Prime suspect

What's so special about Anthony LaPaglia that Steven Bochco flew to him to get him to play the lead in the second series of 'Murder One'?
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The Independent Culture
On the Twentieth Century Fox lot in Los Angeles, the lobby of the Steven Bochco Building is crammed with little old ladies and fat men in beards, all waiting to audition for a couple of bit parts in Bochco's NYPD Blue. I am waiting to meet Bochco's latest leading man.

Most actors who crave a role in a Bochco TV show - and, given that his hits include both LA Law and Hill Street Blues, as well as NYPD Blue, that, in America, means most actors (full stop) - have to present their credentials at the Steven Bochco Building in person. But not Anthony LaPaglia. Bochco went to woo him. Yet, even when he was offered the role of successor to Daniel Benzali's bald bruiser of a defending attorney in the second series of the literally (at 23 episodes) long-running legal drama Murder One, LaPaglia played hard to get.

Not that he wasn't flattered to be offered the part, but he wasn't keen to leave New York, even for LA, and refused to sign the standard five- year contract. Eventually, though - after talking it through with his close friend Stanley Tucci, the weaselly Richard Cross from the first series of Murder One - he did agree to sign up for two years. So who is he, this 36-year-old actor who can afford to play so hard to get with one of the most powerful players in all American TV?

Dark and intense-looking, with eyes possibly a little too close together to make him a conventional hunk, LaPaglia was brought up in Australia, and only left for America in 1984 on realising, at the age of 24, that he wasn't going to make it as a professional soccer player. But he'd done a bit of acting part-time, and quickly made his mark on the New York stage and began to branch out into movies. "Those of us who make television series," Bochco has said, "have been chasing this guy for years. We all know how special he is."

It was the 1990 film Betsy's Wedding, in which LaPaglia played a mobster - and stood head and cashmere shoulders above everyone else in the cast - that really brought him to Bochco's attention. Yet it was to Alan Alda, who directed that movie, that Bochco had first turned when looking to replace the temperamental Daniel Benzali as Murder One's second-run lead. "We assumed," Bochco admits, "that, as in years past, Lapaglia wouldn't be interested. We decided to take another chance."

So what was it about LaPaglia that made him first choice? Not just the fact that he met Bochco's preference for avoiding familiar facess. LaPaglia, Bochco felt, would also bring a dimension or two to Murder One that Benzali lacked. Hair, for starters - plus the same kind of smouldering intensity that David Caruso, as saintly Detective John Kelly, brought to NYPD Blue.

Sure enough, when Murder One (Mark II) went out in the States, LaPaglia's powerful performance as uncompromising attorney James Wyler scored highly with the critics. Yet, despite the actor's undoubted charisma and sex appeal, Bochco's Midas touch and the glowing reviews, series two has bombed in America just as series one did.

Things may be different here. Series one, seen last year on BBC2, fared much better than it had done in the US. Indeed, Bochco, a true Anglophile, was delighted to learn of the brouhaha that erupted when the BBC foolishly postponed the final three episodes to make way for the Olympics, and no doubt he'll be poised to hear what happens when series two launches on BBC2 tonight.

Meanwhile, he and LaPaglia are nursing their wounded egos in the secure knowledge that, whatever the British response, there will be no third series of Murder One: the network has killed it off. Prime suspect remains the scheduling. Innocent bystanders might ascribe ABC's decision to place the first run of Murder One up against NBC's monster Thursday-night hit ER as an expression of confidence in both Bochco and his new series; it's surely not the network's fault if the goose finally fails to deliver the golden eggs. Conspiracy theorists, however (and, given the show's labyrinthine plot-lines, you pretty well have to be one to enjoy it), will note that ABC went on to schedule the second series against Seinfeld, a hit only marginally less magnetic than ER. Some have even suggested that ABC executives, peeved that Bochco was about to defect to the rival CBS, deliberately placed Murder One where it was least likely to succeed - although, at over $1.2 million an episode, would anybody really invest in such an expensive bag of sour grapes?

LaPaglia, when I am finally escorted through the crowd of little old ladies and fat bearded men to meet him, is philosophical about the show's failure in America. "The work is the work," he says. "Not getting good ratings should not, and does not, diminish my pride in the work. But, yes, it is disappointing to put the work in and find that it is not getting watched. The reviews we've got, you could not write them yourself. But we have not been taken care of by ABC. We put this dink of a show in their laps and they put us up against Seinfeld. And they are unable, or unwilling, to explain it."

Later, Bochco's wife Barbara Bosson (who plays district attorney Miriam Grasso in the series) tells me that LaPaglia, unused to the vagaries of network television, has in fact been thoroughly depressed by the show's dismal ratings. She's quick, though, to add that he was a sight easier to work with than the "impossible" Benzali, whose moodiness (more even than his baldness) effectively got him fired.

For LaPaglia, the decision to work in TV remains the right one, although, given the show's early demise, the length of his contract no longer matters. "Film roles are harder to get for actors whose faces are not known from television," he says. "So I finally thought, if I couldn't beat 'em, I would join 'em. And indeed, I am getting much better film scripts now."

Apart from anything else, Murder One has finally helped him to break through the ethnic casting barrier: as he says, "When your name ends in a vowel, you end up carrying a gun a lot." And indeed LaPaglia has played mobsters in at least three of his films. But, now that he has broken the stereotype, we may well expect to see him becoming a significant Hollywood star, even though, he confesses, every artistic impulse is dragging him back to the New York stage.

"It's the only place where acting counts any more," he says, "where you can't fake it. I think that the cult of celebrity has reduced the craft of acting. Supermodels, body-builders, actors - we're all just classified as entertainers." If that's so, then at least Murder One - and its electrifying performance from Anthony LaPaglia - is a very superior brand of entertainment.

'Murder One': BBC2 9pm tonight