Twisted TV From a Hardy Boy? : Networks: Former teen idol Shaun Cassidy moves further from his clean-cut image to create CBS’ scary ‘American Gothic.’
If you watch “American Gothic” this fall, you may wonder who’s behind the CBS series. Whose twisted mind created those terrifying images: a demented girl chanting “Someone’s at the door,” cryptic messages bubbling forth in blood, a dead girl in a morgue shedding a single tear of blood?
And who dreamed up that maniacal Southern sheriff, who, in one moment snaps the neck of an innocent victim, then in the next, whistles the friendly tune to “The Andy Griffith Show”?
If you’d like an answer to these mysteries, you might want to grab a Hardy Boy--literally.
“American Gothic” creator Shaun Cassidy burst like bubble gum onto the pop landscape at 18 when he sang “Da Doo Ron Ron” in a 1977 episode of his ABC drama “The Hardy Boys Mysteries.”
“Certainly, people who think they know me may not know me,” Cassidy, now 36, said over a recent lunch at Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood.
Cassidy’s rosy image as a teen--the kind of sweet kid a father would trust his 16-year-old daughter with--crystallized in the public’s mind when “Da Doo Ron Ron” became a monster hit. A series of gold and platinum records followed.
Although Cassidy has since built a solid reputation as a stage and TV actor, he will probably never get away from being referred to as “the former teen idol.”
“Much of ‘American Gothic’ is about that: the duality of nature. The duality of people,” said Cassidy, son of actor Jack Cassidy and “Partridge Family” mom Shirley Jones. David Cassidy, his half brother, was also a onetime heartthrob. “I had a very clear picture of this show, and it obviously came from a very organic place, or it wouldn’t have written itself as easily as it did.”
In “American Gothic,” set to premiere Sept. 22 and described by Cassidy as an epic battle between good and evil, actor Gary Cole plays Sheriff Lucas Buck. He vacillates between a charming scamp and a murderous devil, with claws sunk deeply into the entire town. Viewers will have to get used to the idea of the lead character in a large cast who embodies pure evil.
“Our template for this show is ‘The Godfather,’ ” said Cassidy, also supervising producer of “American Gothic.” Universal Television teamed him with executive producer Sam Raimi, the cult-film director of the “Evil Dead” trilogy, and veteran co-executive producer Robert Palm from NBC’s “Law & Order.”
“You have Michael or Don Vito Corleone, depending on what movie you’re watching,” Cassidy said, “as this man who is respected and revered by some people and feared and loathed by others, based on what your experience has been with the man.
“If you figure someone out like that, “--he snaps his fingers--”they’re not going to hold your interest. And I want these characters in this show to have a lot of that depth. The healthiest people I know embrace the light and the dark in themselves. The unhealthiest are the ones who are purporting to be either/or.”
As an actor, Cole looks forward to playing Buck, a demonic force who wants to raise a child in his image. As the moody central character in NBC’s “Midnight Caller,” Cole grew tired of watching weekly villains get the juicy roles. Early in the lavish, $2.2-million pilot for “American Gothic,” Buck malevolently takes a life.
“The things that happen are not your standard fare, especially when the character involved in [killing] is the guy you’re going to see next week,” said Cole, who last played the father in “The Brady Bunch Movie.” “Usually he’s carted off to jail or dead in the first act.”
Raimi regards “American Gothic” as a horror show, plain and simple. Executives at CBS had expressed interest in doing a horror series with Raimi, but insisted that it be an ongoing story, not an anthology. When executives at Universal--where Raimi also has a deal--introduced Raimi to Cassidy, the director instantly embraced “American Gothic.”
“This is really the oldest story in the book, about man versus the darkest side of himself,” said Raimi, who last directed Sharon Stone in “The Quick and the Dead.” Every week, Raimi said, Cole’s character will prey on the weaknesses of the townspeople, who must use their inherent goodness to overcome his influence.
“We chose to personify evil in the form of a very handsome and sexy fellow played by Gary Cole,” Raimi said. “But that’s how evil presents itself--not as a dark and bad thing, but as an alluring and attractive force. Should we care about Lucas Buck? I hope that you will think he’s funny and witty and wicked, but also that he goes too far, which makes him frightening and horrific.”
“American Gothic” should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Cassidy’s career. Ever since the days of “The Hardy Boys,” Cassidy has told people that his role before the camera was infinitely less interesting than what went on behind it.
“All I ever wanted to do was get to go into those rooms where all the creative stuff happens,” said Cassidy, who starred on Broadway last year with David Cassidy in the musical “Blood Brothers.” “Because as an actor, by the time you get the material--I mean, certainly you can bring a lot to it, but the vision is somebody else’s.”
In between acting on stage in New York, Los Angeles and London, Cassidy wrote short stories and plays. Then an unproduced TV script got him an assignment from Universal to write a cable thriller for one of the 20 USA Network movies the studio was producing each year.
“I had never written a two-hour before,” Cassidy said. “Meanwhile, I’m still working in the theater, doing the occasional movie of the week, but all I want to do is this.
“So I’m sitting at my computer at 2 a.m., and we had three cats. For some reason, these three cats were sitting in formation staring at me. I looked over at them, and it freaked me out. Again, it’s this duality thing, only with cats.”
Cassidy went to the studio a few days later and pitched Alfred Hitchcock’s “Birds,” substituting fowl with felines. USA loved the idea, and Cassidy wrote “Strays,” the highest-rated basic cable movie of 1991.
“My favorite day in the world was showing up for the first production meeting and looking at 100 people who have jobs because I had this goofy little idea,” Cassidy said with a broad smile.
What followed was a production deal with Universal, a syndicated TV sequel to “Midnight Run” and, now, “American Gothic.” Cassidy, who lives in Los Angeles with his new wife, actress Susan Diol, would like to turn writing and producing television programs into a full-time career.
Both Raimi and Palm admit that Cassidy’s teen image did come to mind when they were introduced to him, but they have since forgotten about it after reading his work.
“I’m sure you’ve heard Shaun say, ‘Surprisingly well-written by Shaun Cassidy,’ which he gets a lot and he hates,” Palm said. “But it’s not an unnatural reaction. I can see that it would be irritating to him. That image should be behind him by rights--or at least it soon will be--because he is really a good writer.”
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