The script offered only five words of instruction: "Brenda looks in desk drawer."
But actress Kyra Sedgwick, star of TNT's hit drama The Closer, transforms the mundane direction into a scene fraught with human complexities, frailties and obsessions. For two long minutes, her character, Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, first steals quick glances, then gazes longingly at the drawer.
Finally, Johnson, a veteran detective with an uncanny ability to elicit confessions from the most hardened criminals, yanks open the drawer and lunges at a vending-machine snack cake that's lying inside it. With abandon, she rips through the cellophane and into the sugar-laced confection with one reckless bite. The relief in her body can be felt right through the screen.
Of such moments are television's greatest detectives made, and this summer many of the best of the breed will be on display. From Sedgwick's return tomorrow night in The Closer, to the arrival July 30 of Kevin Whately in PBS' Inspector Lewis (a highly anticipated sequel to the long-running Inspector Morse), prime time will sparkle with engagingly offbeat sleuths and ever-so-clever - but often emotionally-maimed - crime solvers. (Think Tony Shalhoub's Monk, which returns July 7 on cable channel USA.)
In the snack-cake scene, Sedgwick allows viewers to know that Johnson, though a tough police professional, also is vulnerable - and possesses myriad tics and neuroses. Her performance offers a glimpse into what makes certain sleuths stand out from the pack. Though television is called the producer's medium, when it comes to the most popular and enduring detectives, the actors often are the keys to a character's success. From Peter Falk's Columbo and Angela Lansbury's Murder She Wrote,
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to David Suchet's Poirot and Helen Mirren's Prime Suspect (which ends its celebrated 14-year-run in November on PBS), the stars ultimately shape the evolution of their characters.
It is no accident that in each of the series listed above, the lead actors and actresses also became producers - with Falk and Lansbury taking complete control and ultimately jettisoning the writers who created Lt. Columbo and Jessica Fletcher.
"When you have a creative actress like Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, or Jeremy Brett in Sherlock Holmes, or John Thaw in Morse, or Kevin Whately in Inspector Lewis, they find the character in the beginning and then they take the things that they like and just keep going deeper and deeper with them," says Rebecca Eaton, who as executive producer of PBS' Mystery! and Masterpiece Theatre is responsible for bringing dozens of celebrated sleuths to American TV.
"And those traits, tendencies, characteristics or, in some cases, idiosyncrasies become the very things that we love to watch."
A human moment
Eaton's point about the actor or actress as auteur is underscored by a scene from Prime Suspect 6, the most recently aired installment of the ground-breaking drama featuring Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. The moment features a weary and irritable Tennison arriving home late at night and trying to turn on her TV.
"She's in her own house, by herself and she can't find the remote - which was not in the script," Eaton says. "It was completely Helen making it up, because in looking for the remote, you can just see the chaos of Jane's personal life - and her frustration with herself, and her anger just below the surface. You see all kinds of things, plus it's a very, very human moment - and it was all Helen creating on the spot."
While screenwriter Lynda La Plante invented the Tennison character that made its debut in 1992 on PBS, Mirren also has taken an active role behind the cameras in shaping her evolution.
"Helen's now one of the producers and she has final say over the script and she's very involved in the creation of the show," says Eaton, who is also an executive producer of the series.
"Jane Tennison wasn't written for Helen, she was cast. But Helen quickly laid the blueprint for what this character would become over the years."
'Marriage of creation'
Sedgwick's Brenda Johnson, who became the hottest new character on cable TV last summer, has been described as the American version of Jane Tennison.
Both characters were brought in as commanding officers of big city homicide squads consisting mostly of men, several of whom were not happy to be working for a hard-driving female supervisor. Both are obsessive, quirky and highly competent on the job, with Johnson known as "The Closer" for her uncanny ability to go one on one with suspects in the interrogation room and invariably get them to confess. Like Tennison's, her personal life leaves a lot to be desired.
Sedgwick does not yet have the executive producer kind of clout that Mirren has accrued, but she is playing a similarly active role in determining what her character will become.
Labeling her relationship with the writers and producers a "real marriage of creation," Sedgwick says her character's "food challenges, issues, whatever you want to call them" were the invention of writer/producer James Duff. "But it was also something I brought a lot of layers to and something I wanted to make sure we stayed honest about, because it's such a big issue for Brenda and it's a such big issue in America."
Sedgwick went beyond the script in bringing "a lot of idiosyncrasies" to the role, she says. "Brenda's (oversized) handbag, her constantly looking for stuff in her bag, her distraction but yet her razor-like vision when it comes to the job - that was all something that I think I implemented. I like to work with props. I like to use costumes. I very much had a sense of the way she would dress. That is very much mine."
Johnson's fashion sense is one of the character's most defining and endearing characteristics. "I would describe her style as 'Atlanta-J.C. Penney-Sears-Macy's.' She's very much of the place from whence she came, and she's not going to try and fit into the L.A. world," Sedgwick says referring to Johnson's history of having come to the LAPD from Atlanta and never having been out of the South before.
"She has a downright terrible fashion sense, and we often mix things up in a fun way to underscore the fact that she's off - she's a little off - she's kind of a 14-year-old when it comes to relationships and all of that. And I don't want her to assimilate that way. I want her to always stay a little on the outside - a fish out of water. She's not going to wear black suits like everybody else in L.A."
As for Johnson's drawn-out struggles with snack food: "I think that is the kind of thing I do best as an actress - sort of make private moments real and full and have lots of layers. The writers know I like to do that, and so, they let me run with lines like, 'Brenda looks in drawer.' "
Value of vulnerability
Even some of the most hands-on producers acknowledge the actor's potential role in determining the great TV detectives.
Ted Childs' 25-year tenure in British detective drama includes being the executive producer for both Cadfael, an award-winning PBS mystery series starring Derek Jacobi as a crime-solving medieval monk, and the beloved Inspector Morse, which ended its celebrated run in 2001, shortly before its star and executive producer Thaw died of cancer at age 60.
"I like to say, 'If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage,'" Childs says.
"But when it came to Morse, the thing that John was able to bring to the character through his performance was vulnerability - and that was so important to the success of the show."
Childs describes the original Morse character in the novels by Colin Dexter, on which the series was based, as a "rather cold, aloof and arrogant character - an effete who doesn't suffer fools gladly."
That unpleasant edge initially concerned the producer because Morse as a television character would need to find mainstream acceptance on British and American TV. But that's "where John's performance took over," Childs says.
"Despite this apparent impatience, surliness and aggression, because Morse was depicted by John as being so vulnerable, you still wanted the guy to win. John portrayed Morse as someone desperately in need of support and companionship, even though on the surface the character was very self-contained and aloof."
The result of that tension: a complex and unforgettable character who graced the screen in 64 episodes of Inspector Morse - the longest run of any series in the 26-year history of the PBS Mystery! franchise.
Now Childs has helped craft another richly textured series. Titled Inspector Lewis, the new program centers upon Morse's former sergeant Robbie Lewis (Whately) as he returns to Thames Valley older, wiser, widowed and bloodied by life.
"We gave him a bit of emotional damage. The world's moved on while he was away after the death of Morse and his wife. We were acutely aware that if we didn't get it right we could wind up trying to do Hamlet without the Prince."
The two-hour pilot will air July 30, with three more installments of Inspector Lewis scheduled to air next year on PBS. "Kevin knows this character better than anyone, and he's been totally involved in shaping this version of Lewis - giving us a sense of what's happened since he's been away and how life has changed him."
There is at least one notable exception to the view that actors rule when it comes to TV detectives: Dick Wolf, the executive producer of the long-running Law & Order franchise on NBC.
"The play is the thing - the writing is what matters most - and every actor who comes to the show knows that," Wolf said in a 2003 Sun profile.
That translates onscreen to viewers being given virtually no details about the detectives' private lives - nor the actors any leeway in determining their futures. The policy is part of a business strategy honed by Wolf to make actors interchangeable and keep salaries firmly under control.
While Wolf has proven decisively that his formula can be used to make quality crime drama, it has failed to deliver any great TV detectives like Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) on ABC's NYPD Blue or Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) on NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street.
Outstanding actors like George Dzunda and Chris Noth have played detectives on Law & Order, but who can even remember the characters' names?
The executive producer of Homicide, Tom Fontana, embraced the Wolf mantra - especially when Braugher was preparing to leave the series in 1998. But Homicide was never the same without the intensity Braugher was able to give his character. The show lasted only one season after Pembleton left the Baltimore station house.
Actors Michael Chiklis, who won an Emmy for his depiction of Vic Mackey on FX's The Shield, and Shalhoub, who won two Emmys for his portrayal of Adrian Monk on Monk, further exemplify how successful stars can be when granted executive producer status - and the power to decide their characters' fates.
"Monk is probably quirkier than any detective in the history of television, and the idea of Monk being done by anybody but Tony is just impossible to conceive," says Randy Zisk, one of four executive producers of Monk including Shalhoub.
"Tony is totally involved in every aspect of the character and the show - he's involved in casting, in scripts, in editing, everything. And it just makes perfect sense, because he is the one person most representative of the show. When people think of Monk, they think of him. Monk is Tony, and Tony is Monk. Who knows better what's best for the character and the show?"