Filming of pilot resurrects Hollywood on the Patapsco

Television: `The Contender,' a potential UPN series, explores Baltimore's different worlds.

February 26, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Four full blocks of long, white tractor-trailer trucks. Police standing guard on each corner. Cameras, lighting rigs, high-powered generators, racks of clothing, and an army of people in baseball caps, khakis, cutoffs and blue jeans.

That was the scene yesterday along Charles Street between Overhill and Whitfield in Guilford, and it could mean only one thing: Hollywood is back in town, and Baltimore is a contender again in the world of prime-time network television.

Talk about timing. "Homicide: Life on the Street" breathed its last on Feb. 13 with a TV movie on NBC.

One day later, Emmy Award-winning writer-producers Hugh Wilson and Tim Reid started filming here on a one-hour pilot for a possible series on the UPN (United Paramount Network) next fall.

The series, tentatively titled "The Contender," tells the story of a Roman Catholic prep school senior from Guilford, the son of a wealthy contractor, who turns down a chance to attend Duke University to follow his dream of a professional boxing career.

The one-hour pilot takes 19-year-old Guy McCormack Jr. (played by Chris McKenna of the soap opera "One Life to Live") from his last fight in an undefeated prep school career to his first amateur fight under the direction of a cranky, old-time manager who has seen it all and thinks the kid can be a contender.

The 56-year-old Wilson, who created the series and is directing the pilot, has pretty much done it all in Hollywood -- from creating a hit series in "WKRP in Cincinnati" (1978-1982) to directing the feature film, "Guarding Tess" (1994) with Shirley MacLaine. His first Emmy came as a writer on "Frank's Place" (1987-1988), which starred Reid.

He is not a guy given to hype. On the contrary, three months ago when he was writing the pilot, he sounded in a phone interview from his home in Virginia like someone who doubted if it would ever get made, let alone become a network series. But on the set this week, he seemed genuinely excited about the prospects of "The Contender."

"I have to admit, I'm beginning to go from `We'll see' to `Oh, boy,' " he said during lunch Wednesday in his trailer.

"I'm starting to feel like I know these characters and care about where they are headed. The world we're trying to create here feels like it's starting to take shape," he added.

The world stretches from upscale Guilford and the magnificent gray and white house at One Whitfield Road, which serves as the McCormack home, to the subsidized housing at 127 S. Exeter Street where Guy's chief rival in the ring, Quinzell Neal (Davis Henry), lives.

The world of "The Contender" also includes the Mack Lewis Gym, at 1000 N. Broadway, where Guy goes to train once he turns his back on college and starts his journey into the world of professional boxing.

The big fight in the pilot was filmed at the I Can Men's Shelter, 2215 Greenmount, which provides meals and beds for 120 homeless men daily under the direction of the Rev. Lonnie Davis Sr. The Rev. Davis' son, Lonnie Jr., played McCormack's opponent in the fight scene, which was taped Wednesday with more than 100 extras cheering every punch.

Reid said viewers will see both upscale and downscale Baltimore. The goal is to present as realistic a picture as TV drama can of the milieu "that Guy moves through on his journey," Reid said.

"This is not going to be like `Seinfeld' or `Friends' where you're supposed to be in New York, but you don't see one person of color anywhere in their world," said Reid, who has a well-deserved reputation for being socially responsible as both an actor and a producer.

Yesterday, in the upscale milieu at One Whitfield Road, they were filming scenes built on a growing tension between Guy and his demanding father, Guy McCormack, Sr., who lives to see his son enter Duke.

Just before breaking for a late lunch at 2, the cast and crew wrapped a kitchen scene in which Guy Sr. finds out his son got early acceptance at Duke and breaks out the champagne.

Mary Kane, the line producer who is charged with keeping the troupe of actors and technicians on schedule, said, "So far, so good. We've had some great weather this week, which hasn't hurt."

Kane said the 12-day shoot should be finished by next Wednesday with one more day of filming on Whitfield and two at a North Baltimore prep school scheduled next week.

And then after editing and post-production, the wait begins to see if UPN will order 13 episodes when it announces its fall schedule in May. Like "Homicide," the series would be a weekly, one-hour drama, which could mean as much as $1 million per episode coming into the local economy.

"Who knows?" Wilson said. "All I can tell you is that so far, it feels pretty good. I think we've got a good shot. I'll tell you this, if we do get picked up, we plan on coming back to Baltimore to make the series. And I think it would be great to be here for a nice, long run."

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