2 veteran actors land Bruckheimer roles

August 08, 2005|By Hal Boedeker | Hal Boedeker,THE ORLANDO SENTINEL

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - In a medium obsessed with the young and the restless, two veteran actors are smashing the age barrier to star in fall series. Dennis Hopper, 69, plays a Pentagon official in NBC's E-Ring. Don Johnson, 55, portrays an over-the-hill lawyer in WB's Just Legal.

Both dramas come from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who has reshaped prime time with CSI, Without a Trace and Cold Case. He also has done quite a lot for middle-age actors who never will be confused with male models and boy toys.

"It's always who's right for the part," Bruckheimer says of the casting. "That's how the character was written, so you find the best actor you can. Billy Peter- sen (of CSI) is a great actor, Anthony LaPaglia (of Without a Trace) is a wonderful actor. Don Johnson, you can go on and on."

Bruckheimer is speaking to reporters at a packed NBC party. Stars promoting their series include Eric McCormack of Will & Grace and Mariska Hargitay of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Easy Rider legend Hopper, looking dapper in a navy jacket, says he's surprised to join the television world.

"I never expected it," he says. "It's a positive thing to do."

He started at Warner Bros. in 1955 and made guest appearances on TV Westerns Maverick and Cheyenne. But Hopper says he sabotaged the studio's plans to star him in a series. Back then, he didn't think an actor could jump from television to movies. But, he says, he was wrong and names Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and James Garner as examples.

"It's strange. I'm back at Warner Bros. doing this," he says of E-Ring, which debuts Sept. 21. "I don't feel like I'm doing it for the small screen."

Three nights earlier, Johnson is the most sought-after actor at a WB party. He seems weary after a long day of shooting on Just Legal, which premieres Sept. 19. But he delights in playing a character far different from his roles of ultra-cool Detective Sonny Crockett in Miami Vice and a wisecracking San Francisco police inspector in Nash Bridges.

"I am older, and I am more liberated as a person," Johnson says. "Baseball players and athletes - their careers are over at 35, 40. Some manage to eke it out beyond that. Actors are lucky. You can do your job until they're propping you up."

In their careers, Johnson and Hopper have become legends for their private lives. Johnson jokes about his rocky history with women.

"I can't speak about women at all," says Johnson, who has been married three times, twice to actress Melanie Griffith. "I have no standing in this area."

Hopper, sober for 22 years, has a pithy explanation for why he's still alive: "I believe in miracles."

The tabloid fodder often has obscured their acting and their commitment to it. Their younger co-stars have learned that lesson.

On Just Legal, Jay Baruchel plays a young lawyer who challenges the complacency of Johnson's character. But Baruchel, who portrayed a misfit boxer in Million Dollar Baby, says there's nothing complacent about Johnson as an actor. "Whenever I'm too meek to speak up about something, he'll always look out for me," Baruchel says. "We've become very fast friends. This is a very good man. ... I admire his work ethic."

On E-Ring, Law & Order alum Benjamin Bratt says he made the mistake of assuming co-star Hopper would be like his movie characters, which have ranged from rowdy to disturbing. Hopper is debonair and sophisticated, Bratt says.

"He maintains that intensity," Bratt says. "He remains a bit of an enigma. For me, that's fun to work with, because I never quite know what I'm going to get from him."

Casting Hopper as Colonel McNulty in E-Ring might seem a stretch to movie fans who remember this prolific actor for Blue Velvet, River's Edge and Hoosiers.

"It's such a quirky character," Bruckheimer says. "It's based on a combination of a number of generals in the Pentagon. One of them was selling time shares. It felt like Dennis Hopper."

Hopper speaks delightedly about his colorful role.

"He'll be doing a football pool on one hand and selling a condo on another and running a top-secret op all at the same time, playing his country music loud," the actor says. "He's just a character. But he's also a serious guy. He also knows how the Pentagon works."

The Pentagon backdrop is another incentive for news-junkie Hopper, who watches CNN and Fox News Channel incessantly.

"The reality of things going on around me is more interesting than the fantasies of the world I work in," he says. "I want to know what's going on."

On Just Legal, Johnson plays Grant Cooper, a lawyer battered by guilt, alcoholism and failure.

Johnson describes the character as funny, smart and someone with a real history. He also savors Bruckheimer's "Midas touch" in producing.

Bruckheimer is thrilled to have him. "He's a wonderful actor," the producer says. "In television, the audience loves him. He's perfect for the character."

Johnson sees Just Legal as far less of a grind than Miami Vice 20 years ago.

"I've learned the format," Johnson says. "I let the kid do the heavy lifting."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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