'24's' Petrified POTUS

There seems to be a critical mass of fictional presidents in primetime at the moment, from Jed Bartlet on "The West Wing" to Mackenzie Allen on "Commander In Chief" to the boss of Vice President Caroline Reynolds on "Prison Break."

And then there's "24," airing Monday on FOX. The breathless thriller gave America its first black fictional president, the beloved David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), then nearly killed him a few times, before actually killing him as an ex-president in a surprise assassination that kicked off this season's 24 hours of terror.

Last season, Palmer's unfortunate successor, Keeler (Geoff Pierson), had his Air Force One shot down (he survived, but is unable to take office again), which made way for the emergency installation of his vacillating vice president, Logan (Gregory Itzin), who's still in office this year.

Logan has waffled his way along, ducking the hard decisions, leaning on his advisors and not always standing behind CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) Agent Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland), which, in the "24" universe, is akin to high treason.

"It's hard not to take these slams personally," Itzin says. "The first public comment I got was when we were eating at an Italian restaurant in Glendale. This family walked up and said, 'We have two words for you ... Habib Marwan'." -- referring to last season's chief terrorist -- "Then they said, 'We just hate you. We want to reach into the TV and strangle you. You're doing a fantastic job.'"

It gets worse when Itzin is out golfing with buddy Haysbert. "People are constantly coming up to Dennis and saying, 'I love you on that show. Are you coming back?' And they look over at me. They do a double take and say, 'It's him,' like I can't hear them. 'That's the bad president.' Dennis smiles, and we have to deal with this. Dennis has to say, 'You don't understand, he's a very nice man, actually.'

"Palmer said 'yes' whenever Jack Bauer needed to do something, and he's America's avenging angel."

So, we've gone from the strong fist of Palmer to the strong fist of Keeler to ... "The weak, limp wrist of Logan," Itzin says. "Why did I supply you with that?"

Now "24" fans know what happens when Bauer doesn't have the Chief Executive in his corner.

"Drama is about conflict," Itzin says. "I just walk into a room, and there's conflict. Also, they turned the whole concept on its head. Until episode 18 of last year, you essentially had people in the office of president that you assumed you could trust, count on, and they would always back Jack Bauer.

"Well, things have changed."

Itzin knew early on that he wasn't going to get to be a noble character.

"I came in, and I gave them choices," he says. "As I did different takes, it was between semi-staunch leader of men and abject coward. And they inevitably picked the abject-coward takes, so I knew where we were going."

This season's non-stop plot has a group of Russian separatists hijacking a shipment of nerve-gas canisters. In the Monday, Feb. 13, episode, the terrorists -- along with an undercover Bauer -- headed to a shopping mall to test the triggering mechanism on one of the canisters.

The question became, should Bauer and his team thwart the attack, thereby tipping their hand, or let it happen in hopes the terrorists would lead them to the remaining canisters?

Pressured by advisors both in his own circle and at CTU, Logan opted to release the gas. But Bauer rejected the order and found another way out.

"And how do you feel about that?" Itzin says of Logan's decision. "But do you understand it? I did my best to play, first of all, the fact that I didn't want it to go down this way, and the fact that, do I have to make this f***ing decision? And OK, this is what my advisors, every stinking one of them, told me to do. OK.

"Is he happy about this? I think, wonderfully, the toll from this day is going to eat a big acid hole in this man's soul."

Almost without fail, real presidents exit the Oval Office a lot grayer than when they came in.

"That's correct," Itzin says. "I understand why people get the way they are. Even the small amount of time I've been doing this, I'm being told to be honest with the American people, and I can see how, why, these people are never honest with the American people. If you told the American people, really, what the world was like, there would be a collective nervous breakdown.

"So I understand why they become paranoid and secretive and private and closed-mouthed and shifty-eyed and all those things."

Off-camera, Haysbert often expressed the wish that Palmer could grab a gun and join Bauer in the field. Turns out Itzin harbors a similar -- and likely equally unrequited -- fantasy.

"We have these great skylights," he says, "in the Western White House or Logan's retreat or whatever we're calling it, and I had visions of terrorists coming down through there, and me grabbing a nine-iron and putting a hole in somebody's head. Really, I did.

"I'd love to be a hero. I'd love to pull out a Glock and blow away ... I don't know. Let me think about who I'd like to blow away."

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