TV actors do theater as bankable stars, boosting TV careers

In “Mr. and Mrs. Fitch,” Douglas Carter Beane’s new comedy at Gotham’s Second Stage, John Lithgow plays an acerbic gossip columnist who gets to deliver what is arguably the evening’s biggest laugh-getter. “You know, theater,” he opines, “that thing that movie people do when they want to announce they’re available for television.”

Actually, Beane’s assessment of the theater is a bit of an anachronism, if Broadway’s spring season is any indication. Today, it’s not that much of exaggeration to say that actors do TV so they can return to Broadway as bankable stars that pump not only the box office but their own pocket books with hefty five-figure weekly salaries.

A part on Broadway also can lead back to more opportunities on television. Lithgow’s “Fitch” co-star, two-time Tony winner Jennifer Ehle, for example, just bagged an HBO series, “Game of Thrones.”

The legit power of the cabler first made its presence felt in 2002 — a year that saw no fewer than three new HBO stars heat up the Broadway box office in a way that these thesps never did in their pre-TV careers.

First came Cynthia Nixon (“Sex and the City”) in “The Women,” which quickly sold out its extended run at the Roundabout. She was followed by Edie Falco (“The Sopranos”) in “Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune,” another sold out limited run, and Michael C. Hall (“Six Feet Under”) in “Chicago,” a multi-week stint that brought an awesome 33% jump in the revival’s weekly grosses.

Last year, the marquee value of Jeremy Piven (HBO’s “Entourage”) made “Speed-the-Plow” an equally hot ticket (until the TV star succumbed to sushi fever), but even he did not exhibit the drawing power of James Gandolfini (HBO’s “The Sopranos”), who made “God of Carnage” gross like a hit tuner. Right now, Broadway looks to see if cable star Tony Shalhoub (USA’s “Monk”) can perform a similar B.O. miracle with “Lend Me a Tenor,” to open April 4.

Back in the old days of 15 years ago when Carol Burnett made her return to Broadway, in “Moon Over Buffalo,” a TV star meant a network TV star — just as a movie star meant you made movies for Disney, WB, Paramount, U, Col or Fox.

Legit producers and theater owners brag about the flood of TV and movie stars who are returning to the theater or making their Broadway debuts. But with some notable exceptions, they are a different kind of TV and movie star.

“The pool of what we considered stars (has expanded) because of cable and indie movies, but there are fewer studio movies made today, so maybe it has evened out,” said producer Stuart Thompson.

In addition to “God of Carnage” and “Lend Me a Tenor,” Thompson produces “A View From the Bridge,” which features the Broadway debut of Scarlett Johansson, whose major film luster comes from her Woody Allen indie credits. Even the “God of Carnage” triumvirate of Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden, who helped bolster Gandolfini’s B.O. appeal, owe their film career to the indies, and that includes Harden’s Oscar for “Pollock.”

Indie movies, like cable TV, have shorter shooting skeds. “Cable TV does 10 episodes a year,” said thesp agent Mark Redanty of Bauman Redanty & Shaul. “The networks used to do 26 a year — that’s a big difference, giving actors quite a long time off to do other stuff, like theater, in a year,” before shooting resumes eight months later.

And Broadway has been happy to comply. Curiously, it was the nonprofit theater world that took immediate advantage, making a legit institution of the 12-to-16 week run. Actor salaries there, however, have tended to be Equity scale with a favored-nations contract.

Slowly, commercial producers have seized on the new TV/movie star, who can earn $20,000-$30,000 a week in a play or even more in a musical, which demands a longer commitment.

Producer Jeffrey Richards chanced the star-driven limited run with “The Best Man” in 2000, starring “Sex and the City” star Chris Noth. “It seems to have become quite prevalent since then,” Richards said of the star-driven limited run on Broadway. “It creates a window of opportunity for the consumer who recognizes they have a limited time to see a production or ensemble, which creates this demand to return an investment in a brief span.”

Back in 2000 with “The Best Man,” Richards couldn’t take advantage of legit’s new phenom: premium price ticketing, which bumps ticket prices up to $400 per ducat, and is tailored made for the star-driven limited run. “Premium-price ticketing has helped,” Richards said of these productions’ fast recoupment. “It’s as accepted now as discounting in theater. They kind of balance each other out.”

Fortunately for Broadway, the reduced number of studio movies and network TV series and sitcoms has made the theater a more attractive platform, especially for those actors, as one theater director put it, “whose TV or film careers have stalled a bit” — or who just want a chance of pace from playing James Bond, Wolverine or whatever other movie franchise continues to guarantee their superstar status.

Regarding his upcoming return to Broadway in “Fences,” Denzel Washington recently told the New York Post’s Michael Riedel, “The first thing I want to do is more theater. The second thing I want to do is direct movies. Acting in movies is now No. 3 on the list. I find a lot of the movies are formulaic.”

Washington’s career epiphany comes in the wake of his last film, “The Book of Eli,” which got dumped into theaters in the lackluster month of January. Even Meryl Streep’s return to the theater (“The Seagull” and “Mother Courage” in Central Park) coincided with the poor B.O. performance of her films “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Prime” and “Lions for Lambs.” Now that she’s resurfaced as a 60-year-old B.O. queen (thanks to “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Julie and Julia”), Streep’s future sked includes no theater.

Whether Washington’s “Fences” stint is a case of career expansion or career resuscitation, he’s in good company this spring with the Broadway turns of Catherine Zeta-Jones (“A Little Night Music”), Sean Hayes (“Promises, Promises”), Kelsey Grammer (“La Cage aux Folles”), Christopher Walken (“A Behanding in Spokane”) and James Spader (“Race”).

To paraphrase Billy Wilder, now that they’ve done theater, they may be ready for their closeup again.

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