[Update: Series ratings remained strong in week 2, and posted viewer gains for week 3, the latest episode of the show, which was basic cable's No. 1 program Monday, averaging more than 5.7 million viewers.]
Regardless of the response to Roma Downey’s and Mark Burnett’s 10-hour History Channel treatment of the Bible when it premieres next March, the project already stacks up as one of the most profound experiences of the couple’s life. The actress immortalized by “Touched By An Angel” tells us they began filming in Morocco in February “and are just back. We produced it together. The opportunity for us to work together as husband and wife has been extraordinary.
“I know it’s epic, and I think it will be the must-watch event of the spring,” she adds. “You’ll see the Red Sea parted with the latest special effects that are available. We have Hans Zimmer creating the score…We have Noah, we have Abraham, we have Moses. We have Jesus walking on water. We have scenes coming to life in the extraordinary ways. Yes, it’s going to be a faith journey, but it’s also going to be really exciting and dynamic television.”
In the course of the production, exec producers Roma and Mark and company were out in heat and sand and “all of that. The climate was extreme. When we started it was cold, then it was boiling — in excess of 110 degrees. We were caught in dust storms. And of course, during the filming, Mark was back here a lot because he as a few other things going on,” she says of the husband she clearly adores, whose many productions include “Survivor,” “Stars Earn Stripes,” “The Apprentice” and “The Voice.”
Roma had other things going on as well — including a role in the Bible series. “I am on camera as Mary, the mother of Jesus. We have a young actress of course playing Mary during the nativity and the early years of Jesus’ life, and 30 years go by. An early version of the script referred to that as Young Mary and Old Mary and when I stepped into the role, I said, ‘You know, could we have Young Mary and Mother Mary?’” She laughs. “Oh, vanity. It was more than I could deal with.”
She and Mark are well aware they’re treading on controversial ground, no matter how their Bible depiction is done. “But you have to step out there,” she says. “We are stepping out together and I’m sure people will hurl what they want to hurl. But it is being made with full hearts. We’ve had scholars and theologians help. We’re not pretending to be biblical experts. We brought experts in once the scripts were created to take a look at the scripts to make sure we were accurate and true to the Bible, but obviously we’re making a movie, and so we breathed creative expansion into that.”
She’s hoping the TV event will attract the faithful and the Bible illiterate alike. “I think it’s going to bring the Bible alive in new and exciting ways to a lot of people. I think it’s really going to touch another generation,” says the actress. Covering Genesis through Revelation, the series is scheduled to conclude on Easter Sunday next year.
AND: Roma just smiles and closes her eyes when we ask about the chances for a “Touched By An Angel” reunion movie. It’s not on her radar, to say the least. But she does continue her close friendship with fellow “Angel” angel Della Reese. In fact, “She was just here at our home yesterday for lunch,” reports Roma, who lives in a spectacular seaside mansion in Malibu with Mark and their family. The posh digs are a long way, both literally and figuratively, from Mark’s and Roma’s similarly humble backgrounds — in London and Derry, Northern Ireland, respectively.
The executive producer of the “Little Angels” animated children’s video series notes, “Clearly, there’s a theme going on in my life. I don’t have to work. I’m very blessed , very fortunate. So my passion, my purpose is to be involved with things that uplift and open people’s hearts and raise their consciousness.”
Paulo Costanzo — Evan Lawson to “Royal Pains” fans — cuts his teeth as a TV director with tomorrow night’s (8/29) episode, “Dancing With the Devil.” The actor tells us he’s been wanting to direct since he was a 15-year-old student at a school for the arts and got an assignment to make his own VHS movie. When he did, he recalls, he knew “This is what I want to do.”
So, what was the movie?
“It was called ‘The Outcast,’ about this dirty kid who was socially phobic. Bullies beat up on him. The girl he liked ignored him. And then he found these magical glasses that made him cool.”
Costanzo was inspired by his own plight. “I was very, debilitatingly shy in high school. Maybe making the movie was the glasses, for me. I found a voice.”
The handsome Canadian took a detour into acting as it turned out, of course, and began to amass his long list of credits including the big screen “Road Trip” and “50 Cent: Bulletproof” and small screen “Joey” as Matt LeBlanc’s nephew.
Now that he’s helmed an episode of his show, he is anxious to do more directing — despite a few extra challenges his first time around. There was an unforeseen rain storm that disrupted shooting, a fire alarm going off amidst filming of a big dance club sequence, necessitating clearing of 150 extras from the building. And then there was the Brinks truck that came to “unload this ATM, right in out shot. The guards cleared everyone away. They were yelling, ‘Get out of the way, NOW!’ And then they went as slow as possible. If I had just been acting, it would have been funny,” Costanzo says, “but it’s different when you’re the one trying to keep everything on schedule.”
Richard Benjamin admits he was surprised by the news that Warner Archive Collection was bringing out a special edition DVD of his 1972 “Portnoy’s Complaint.” From the controversial Philip Roth novel, the film about a young Jewish bachelor/mama’s boy who confesses his lustful ways to his psychoanalyst was a stunner in its time. Among many other things, it shattered the taboo against mentioning masturbation.
Edward Asner, in his second week of rehearsals for Broadway’s forthcoming Grace with Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon and Kate Arrington, doesn’t doubt that the Craig Wright play will elicit some controversy. “I think there will be some people who hate it. We deal with the God question quite a bit. We question God within the play, but,” he adds, “I think that godly people will be able to find that it is a godly presentation. I think it will create a lot of different discussions.”
Asner’s character is an exterminator who comes to rid two apartments of vermin. One apartment belongs to a born-again Christian couple, the other to a NASA scientist scarred by a devastating automobile accident in which his girlfriend died. “It’s serio-comedic – more serio than comedic, but the laughs are there,” says Asner, who points out that the play won awards during its L.A. run. “I for one deny the existence of God, but I change my mind later in the show. Not that I accept God, but that there is something out there. The born-again couple have difficulty retaining the intensity of their faith, and the NASA scientist, who is bitter and ironic, is neither for nor against, by falling in love within the piece, I think he would agree that there is something out there, that is designed to take away our bitterness and make more acceptance of life.”
Grace starts previews mid-September with an October 4th opening planned. We caught up with Ed while he was enjoying a celebratory post-rehearsal Jameson’s with Arrington and Wright. When we note that the rigors of doing a Broadway show might have been too much for the 82-year-old seven-time Emmy winner back in 2010, before his hip replacement surgery, he replies that there might be some doctors who say he couldn’t do it now. “But they’re full of crap. I feel fine. I work out every day…push-ups, sit-ups, elliptical or track. And I walk. And I look for sex wherever I go,” he adds mischievously. “It’s harder to find these days, though.”
Asner’s in the midst of a work blitz that also includes an upcoming episode of “Hawaii 5-O,” the independent film “Let Go,” and the 2013 Hallmark Channel original movie “Two In” with Alison Sweeney. “I finish this run at the end of January, and at the end of January I will resume touring with my one-man FDR show.” So he has to stay in shape.
“As long as I get work, I’ve got to be able to fulfill it.”
Rising actress and funny lady Kali Hawk (“Couples Retreat,” “Get Him to the Greek,” “Bridesmaids”) is in the “Let Go” comedy with Edward Asner and David Denman, in addition to Tyler Perry’s upcoming “We The Peeples,” her recurring role on “The New Girl” — and the reboot of “In Living Color” that’s up in the air. Fox chieftain Kevin Reilly indicated last month that, taking nothing away from exec producer Keenan Ivory Wayans, he wasn’t wowed, and didn’t know when – or if – the new show would air.
“People are salivating for any news on that show,” notes Hawk, who says there isn’t much she can say about it. “It’s an all-new cast, so it’s a whole new show – with all the elements that made it great the first time around. I think the show became known for its unbridled style of sketch. They felt no need to be overly PC. Remember Homey the Clown? Well, this is every bit as unbridled – 25 years later.”
Hawk, who plays Shelby, girlfriend of Winston (Lamorne Morris) on the Zooey Deschanel “New Girl,” is also getting quite a few queries about her character’s romantic future. “But I never know anything in advance. In my perfect world, whatever happens with Winston and Shelby will be as unconventional as they are.”
She does know, “It’s going to be one of the coolest autumns I’ve ever had.”
“I’ve got two guys so far, but I’m ready for three or four, why not?” asks the actress, dead pan. “I’m a busy woman. I actually got a Twitter question today: ‘You seem to have the most active sex life of anyone on the show.’ That’s pretty damn funny. I love it!”
But seriously, Baranski is understandably proud of the multi-dimensional Diane, whose skills outside the bedroom are at least as formidable as therein. “What I really love? She’s a powerful, well-educated woman, very well-spoken, and she can just go toe to toe with the guys. Women love that, they love to see it. There are so many powerful women in the world now, running companies, running countries, running the international monetary fund. They know how to talk to guys. They don’t, you know, bend and try to be all cute to try to deal with the guys. It’s a new world, and I love that Diane is totally comfortable with men. She actually likes men. You get the feeling, this is a woman who can sit down and drink scotch with the guys, and talk sports.”
Baranski herself loves to talk sports — she can keep up with any guy on the crew, she says. And nowadays, with her showcase role as the head of Julianna Margulies’ firm on the CBS series, Baranski loves to talk law.
“Why do lawyers get such a bad rap? It’s really hard,” observes the two-time Tony-winning actress. “I have a daughter in law school. I admire people who get through law school. It is really difficult. I often get the script and I think, ‘This is like speaking Arabic. What is this?’ So I learn more and more about the law and about how things work, and I’m happy for that because that’s really fun — when you have a job that actually educates you.”
In fact, Baranski is so convincing, “I’ve had people, heads of law firms, tell me, will you come and talk to my female lawyers about how to do it, because people on juries, they watch television, and they think lawyers should be like Diane Lockhart.”
According to Baranski, when Season 4 kicks off, we’ll find her law firm, Lockhart Gardner, in crisis mode. “We’re in a bad way, so we’re going to have to work our way back up or be liquidated. There’s a lot of layoffs. You know the show is good about reflecting what’s going on in America. We’re still in a recession, and frankly Lockhart Gardner hasn’t been able to bounce back the way they thought it would.” As they say, stay tuned.
Interesting, the jockeying for position among singing competition shows before the kickoff of the 2012-2013 season. While Simon Cowell has been teasing his new “X Factor” judges by letting the world know Britney Spears has turned out to be Quite Mean, NBC’s “The Voice” team made a point of stressing that they have no desire to be mean — or negative at all.
“We’re not interested in being on a show where we rip people. That was a common theme,” said Adam Levine, who turned out to talk to press about the show at producer Mark Burnett’s posh Malibu home the other day, along with his fellow “The Voice” music superstar coaches — Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green and Blake Shelton, as well as host Carson Daly.
“And it proved something. The blind auditions replaced the need to find terrible singers and rip them,” added Burnett, referring to the early audition rounds full of non-talents and scathing critiques so familiar to “American Idol” audiences.
“I really have been averse to it,” Levine went on. “I personally have never experienced a positive feeling — I don’t like to see that. It looks like someone getting bullied and it makes me sad, it really does. I don’t like to watch.”
His fellow coaches – remember, on “The Voice,” they’re more into coaching than judging –agreed.
Aguilera even had kind words for Britney, who, of course, she’s been getting sized up against since their “Mickey Mouse Club” days together.
“I know she’s a pro and she’s going to give, I think, great advice,” said the pop star, resplendent with blond and lavender hair for the panel. “I don’t know the format of the other shows. I just know the format of the show I’m on. But I welcome these very talented women. Especially in my genre of pop, the media gets in there to pit us against one another and women against women, this and that, and you know, I’m just not down for that at this point in my life. I have no patience for it, so I’m like, come on, the more the merrier. She’ll have fun with it.”
Considering the fact that this year, “X Factor” will be going toe to toe with “The Voice” – “The Voice” launches Sept. 10 and “X Factor” two days later — Aguilera is likely going to find comparisons impossible to avoid. (“American Idol” returns mid-season.)
The wide-ranging talk, accompanied by the sounds of surf and sea birds near the beachside grounds of Burnett’s home, also covered the topic of celebrity mentors.
Green talked about reaching out to artists with whom he has personal relationships and friendships, like Prince and Rob Thomas, to work with his up-and-comers. Levine has Mary J. Blige. Aguilera has Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong.
Armstrong wasn’t a friend, she said, when she went after him to be a mentor for her team. But they did have mutual respect. With his “punk, badass” persona, “He brings a whole different energy and different advice than I would give from a female pop star perspective. He comes from a completely different world and kind of puts a whole new spin on everything,” she observed.
Blake Shelton’s bringing in Michael Buble. Their paths have converged a surprising number of times, considering they, too, are from different musical worlds. Shelton noted that he had a country hit with a Buble song, then they worked together on a David Foster special, and a Shelton Christmas album. “We’ve become friends – as close friends as you can be when he lives in Vancouver, and I live in Oklahoma,” Shelton said. When it came time to adding a new mentor for “The Voice,” “I thought, ‘This is a no-brainer.”
The joking, teasing, competitive camaraderie between the coaches that is one of “The Voice’s” greatest assets was also on display. Talking about their crammed schedules, Burnett noted that Shelton had been juggling tour dates, and in fact had just made a whirlwind trip back and forth to Washington.
“Is that what Blake told you? You guys are so gullible. Tour!” cracked Levine – who was, himself, leaving for South America tour dates the next morning. The show’s social media maven, Christina Milian, noted that the four singers can do dead-on imitations of one another.
Daly noted that we’ll see more of Green, Aguilera, Levine and Shelton performing this coming season, “because that’s what they do.”
But what about “The Voice” come spring? Burnett admits that the “matrix of tour dates of these artists is a producer’s nightmare” in terms of scheduling. “We’re all talking, all the time.”
“I want to do it,” said Green.
“We all want this to work,” said Levine.
But there is a chance that the current foursome might help bring in substitutes for themselves to fill in. “The good news is we’re all friends; we’re all openly talking about it all the time,” said Burnett, who stressed that he and his team knew what they were signing up for when they became involved with touring musical stars at the top of their game. “This is really like family.”
Why are so many people in Canada angry at Bob Barker? The erstwhile “Price is Right” host hung up his game show microphone five years ago — and turned, not to a life of leisure, but a life of activism. Most recently, that’s taken the 88-year-old warrior north of the border to battle on behalf of elephants at the Toronto Zoo, and to castigate the Calgary Stampede on local radio and TV shows and in print.
“You know, every national animal protection organization is opposed to rodeos of any type. And the Calgary Stampede is just about the most despised rodeo of them all,” he informs. “That and Cheyenne rodeo.”
“Because of the treatment of the animals and the deaths they’ve caused,” Barker claims. “The Calgary Stampede has just celebrated its 100th anniversary, and during that 100 years, they have killed I don’t know how many animals total….They do terrible things to the horses. They use bucking straps for the bucking broncs. It’s a strap that is cinched around the groin area, and you can only imagine how painful that is. They use what is called ‘hot shots,’ electric shock devices. They’re already illegal in many countries, but they use them.”
As far as the zoo elephants, Barker is among those who maintain that the animals are in declining health and need to be moved to a reserve — and Toronto officials have agreed, he says, but zoo administrators have been blocking the move.
Barker’s agenda of late has also included narrating presentations for his fellow animal protectionists at Mercy for Animals, an organization dedicated to stopping factory farming. He’s helped lobby against use of the hated so-called “gestation crates” for pigs that don’t allow the animals to lie down or turn. In fact, he says that K-Mart and Costco both recently quit buying pork from a major Minnesota producer that utilized those crates, because of Mercy for Animals bringing the practice to their attention.
Barker’s activities are too numerous to list here, but they also include recently funding a habitat for lab chimps that had been used in HIV/AIDS tests — and his setting up of endowments for the study of animal law at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Northwestern, Georgetown, Columbia, Duke and the University of Virginia, in addition to being named an Honorary Fellow at the Oxford University Centre for Animal Ethics.
“I put my time, my energy and my money into it,” says the daytime icon who put in 50 years on the air. “I can’t think of anything I could do that would be more important or helpful, or bring greater satisfaction to me.”
Barker works alongside long-time activist Nancy Burnet, who is the executive director of his foundation. When he’s not involved in work on behalf of animals, he’s often engaged in activities within his other philanthropic passion — aid for wounded veterans.