When Anthony Edwards was asked to star in CBS' four-hour "In Cold Blood" during his summer break from "ER," his initial reaction was, "I don't want to be nasty all summer--I want to play."
But Edwards, who has received two Emmy nominations as the caring and dedicated Dr. Mark Greene on NBC's top-rated medical drama, was captivated by Benedict Fitzgerald's adaptation of Truman Capote's classic 1965 nonfiction novel.
Edwards, 34, recalls that he had the same response when he first read the end-of-the-world thriller, "Miracle Mile," in which he starred with Mare Winningham in 1989.
"I was like, 'I hate this. I can't do this.' But the initial reaction got me stirred up in a way. Reading 'In Cold Blood' did the same thing. You try to throw it away, but there's something that stays with you. The seed has been thrown in there and then your wife goes, 'This is what you wanted--something different.' "
Edwards is almost unrecognizable in "In Cold Blood" as the sleazy yet charming con artist Dick Hickcock, who, with friend Perry Smith (Eric Roberts), was executed for the senseless, horrific 1959 murders of the all-American Clutter family in the quiet Kansas town of Holcomb.
Hickcock became obsessed with pulling "the perfect score" after hearing in prison from another inmate about the riches inside the Clutters' wall safe just waiting for the taking. But when he and Smith arrived on Nov. 15, 1959, they discovered that there was no safe and that the prosperous Herb Clutter (Kevin Tighe) had only $41 in cash. After brutally murdering Clutter, his wife and their two children, the pair fled to Mexico.
With no real evidence other than bloody footprints, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation's Alvin Dewey (Sam Neill), a personal friend of the Clutters, relentlessly pursued every clue to bring the killers to justice.
Two years after Capote's book was published, Richard Brooks wrote and directed the acclaimed 1967 film version, which starred Scott Wilson as Hickcock and Robert Blake as Smith.
The CBS adaptation, directed by Jonathan Kaplan ("The Accused"), spends more time with the Clutter family than did Brooks' movie.
"There's a lot more sympathy with the family because they are almost invisible in the movie," says producer Tom Rowe, who adds that it would have been a "big mistake" to remake the original film. "It's a classic."
Viewers, Rowe believes, are going to love Edwards in this dark part. "He does a tremendous job with the character," he says. He doesn't worry that Edwards' fans will find themselves sympathizing with Hickcock because of the actor's good guy image from "ER."
"He's a pretty talented and versatile actor," Rowe says. "That's kind of why we did think of him, because he is so talented."
Edwards is thrilled he got the opportunity.
"How many times are they going to make 'In Cold Blood'?" the actor asks over lunch at his favorite Chinese restaurant in Los Feliz.
"The first time I would have been 6 years old, so I couldn't play it then," he says between bites of his rib appetizer. "And the next time they make it, I would be in my 70s."
As for redoing a book that already has been made into a film, Edwards says: "Why remake 'Hamlet'? I mean, I think Capote and this book are truly a classic of American literature. It should be interpreted and reinterpreted for anybody who feels the need. Unlike what we are used to in this business of television and film, it actually has weight and substance to it, so it can handle anybody's interpretation."
Edwards breaks out into a sly grin.
"We are not remaking 'Die Hard,' " he quips.
The actor offers a far more menacing, swaggering interpretation of Dick Hickcock than Scott Wilson did nearly 30 years ago. "There's a slickness and style to the movie that we don't do at all," he offers.
"I had scenes that Scott Wilson doesn't have in the movie. There's a lot of wonderful stuff where we could really get into these pieces. Eric plays it so differently than Blake. Blake played it tougher."
Edwards worked diligently to arrive at the perfect look and a voice for Hickcock. "The hair was a brush cut from a picture of Dick that I saw about the time he was arrested," he says. "He had that brush cut, which was very jock-y of him. He played basketball, football. It was a very hip look."
Finding Hickcock's voice was fundamental for Edwards. "And finding his rhythms," the actor adds. "The rhythms came out of the voice. I worked with a dialect coach trying to find the true 1959 Midwest Kansas accent. The A's are all flattened out and it sounds a bit Southern, but it's not twangy. Also that ability of people to speak without moving their mouth. All of a sudden the register starts getting lower."
Playing Hickcock was easier than he thought it would be, Edwards says, "because it was so clear to him what he wanted. He didn't have that moral dilemma. There were no contradictions. It was, like, a job. It was going to get done. The next day he was, like, 'Maybe there were a couple of things I didn't get right. Other than that, we did it perfect and there are no witnesses. We are set, baby. That's it.' "
But Edwards acknowledges that it was difficult to film the murder sequences. "That was a depressing time because it just was having to redo this evil over and over again," he says.
"But once again, I felt kind of an homage to Capote and the book, so I felt good at being a good killer. I think you feel bad when you are doing something that might be exploited or misinterpreted. It just felt that everything we were doing was right."
"In Cold Blood" airs Sunday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS. "ER" airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.