Posted on Mon, Aug. 12, 2002
Philadelphia Daily News
RIDE AT HOME
David Morse took long road back to TV, Philly
THERE AREN'T many 6-foot-4 actors who could hide in plain sight, but David Morse seems to have the knack.
Since the mid-'90s, when Morse and his wife, Susan, a Philadelphia native, moved here with their children after the Northridge, Calif., quake destroyed their Sherman Oaks home, the former St. Elsewhere star has managed to maintain a low profile in Philadelphia, even as moviegoers encountered his face at every turn.
He's been living, by most accounts, a fairly typical father-of-three life when he's not away shooting movies. But just tell that to the two women who a few years ago were walking up a busy street not far from the Morses' home - located in a neighborhood he always tells reporters he'd prefer not be identified.
"If David Morse lives around here, how come I've never seen him?" one demanded of the other.
Maybe he just didn't want to be seen.
In the months since CBS announced that Morse would star in its new fall drama Hack, the first such series ever to be shot in Philadelphia, the 48-year-old actor's been working at getting lost all over the city, preparing to play Mike Olshansky, a disgraced cop-turned-cabdriver.
"Because I shot in North Philadelphia [for Diary of a City Priest], I've spent time there," and "when I filmed The Negotiator, I went with the Philadelphia SWAT guys and went out with them to probably the worst areas of the city," he said.
"I've spent a lot of time downtown. But that was about it. And when I realized we were actually going to do this, I started driving, and just took off, and tried to go to every neighborhood that I could, learned the city the way a taxicab driver should," said the Massachusetts-born actor, who actually drove a cab for a while in Boston in his early days in theater there.
"I just went and got lost in as many places as I could. I think that's the best way to learn, to get lost and have to find your way out."
People who've worked with Morse over the years tend to talk about the strength of his character as much as the strength of his acting.
John C. McGinley, star of the TV show Scrubs who became friendly with Morse when they worked together on the movie The Rock, describes him as a "really gifted, giving, best-friend kind of guy...He has a stunning old soul about him that glows."
"He's a rare person in that he does not speak unless he has something to say, whereas the rest of us fill up the empty spaces with chatter," said Oz producer Tom Fontana, who worked with Morse on St. Elsewhere and once cast him as a guest star on Homicide: Life on the Streets.
Hack producer Nan Bernstein, who first worked with Morse on the pilot last spring, said, "He is just very kind. I think he's a very moral and kind person."
Morse tends to change the subject when such things are mentioned - he seemed, for instance, more interested in talking about what he thought of Fontana ("One of the great minds in television - television's lucky that they've got him") than in anything Fontana might have said about him.
But having worked over the years with some of the world's biggest stars - Tom Hanks, Jodie Foster and Russell Crowe, to name a few - he's clearly given some thought to the responsibilities of stardom.
"Stars, whether they like it or not, they really set the tone" of a project, he said.
"Tom Hanks is somebody who's obviously a great example of kindness and good will. Nobody can find fault with him, and for good reason: There's no fault to find. He's very considerate, very generous with the crew, and it makes a very big difference, and I admire that."
Without naming names, "I've been around other people who are abusive...It's like basketball players who say, 'I'm not a role model to kids. I'm a basketball player. Nobody pays me to be a role model.' Well, the truth is, whether they like it or not, they are a role model, and kids do look up to them, and it does have an effect."
We're not talking about any particular basketball player, are we?
"No, we're not," he said, smiling.
"I always felt that I didn't want to do a series again if I couldn't have some influence over the direction of the show, both...creatively and the environment it's done in," he said. "In a series, you have to assume it's going to go [for six years], and that's a long time to be with people."
If you really want to know how Hack got to be a show about a Philadelphia cabbie rather than the New York one creator David Koepp (Spider-Man, Panic Room) conceived, you'd have to go all the way back to The Green Mile.
It seems that CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, a former actor with a reputation for being hands-on in the casting of his shows, is a big fan of the Stephen King movie, in which Morse co-starred with Tom Hanks as a death row guard.
According to Hack executive producer Gavin Polone, Moonves had "watched The Green Mile many times and thought [Morse's] was the most compelling character."
So when the script first came to him, "David Morse was the first one" he mentioned, Polone said.
"We're like, 'Oh, David Morse is a really good actor.' And then we started checking him out, and he doesn't seem to want to do TV, [then] maybe he'll do TV, and then it became a little bit of a process because...he was polite all the time, but he never really intended on doing a television show."
As Morse tells it, he'd gotten a call that Moonves had asked to meet with him, "and that's not the kind of thing you take lightly, or even say no to. I was very happy to meet him, but I was not looking to do a series, and I'd been sent a lot of different series over the years. And I always read them, but there was never anything that struck me as, 'I've got to give up doing movies for this...'
"We actually had a very nice meeting [and] he kind of ended the meeting by saying would I at least stay open to the idea of doing a series. And I had kind of said that I would kind of think about New York, but if something were going to happen, it would be great if it were Philadelphia.
"And practically by the time I got home, there was a script waiting for me," he recalled. Reading it, he quickly realized New York wouldn't work:
"I thought, 'This guy's in every single scene. I'd done a play [How I Learned to Drive] in New York for six months. I saw my kids one night a week, on Monday night, and then I would be gone to New York. It was harder on them than my doing a movie. At least when you do a movie, you say goodbye once or twice maybe and everybody kind of gets used to it. You do a play and you're saying goodbye once a week, which really wears on everybody."
He never considered moving his family.
"No, [my children] have a real life. That would be very unfair to them. I'd be better off just staying with the movies. But I just told them I thought it was a good script, but" that he'd like them to think about doing it in Philadelphia. "And I think it was pretty clear that I wasn't going to do it if it wasn't."
Polone estimates it will cost Hack about $250,000 more per episode to film in Philadelphia than New York, mostly because the film community here isn't large enough to handle both movies and a network drama simultaneously.
And while Polone is enthusiastic about Philadelphia in other ways - he recently told a gathering of reporters from across the country that the city "has been fantastic about this show, more so than any other city in the United States where I've produced anything" - he knows who brought him here.
"If David Morse would go to Toronto, I could kick and scream all I wanted, but Paramount would say, 'Let's save half a million dollars and go to Toronto,' " he said flatly.
You can reach Ellen Gray by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, by fax at 215-854-5852 or by mail at the Philadelphia Daily News, Box 7788, Philadelphia, PA 19101.