After years of making a name for himself in New York theater, Mark Ruffalo was on the cusp of breaking in to high-profile movie roles when television came calling.
In 1999, Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson had been handed a 13-episode order from UPN for a cop drama “The Beat.” Fontana and casting director Alexa Fogel had been impressed by Ruffalo’s work on stage and recruited him to co-star in the series as the hotheaded ladies-man New York City beat cop Zane Marinelli.
Fontana and Levinson’s track record with NBC’s indelible “Homicide: Life on the Street” and HBO’s arresting “Oz” lent credibility to “The Beat.” The show promised to be envelope-pushing, if only because nobody was watching UPN anyway. The pilot was directed by Levinson. Ruffalo had more than a few shirtless scenes in the early episodes.
“Tom had seen me in plays and was a fan. He got me for what I was — a theater brat,” Ruffalo recalled. “It was an amazing opportunity to live in New York and shoot a show about cops and real blue-collar people.”
Fontana recalls his excitement when Ruffalo agreed to sign on. Ruffalo wasn’t a total unknown at the time — he had a handful of movie and TV guest shot credits — but it was clear that he was a thesp on the rise.
“His spirit and his energy seemed so original and so fresh and edgy without being obnoxious,” Fontana said. “When Barry and I read him [for ‘The Beat’], we just thought he was completely terrific.”
Ruffalo also got a quick taste of how the television worked back then. He signed on to co-star in a very different show — “Flesh and Blood,” a drama about an adult brother and sister whose lives were changed as kids when their father was accused of murdering their mother. Somewhere along the way, UPN decided it wanted a beat cops buddy drama, so Fontana did a rewrite.
“The Beat” revolved around the professional and personal lives of beat cops Marinelli and Mike Dorigan, played by Derek Cecil. Heather Burns played Zane’s unstable girlfriend (she torches his apartment in the pilot). Other cast members included Jeffrey Donovan, Lee Tergesen, Celeste Holm, David Zayas and Poppy Montgomery.
As showrunner and executive producer, Fontana tried to break the mold by having all the personal scenes shot on film while the beat cop action was lensed on videotape. Fontana and Levinson had a field day with the new wave of small and nimble digital cameras that were just emerging.
“We were using surveillance cameras, all kinds of things. At that point all those digital cameras were so new, nobody had really played with them on TV before we did the show,” Fontana said.
“The Beat” earned solid reviews when it debut on March 21, 2000, which was a welcome change for UPN. Variety called it “sharply executed.” In hindsight, Fontana thinks all that experimental camera work on the streets of New York was off-putting to the general public.
“The look of it was constantly changing from the personal stuff to the cop stuff — literally within a scene the look would switch,” Fontana said. “I’m sure a lot of the audience was like ‘There’s something wrong with my television.’ “
Ruffalo has good memories of working on the show, although the pace of the TV production schedule was a challenge at first. At one point, Ruffalo suggested to Fontana that his character could get killed off or somehow wind up in a coma for a few episodes.
“We were shooting 10 pages a day, and I am such a slow study,” Ruffalo recalled. “Derek and I were doing 10-page scenes, all talking bulls—- in a squad car. I told Tom, ‘If you kill me off, I’ll sit in a coma for three more episodes.’ “
Fontana laughed long and hard when he was reminded of his star’s unusual request. “It only shows that even though he was trying to be as professional as possible, he also kept a sense of humor about it all,” Fontana said. “That worked so well for the part. He just slid into it so beautifully.”
It was no surprise to Fontana to see Ruffalo’s career blossom after “The Beat” came and went in 13 episodes. (“Our biggest problem was that we were on the wrong network,” Fontana said, sounding the age-old showrunners’ lament.)
Fontana calls Ruffalo “one my favorite actors that I’ve ever worked with” and gives him major credit for having great taste in material.
“For the most part he has chosen the most wonderful material — stuff that matters,” Fontana said. “I only wish that I could work with him again. But I can’t afford him.”
Noting the never-ending stream of reboots and remakes that are flooding the TV airwaves, Fontana said he has a standing offer for his former star.
“If Mark wants to do a ‘Beat’ reboot, I’m available,” he joked.