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'24' gets help from Hopper's evil ways

The actor lends his considerable talent to play bad guys to the groundbreaking series as it winds its way toward a still-secret season finale.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 16, 2002

[Photo: Fox]
Dennis Hooper, true to bad-guy form, begins his stint on Fox’s 24 with tonight’s episode.
Dennis Hopper can't really remember the first time he played a villain on TV or in a movie. But he remembers the first guy who told him he'd spend much of his career doing it.

"When I was in my 20s, I remember Vincent Price telling me, "You should play bad guys. You're going to make a great bad guy,"' said Hopper, now 65. "And I thought, "Boy is he crazy. Just because he plays bad guys, he thinks I'm going to be playing bad guys.' But he was right. I make a pretty good living playing the bad guy."

The list of classic Hopper villains is nearly as long as the list of movies he's done, from the young tough opposite James Dean in the '50s film classic Rebel Without a Cause, to infamous roles as sadistic bad guys in Blue Velvet, Speed, Waterworld and HBO's Paris Trout.

Tonight Hopper's list of baddies grows by another notch when he joins Fox's critically acclaimed action series 24, playing the ultimate villain behind the worst day in hero Jack Bauer's life.

"I don't really know how I'm going to end up, but I hope it's badly ... I don't think this guy should be around long," joked Hopper during a telephone interview Thursday, noting that he had never seen an episode of Fox's ambitious real-time series when he agreed to play the role (Fox officials have begged reporters not to divulge the bad guy's name to preserve tonight's surprise, but if you've been following the show at all, you know who he's likely playing).

"I was in a scene today where there was so much going on, I was surprised by it constantly," the actor said, adding that scenes are often filmed with two or three cameras going at once. "The show has a real look ... (the camera) is out of focus sometimes or moving around. It gives you that real (life) feeling."

Hopper is one of two big-name actors to join 24's cast for the last few episodes (La Bamba's Lou Diamond Phillips, playing an unusual sort of prison warden, is the other), lending a final jolt of recognition to one of the most ambitious network TV series attempted.

For those who have missed it -- and ratings figures indicate that includes quite a few of you -- Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer is a stalwart government agent trying to stop a plot to kill the first African-American with a credible chance at winning the presidency, Sen. David Palmer (Now and Again's Dennis Haysbert).

As he digs deeper, Bauer learns the plot is actually masterminded by the sons of a former adversary, who now want to eliminate Bauer's wife and teenage daughter as well.

All this might come off as a typically dense Mission: Impossible-style spy series but for an important twist: every episode takes place in real time -- a minute for the audience is a minute for the characters.

The series started at midnight the night before California's primary election and advances, hour-by-hour, through what must rank among the most eventful days any single human being has ever had.

Along the way, Bauer's wife and daughter have been kidnapped (terrorists tried to use them to pressure him into helping kill Sen. Palmer), Bauer has shot a fellow agent with a tranquilizer gun and escaped twice from the Secret Service.

Bauer's wife has amnesia after watching her car tumble over a cliff while fleeing an assassin. Bauer's daughter has been arrested with a pack of armed drug dealers while they were robbing a supplier who turned out to be an undercover cop.

And the day doesn't end until May 21's episode.

Each show speeds by in an impossibly relentless barrage of developments. But, according to executive producer Howard Gordon, that's one of the show's charms.

"What's remarkable to me is how cohesive the thing feels ... how well the whole thing has come together," said Gordon, adding that producers haven't yet finalized the season-ending script. "The show really is about its relentlessness. (It) proceeds at such a breakneck pace that if there are holes, we're sort of skipping over them before we get there."

Still, some fans complain the real-time aspect of the show is stretched awfully thin.

Characters drive from one location to another far too quickly for crowded Los Angeles highways. The body count of those killed stands at nearly 30, but no major characters have spent much time under arrest or in questioning. You rarely see characters shower, sleep, eat or use the restroom.

Split screen graphics allow producers to transition seamlessly between different locations, or show several characters in different places at once -- particularly when talking to each other on the telephone. A clock pops up when heading to or returning from commercials, just to remind viewers it's all happening in real time.

And while many shows avoid scenes showing characters on the telephone (mostly because it's boring), cellular telephone calls have become integral in spicing 24's narrative -- adding excitement to real-time car trips and hospital waiting-room scenes.

"This show is absolutely a child of the cell phone," said Gordon, laughing. "But I said the same thing about The X-Files, and I did The X-Files for four years. The split screen has been a way to answer what ... traditionally has been something people are scared of ... (namely), the phone call as a dramatic device."

And for those barely hanging with the show's more implausible elements, Teri Bauer's amnesia -- she fainted when her car fell over a cliff, convinced her daughter was inside, only to wake up with no memory -- was the final straw.

Gordon agrees ... sort of. "We all feel that the amnesia at some level may have been stepping our toe over the line ... It may not have been our finest moment," the producer added. "(And) I think it's a given that everybody is tired and hungry and probably in need of a shower by now."

But for a show Gordon calls a "turbocharged soap opera," such liberties are to be expected. "Some of the implausibilities ... are kind of the things that are the show's charm," he added. "Someone once said art aspires to improbable possibility. I think that's sort of where this ... (is) trying to be."

For Hopper, a veteran of more than 120 TV shows and films, including EdTV, Apocalypse Now, Easy Rider, Cool Hand Luke, True Romance and The River's Edge, joining this complex show in midstream is hardly a problem.

"If you talk about Blue Velvet ... the first scene I had with Isabella Rosselini ... I had never met her or (director) David Lynch. We met on the set in the morning and we do the scene where I rape her ... with Kyle MacLachlan in the closet," he said. "In movies, you get (to a set), you've never met the people and you're suddenly in bed with them making love to them."

In tonight's episode, provided early to critics for review, Hopper doesn't see much action -- though all involved assure that will change quickly.

Still, as the finale approaches, one question looms.

What can they possibly do next season?

Though ratings haven't been spectacular (it's currently ranked 83rd among all prime-time TV shows, behind canceled series such as CBS' Citizen Baines and NBC's UC: Undercover), 24 has garnered enough viewership and critical acclaim to win support from Fox. It's also airing in the toughest time slot on television, competing with three popular shows: NBC's Fraser, CBS' The Guardian and ABC's NYPD Blue.

The San Francisco Chronicle has reported the show's chances of renewal are at "about 75 percent," meaning producers have to figure out what another season of 24 would actually be about.

Rumors abound: producers next season will scrap the real-time aspect; the show will focus on a new set of characters, replacing the entire cast; the series will offer contained episodes, like CBS' hit C.S.I., with no story lines that run from one episode to another.

This critic recommends producers keep the cast, serialized plot lines and "real-time" format, but stop confining one season's episodes to a single day. So viewers could still see some of the cooler aspects of 24's pacing while expanding the scope of storytelling to a larger canvas.

Gordon wouldn't say much about what a future 24 season might look like, though he admitted they are already brainstorming ideas. (Reportedly, security around the filming of the show's finale, to begin Thursday, is so strict that all involved must sign nondisclosure agreements).

"We wouldn't want to do it as another day, unless we were convinced that as a format it could sustain another equally compelling or even more compelling story," the producer noted. "But I certainly think it's worth trying again. The audience seems to really like it, and I think we have a great character at the center of it and a great format that may be a new way to do TV. So why not keep it going?"

* * *

AT A GLANCE: 24 airs at 9 tonight on WTVT-Ch. 13. Grade: A. Rating: TV-14.

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