James Woods will long remember the summer of 2006, for profoundly different reasons. In July, he began work on his new CBS drama "Shark" -- premiering Thursday, Sept. 21 -- and almost immediately, he lost his younger brother, Michael, to a heart attack, forcing the show to temporarily suspend production.
Back at work in mid-August, Woods says (tearing up a bit), "It's unimaginable how great a loss that was for me. Honestly, if I hadn't had the show -- and this is the only thing I probably want to say about it -- the unbelievably genuine and warm support I got from this group of people here ... I've never in my life experienced so many people being so kind. They were just remarkable. Every single person was so unbelievably nice to me."
On this day, shooting is under way on the second episode after the pilot of "Shark" on soundstages at the 20th Century Fox lot in Los Angeles. Woods is filming scenes with Danielle Panabaker, who plays Julie, the teen-age daughter of his character, Sebastian "Shark" Stark, a flamboyant, rule-bending Los Angeles defense attorney-turned-prosecutor.
At Woods' side, her leash looped to his director's chair, is his constant companion, a dark cairn terrier (think Toto from "The Wizard of Oz") named Angel. Perfectly quiet as filming goes on (even while eyeing someone's lunch), Angel gazes worshipfully up at her master during a break.
Asked if he resembles his dog in any way, Woods says, "I wish I were like a cairn terrier. I wish I were that cute. I wish I were that phenomenally cute, very nice and portable. My brother said, 'The portability factor is something that appeals to me.' That's the way he said it."
Woods looks down at his dog. "Angel, can I ask you a question? I know, tongue out for food. I understand the concept. Angel, who's the cutest girl ever? Danielle is, you're right. Thank you."
Ian Biederman ("Crossing Jordan," "Cold Case") created "Shark" and executive produces with Brian Grazer, David Nevins, Ed Redlich and Rod Holcomb. In the opener, directed by Spike Lee, Stark faces a rare crisis of conscience after a client he successfully defends winds up committing an even more heinous crime.
Stark switches sides to head up the Los Angeles District Attorney's High Profile Crime Unit, forcing him to work for his former courtroom nemesis, Jessica Devlin (Jeri Ryan).
She surrounds him with four young prosecutors (Sam Page, Alexis Cruz, Sarah Carter, Sophina Brown) who soon discover that, while Stark may now be trying to convict defendants, he hasn't changed his underhanded ways.
"Here's a guy," Woods says, "who's on the wrong side of the table for his personality demands, and yet his soul demands something else, his newfound soul, or his newly rediscovered soul. His light is hidden under a bushel of hubris and arrogance and wealth, being just basically spoiled rotten and having earned it. Now he's in a situation where he's not so spoiled rotten, and he's facing challenges.
"He's a civil servant, and he's working with other civil servants who do not have his skill level or his knowledge of the tricks necessary to win in the trade."
But as one benefit of his former career, Stark does have a private courtroom in his house to practice his strategies."I like having a personal courtroom," Woods says, "because it's a place where you can fail."
For Woods, this window into what it takes to put on a great courtroom show mirrors what it takes to put on a great television show.
"If people understood what it takes to make a television series and get the result that they look at," he says, "they would be shocked. They think you just show up, get in front of the camera, say some things, be well-dressed. If they knew the 80-hour weeks it takes to get this quality, they'd be in shock."
"It's a hellacious amount of time and effort," says Biederman, who has dropped by the set for a visit, "so you might as well go for greatness. You're not always going to get it, but you're more likely to get it if you strike for the thing to be fantastic. And why wouldn't you? You get to make a movie every eight days, put it in front of 20 million people. I mean, that's a privilege. And we have the guns to do it."
Woods has worked on screens big and small and onstage, but "Shark" marks his first outing as the star of a prime-time series. For advice, he turned to a longtime friend, "7th Heaven" star Stephen Collins.
"He's helped me a lot with the television thing," Woods says. "He said, 'You can be in a monstrous hit without the show being good. ... You can get away with not being great. But if you are great, it can be a personal best choice. If you do that, that's wonderful, and I know you will, but just be aware that being great will not make the show a hit, but having the show be a hit does not necessarily make it great. You have to do that yourself.'
"Ed and Ian and Rod, they're hitmakers, and my job is to polish it and make it great."
For his part, Collins has no doubt that Woods will give it his all.
"I know very few people," he writes in an e-mail, "who are pure, unadulterated actor, people who live and breathe acting 100 percent. Dustin Hoffman comes to mind. And Jimmy. He's a thoroughbred actor. You put him in the start gate, ring the bell, and he takes off at phenomenal speed, and it's just exhilarating to watch him."
Collins adds, "I've always said that if I ever go thrown into a Turkish prison and only had one call, I'd call Jimmy. He wouldn't return my call for about three weeks, but he'd damned well get me out of there."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times