"I've done things in the last three weeks," Patrick Stewart was saying, "I've never thought in my life I would do on-camera."
Coming from Stewart, that statement demands attention. On "Star Trek: The Next Generation" — the sci-fi series that made him a household name — Stewart played Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, the cerebral spaceship commander who, among other unlikely events, survived a stab to the heart during battle and had his body taken over by aliens.
FOR THE RECORD:
"Blunt Talk": In the May 31 Calendar section, an article about the new Starz series "Blunt Talk" said that it was actor Patrick Stewart's idea to make the lead character, Walter Blunt, a veteran of the Falklands War. The idea actually came from writer-producer Jonathan Ames. —
But those were heroic things. For his latest project, the 74-year-old Shakespearean-trained actor is exploring new frontiers of outrage. On the new Starz comedy "Blunt Talk," Stewart plays Walter Blunt, a blustery, self-obsessed but essentially good-natured British-born host at a cable news network beset by ratings worries. The series premieres Aug. 22.
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Viewers may see parallels with Piers Morgan and CNN. But it's a safe bet Morgan doesn't go home like Blunt does and chase a butler around a dining room table with a ninja bokken, a la Peter Sellers in "The Pink Panther" movies.
"Blunt Talk" is Stewart's first TV comedy beyond guest roles here and there. "This is a new world for me," he said, lounging between takes in an elegant bathrobe and slippers on a soundstage in Santa Clarita, where the Starz show was being filmed this year.
The bathrobe was for the next scene, when Blunt would scuffle in the dining room with his servant and sparring partner Harry, played by the English actor Adrian Scarborough. His signature bald pate and regal bearing made Stewart look as fit for a revival of "The King and I" as for "Blunt Talk."
As it turns out, Stewart's partner for this unusual journey has been someone who knows a bit about putting outrageous things on-screen. It was "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane, the executive producer of "Blunt Talk," who persuaded him to play the role.
Stewart had done a few bits for "Family Guy," including providing the voice for a baby, Susie Swanson, and so was familiar with the show's off-the-wall, machine-gun-paced humor. He was intrigued when MacFarlane said that the British host he was envisioning would have a chaotic personal life.
"Really, Seth didn't need to say any more than that," Stewart said. "Having been around his writing, I had an idea what 'chaotic' might mean."
A few days before their first meeting, Stewart realized that they were booked for a lunch the day after MacFarlane was to host the 2013 Academy Awards.
"I sent him an email saying, 'Either you'll be in handcuffs on a plane out of Los Angeles or you'll be in hiding somewhere. You're crazy, you won't possibly want to have lunch on Monday.'
"He turned up at 12:30 and pitched me the idea," Stewart said.
"Blunt Talk" signals a major shift for Starz, a premium cable provider that only in the last few years has begun to escape the shadow of HBO and Showtime.
Chris Albrecht, the former top programmer for HBO, has run Starz since 2010. Under his stewardship the network has premiered attention-grabbing dramas such as the pirate thriller "Black Sails," the time-travel fantasy "Outlander" and the historical epic "Da Vinci's Demons."
But the network had avoided comedy because Albrecht felt the genre was overcrowded.
Last year, however, he agreed to take a gamble with "Survivor's Remorse," a comedy about a pro basketball player that had NBA star LeBron James attached as a producer. Around that time, he heard about MacFarlane's new project.
"Patrick Stewart in a comedy, that's so interesting," Albrecht said he remembered thinking.
MacFarlane, who was busy with "Family Guy," his follow-up to the hit movie "Ted" and other projects, had no time to write the show himself. (His spokeswoman said he was also too busy to comment for this story, after a booked interview was rescheduled and then canceled at the last minute.) So he was on the hunt for a writer.
"I got an email from my agent saying that Seth MacFarlane was looking for a writer and would be talking to writers on the phone and did I want to get on the phone with him," said Jonathan Ames, a novelist and TV writer best-known for his work on HBO's quirky comedy "Bored to Death," with Jason Schwarztman as a novelist-cum-private-eye.
"I didn't think I would be the writer that got hired for whatever this was, but I figured, you know, might as well try," Ames added.
Ames asked his agent what the show was about. "Patrick Stewart doing 'Larry Sanders,'" came the reply. That was a reference to "The Larry Sanders Show," the landmark HBO comedy from the 1990s about a neurotic talk-show host played by Garry Shandling.
When they finally connected, MacFarlane explained that he wasn't looking for a remake of "Larry Sanders," set inside in a late-night TV milieu, but rather for just the kind of cerebral tone that show had employed. Ames understood and said he that he had an idea.
Though he is admittedly not a big consumer of cable news, "I happen to have been channel-surfing past CNN and I saw Piers Morgan [who has since left the network]. There was this kind of electric blue background behind him, which looked like real eye candy, and in that moment I thought, 'Patrick Stewart would look really cool in such a format.' He is so interesting-looking and so odd, almost like an alien.
"Seth said, 'I love that idea,'" Ames said.
Albrecht found himself reassured from the initial pitch. Ames laid out the premise and Stewart rose to his feet. "Basically, Patrick was just performing in the room," Albrecht said. "Patrick Stewart is really funny."
And that's not all. "Having gone out now with Patrick a few times? He's mobbed everywhere he goes," Albrecht said.
So Albrecht felt comfortable removing some of the typical new-show pressure. Starz ordered 20 episodes — two seasons' worth — of "Blunt Talk" right away, before all the scripts were written or any film had been shot.
"I thought, 'I am not going to be the executive who canceled the Seth MacFarlane-Patrick Stewart-Jonathan Ames series after one season," Albrecht said.
Stewart began meeting with Ames to hash out story ideas.
"It happened that he lived just around the corner from me in Brooklyn," the actor said.
"We started meeting once every two or three weeks in a cafe on Fifth Avenue, drank coffee and had a lot of 'what if?' conversations, which I love. I had never been in that situation before, where from the absolute raw start I was being invited to contribute." It was Stewart's idea to make Blunt a veteran of the Falklands War, the Thatcher-era conflict that still rankles British liberals.
Stewart was "completely committed and present," Ames said.
Indeed, the actor prepared for his latest role as thoroughly as he might for the part of a Shakespearean hero.
"I became increasingly interested in his chaotic back story and life off-camera," the actor said. For his own reference, "I wrote two pages of his history, his family, his upbringing, his education."
But whatever outrage happens on-screen — and Stewart promises plenty — the creators are adamant on one point: "Blunt Talk" isn't intended as a satire of the cable news business or anything else.
"The human beings in this show, their hearts are in the right place," Ames said. "I am not mocking any of them, and they would like to do good for each other. Walter is someone who can bring information to people. He is something of a hero, kind of a Don Quixote hero."