Mike Olshansky in Hack

David Morse - Hack

Posted on Thu, Aug. 14, 2003

New track for 'Hack'

Fresh characters promise to brighten the feel of the CBS series that's once again blocking off Philly streets.

By David Hiltbrand
Inquirer Staff Writer

Star David Morse with newcomer Jacqueline Torres, who will be a lively presence as a friendly University City neighbor. Photographs by Jonathan Wilson.

It certainly looks like the location where they're shooting Hack .

The police have sealed off traffic. And production sentries wearing headsets are moving pedestrians to the opposite sidewalk, cautioning them to be silent.

In the middle of the block, ringed by a small army of sound, light and camera crew members, David Morse is filming a scene with a woman and a young man on the front porch of his character's house.

But wait. At the risk of sounding like the Talking Heads, this is not his wife, this is not his son, this is not his modest house.

Hack , the CBS series shot entirely in Philadelphia, is back. But when its second season begins on Sept. 27, you'll see a drama that has been dramatically altered.

Most important for those who dismissed the show as too grim, the mood and atmosphere of prime-time's most melancholy series have been markedly lightened.

"It was dark right from the pilot," executive producer Bob Singer acknowledges. "I don't think it's everybody's cup of tea, because it is adult, and it is dark. It will still be adult this year, but it won't be as dark."

Wholesale cast changes have also been made. The show still revolves around Morse as crusading cabbie Mike Olshansky, and Andre Braugher as Marcellus Washington, his former partner on the Philadelphia police force.

But on this muggy August afternoon, they're shooting the third episode, and there have been no appearances by Donna Murphy, who played Olshansky's long-suffering ex-wife; Bebe Neuwirth, who played his long-suffering girlfriend; or George Dzundza, who played his long-suffering priest buddy.

The plots so far have revolved around cast additions Jacqueline Torres, in the role of Olshansky's 30ish neighbor in his new University City twin; and Matt Czuchry, a troubled street punk who is crashing with him.

Neither of these changes - to the cast or the tone - sits well with the series' star. Chilling in his air-conditioned trailer between takes, Morse says, "Obviously George [Dzundza] not being here is a huge difference as far as I'm concerned. He's a wonderful actor and a wonderful man, and I miss him."

"In terms of the storytelling, when we started I was interested in a more complicated show. I think this year there's an effort to simplify it. We'll see what happens," he says, in a voice that doesn't exactly ring with optimism.

Of course, Morse is not your typical TV star. When you meet them, most TV actors are smaller than they look on screen, except for their heads, which tend to be enormous. Morse is the exact opposite.

But he is the entire reason Hack is shot here. Not wanting to disrupt his family, the former St. Elsewhere star agreed to return to prime time only if the new series was produced in his adopted city.

And he is willing to make compromises to keep Hack on the air. CBS chief "Leslie [Moonves] is famous for saying he wants me to smile more," Morse says. "I'm kind of making these grimaces that could pass as a smile."

The series was anything but a lock to return for a second season. "I was getting the feeling we would not be coming back," Morse says. "We were an 11th-hour pickup," acknowledges Singer.

Airing Friday nights at 9, Hack started with strong ratings last fall, then took a nosedive. The show ended up ranked 94th among all prime-time series, a neighborhood that usually means cancellation.

Morse blames the decline on repeated preemptions during the NCAA basketball tournament. Singer believes the audience turned away when CBS switched the show's 8 p.m. lead-in from 48 Hours to Star Search .

This year the network has rescheduled the series to Saturday nights at 9, between 48 Hours Investigates and The District . Even though Hack will now be competing for the week's smallest TV audience, Singer describes the move as "a confidence boost. ... The Saturday lineup is more compatible to the show."

With Morse, Braugher and Dzundza as the leads, the show presented a starting lineup of middle-aged males. The casting changes were intended to address that.

"It's an attempt to bring two young actors into the mix, to widen the appeal," producer Nan Bernstein says. "The three guys were all peers. We needed to spread the demographic."

Dzundza's Father Grizz has been dispatched to a new parish. Hack's wife, Heather, got remarried in the first season's last episode and has traded up to Gladwyne. His son, Mike Jr., will still hang out with his pops.

Torres is confident that she and Czuchry can expand the audience while livening things up. Their characters "bring in a totally different dynamic from last year's episodes," she says.

"They inject a new energy into everything. David's character has been kind of dark and reserved without a lot going on in his personal life. These two characters will change that."

It seems inevitable that Torres - as a former nun who is now a salsa-loving parole officer and community activist - will become a romantic interest for the sad-sack cabbie.

If Hack can give Olshansky a makeover, maybe it can make his environs look more inviting as well. Most episodes last year made our fair boulevards look like the Rue Morgue.

"The feedback we got from Philadelphians was that it was overly dark," says Meryl Levitz, president of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. "They wish it showed the city they know, the city they live in, the city they ride cabs in."

The series had been shot predominantly on location, from Old City to the Frankford El. But with more permanent soundstages at their disposal, "this year we're attempting to be inside more," Bernstein says. She prefers to keep the exact location of Hack's new home a secret, "to keep away looky-loos."

Gaper traffic is already a constant when Hack sets up its light scaffoldings on a street.

"It amazes me that people come out and kind of line the streets for 10 to 12 hours a day," Torres says, " 'cause I think this is as exciting as watching paint dry - the process. There's so much downtime."

Not everyone is transfixed by the sudden appearance of cameras and famous actors in their midst. Robert Nelson, who lives two blocks away in the West Philly neighborhood, glides up on his bicycle.

"My friend lives in that house," the 13-year-old says, gesturing at half of the twin where Torres' Liz Garza lives. "I was coming over to see him."

Informed that he can't go check on his friend, Nelson watches a rehearsal for about 15 seconds, then pedals off. There are better things to do on an August afternoon than watching paint dry.

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com .



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