the critics he respects most: Emma, his teenage daughter with his actress wife, Christine Lahti.
"For me, the show could be called 'The Best Years of Our Lives' for that group of people at that moment," Schlamme notes. "They're just having an incredible adventure. Think of any of us when we travel; there is an adventure that happens with that, so part of that's the show. They were traveling the world and would go back to their hometowns, and nobody knew what they were talking about.
"They had done lots of things ... they were shopping in various places ... they were in Paris. That combination, and their kind of exciting camaraderie, is what I think will attract an audience whether they're 17 or 70."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun