John Grisham is a brand name.
Whether audiences have experienced "The Client," "A Time to Kill" or "The Pelican Brief" in print or on film, the novelist's law thrillers have had lasting impact. Now there's fresh evidence: Almost 20 years after spawning a popular Tom Cruise movie, Grisham's "The Firm" is the basis for an NBC series that has a two-hour premiere Sunday, Jan. 8, before settling into a weekly slot the following Thursday.
Grisham is an executive producer on the project being made by Entertainment One ("Rookie Blue," "Haven") in association with Sony, with Josh Lucas shifting from movies ("Sweet Home Alabama," "J. Edgar") to weekly television by assuming the former Cruise role of attorney Mitch McDeere.
The show picks up 10 years after the original story with McDeere believing he's safe after a nemesis dies in prison, so he emerges from witness protection with wife Abby (Molly Parker) and their young daughter (Natasha Calis) and relocates to Washington, D.C.
Having barely survived his time with a corrupt Memphis firm, the attorney finds himself dealing with another law office apparently steeped in sneaky dealings. Tricia Helfer ("Battlestar Galactica") plays the chief of that practice, which aligns with McDeere's smaller office on cases he tackles with his ex-con brother Ray (Callum Keith Rennie) and street-wise assistant Tammy (Juliette Lewis, in the part that first gained Holly Hunter an Oscar nomination).
Thanks also to international sales, "The Firm" has a 22-episode guarantee, something very rare for a debuting series now. Grisham's "The Client" was turned into a 1995-96 show, and the author admits in a conference call that situation "certainly gave me great hesitation" about turning another of his books over for series purposes.
"It was such a dreadful show and painful experience, I didn't want to do it again for a long time; I forgot about (doing) television over the years, though I never really forgot about film. The films have become difficult to make for a number of reasons, and I didn't really think about 'The Firm' as a TV show until (fellow executive producer and former prosecutor) Lukas Reiter appeared on the scene and showed me a script. I thought it was very good, and I got excited about the idea of a weekly drama."
In becoming television's McDeere, "Firm" star Lucas considers Grisham the viewer he must satisfy most. "There is a reason John Grisham is the massive-selling author he is," the actor says on the show's principal set near Toronto, "which is that he seems to have a literary respect that comes out of his iconic men. They have their failings, but their integrity is unwavering.
"There's usually a great family sense to his stories as well, but consistently, the thing about his work is that it's thrilling. That's a difficult thing to drive forward in the world of procedural-based network television, and I pray that we do."
If there's any question Lucas is serious about his "Firm" work, consider the research he did for "The Lincoln Lawyer," last year's movie in which he starred with Matthew McConaughey (once a Grisham screen lawyer himself, in "A Time to Kill").
"I went to the courthouse that was right near my house and just watched cases," Lucas recalls, "and I really became fascinated, deeply moved a number of times. There's such an extraordinary sense of life and death, it's like the ultimate stage in so many ways.
"Amazingly enough, the day after I finished making 'The Lincoln Lawyer,' I had to report for jury duty. On the second day, I was chosen to be on an extremely serious case ... and I was part of a jury that put a man away for life. It was one of the most dramatic events I've ever seen or have been a part of. I saw how both the prosecutor and the defense attorney had tremendous passion for what they were fighting for, and I walked away with not only respect but a deep desire to learn more."
Like Lucas, fellow "Firm" co-star Lewis has been primarily movie-based, but she's pleased to be making her first big stab at series work since the late-1980s sitcom "I Married Dora." Calling her saucy new character "heavenly" in another on-set interview, she reasons, "The challenge for me always is making someone feel real, with all the layers and complexity that involves.
"Even though she's the most colorful character in the show, because she doesn't walk the straight and narrow as much as the others, I'm still rooting it in something honest. We always reference the source point of the book, but I don't have the Southern accent Holly Hunter had (in the film). I'm always trying to play a balance."
With "Calico Joe" and his third "Theodore Boone" novel slated to be published in the spring, Grisham is keeping his hand in "The Firm" to a modest degree. "I don't read every script, but I've read a lot of them," he reports. "My involvement so far has been to talk to Luke (Reiter) and pass along ideas as to where the series might go. After the initial script and the two or three that followed, I realized the series was in really good hands, and I still feel that way.
"They've offered to send me each episode, but I don't want to see them (in advance)," Grisham adds. "I want to sit back along with everybody else on Thursday nights and just watch the show."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun