Gabriel Byrne and Margaret Conlin are kissing on a couch in front of a camera crew and empty bleachers. In walks their "son," John C. Hensley. They separate. There follows an exchange about who's in trouble and why. The director calls cut, and Byrne sits back, looking breathless and slightly dazed. It will get easier, the dialogue or the blocking or the kiss or all of the above.
This is Episode 4 of Byrne's new half-hour sitcom, "Madigan Men" (premiering tonight at 9:30 on ABC), rehearsing on a sound stage in Astoria, Queens, the day before it is to be filmed before a live audience. The show is about a newly separated, moderately Irish Manhattan architect living with his fearfully Irish widowed father (Roy Dotrice) and his fully American teenage son. Conlin, who plays his estranged wife, is here to confuse him emotionally, in a manner meant to represent real life.
"I want to show what it's like to be a middle-aged man, to be not sure of the world, to be open, to be vulnerable to making mistakes and to be a recognizable human being," says Byrne, 50, who came up with the idea and is a producer on the show.
"I looked at all of these magazines, and I said, 'Here are all of these magazines for women,' " he continues. " 'How to Have the Perfect Orgasm,' 'How to Cook the Proper Meal,' 'How to Keep Your Man.' Where are the equivalent magazines for men? There's one magazine, and that was 'Perfect Abs in 10 Days' or 'Rock Climbing in the Andes' or 'Drink as Much Beer as You Want and Still Have the Body That Women Go Crazy For.' Women can talk about the most intimate things in print and amongst themselves and there seems to be a forum for that kind of thing, but for men there isn't. Does that mean that men don't feel the same things? Of course they do. So that's where the idea came from, the idea of being a man who doesn't know all the answers."
Byrne gives the impression that he's talking about himself, although he seems to know quite a few of the answers. The first one--answering an unasked question--is why he's doing this show, since he's had a long and relatively healthy movie career playing mostly underworld types, notably in "Miller's Crossing," "The Usual Suspects" and, most recently, "End of Days" (as Satan). The answer puts him squarely in line with the character he plays.
"I wanted something that would keep me in New York for six, seven months of the year because I wanted to be with my kids," he says, referring to Romy and Jack, the two children he had with his former wife, actress Ellen Barkin. "It's more and more difficult for me as I get older to be away from them."
There are other, professional reasons why he chose to do a sitcom. One of them is to rework his image, which is sort of brooding Irish. In person he's quite droll and loquacious. He doesn't lay his Irishness on with a trowel. He uses a butter knife. This is not the easiest quality to convey in sitcomland, which tends to traffic in caricatures.
"When I first met with Gabriel," says the show's executive producer, Cindy Chupack, one of the masterminds behind "Sex and the City," "I felt like the challenge was to try to capture his natural charisma and charm and figure out a way to fit that into the character, that he would be comfortable playing it and would come across naturally and he wouldn't have to be forcing some kind of other charm or personality."
Byrne is a film and stage actor, having appeared on Broadway most recently with Dotrice in a revival of Eugene O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten." That means he's used to playing subtly to the camera as well as projecting to the back of the orchestra seats. Both mediums have a captive audience and require--and reward--audience participation. Television, on the other hand, has to compete with all kinds of distractions, which encourages a kind of headline acting, especially in comedies, because people have to be told when to laugh (hence the laugh track or, these days, the live audience). Byrne is not interested in doing that, however.
"What I find in a lot of comedies is that people do shtick for the camera and the audience and they're not relating to each other," he says. "Whereas what I'm very focused on is the idea of people behaving in a real way in real situations, and it's the humor that comes out of the clash of different realities that interests me. I'm not interested in performing for an audience who expect over-the-top, fake acting. And the actors we've chosen are all very reality-based."
One of them, at least for the pilot, was Clea Lewis, a veteran of "Ellen," who played Byrne's secretary and represented Chupack's own highly developed philosophy in relationship matters. She was the voice of female sanity, trying to keep Byrne's newly single character from turning into all the other crummy single guys. Only audiences won't see Lewis, except for the premiere. She was replaced by Sabrina Lloyd ("Sports Night"). While this kind of recasting between pilot and series is not unusual and everybody has great things to say about both women, it's a sore spot.
"That is a thorny question," Byrne says soberly. "They do reserve the right to approve or disapprove of actors. To tell you the truth, I don't know what happened there. I was away in Ireland at the time. I think it's most unfortunate if an actor appears and is replaced for whatever reason. It was a decision that was taken, and we can only support it. And beyond that I don't really have anything to say."
"I'm not sure she was ever set as a regular," says Stu Bloomberg, co-chairman of the ABC Entertainment Television Group. "I think she was a guest star. And while I think she was great in 'Ellen' for us, when we canceled 'Sports Night,' we have always thought that Sabrina Lloyd had a real charm and intelligence and we wanted to see her back on ABC."
Byrne insists that he has ABC's support, that the network has not otherwise interfered and has pledged to allow the program to find its way. Even if it does, it will be an uphill climb, given the time slot.
Perhaps because of this, or because TV is such a crapshoot, Byrne and Chupack are adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Chupack can go back to "Sex and the City." Byrne can go back to movies and the stage. But whatever happens, it won't change Byrne's feelings about why he tried TV in the first place. He's frustrated with the movie business. The big films involving big money are too cautious, too formulaic. Independent films--and he's produced several ("In the Name of the Father," "Into the West")--are too hard to get off the ground. Overriding all of this is the sense that too much emphasis is placed on success, and that success is defined so narrowly.
"I've come to value my own personal life as much as I value movies increasingly over the last four or five years," he says. "I began to think, 'OK, what about me, does this make me happy, is this something that I really want to do, or is this something I'm doing because I have to do it?' I guess I'm learning to make decisions based on what I want as opposed to what I feel other people want me to do or what they think I should be doing."
Three Guys and a Brogue
* ABC's "Madigan Men" is a gentle show, Howard Rosenberg writes. F28