Sunday, September 30, 2012 interview with John Wesley Shipp

I've been watching the old Flash TV series from way back in '90.  I only remember watching the 2 tapes they had at my local video store.  They were the 90 minute pilot and the episode (episodes?) with Mark Hamill as the Trickster.  That was it, I was not aware of this show when it was on TV.  But it's pretty awesome and a big part of the is John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen/The Flash.  Maybe at some point I'll put up a full review.  I was thinking of trying to track this guy down and trying to get an interview to talk about his awesome turn as The Flash.  I instead found this great interview at bigfanboy.  Mark Walters, the interviewer, does a great job and pretty much makes any subsequent interview pointless.  The whole interview is here ,  I'm including a portion of it here.  This sample covers how John Wesley Shipp got involved with the project, his thoughts on the character, the costume and criticism of the show.  I suggest reading the whole thing though.  Check it out after the jump.

MARK: Which takes us into THE FLASH. It's 1990, and Tim Burton's BATMAN is incredibly popular. I'm sure several studios in Hollywood were trying to think of what the next big comic-to-screen adaptation could be. When did they approach you for this series, and how did you feel when it was first offered?

JOHN: The first time I heard about THE FLASH I think was after Christmas, in January of '90. My manager had mentioned it to me. My first thought was... oh God, never. They want me to run around in a pair of red tights?! As fun as the former treatment of superheroes on TV was, it was not the kind of thing I really wanted to do. I didn't feel like they took them very seriously. Sort of like with SPIDER-MAN where they would hold the rope off camera and then throw the rope at him. But they assured me that it would be dark. And Howard Chaykin would be our story editor. And the theme would be Danny Elfman, with the score being a full orchestra. They would not have me running around, and they would be spending a lot of money on suits and high-tech construction. They ended up spending a $100,000 building four suits. That it would be dark is really what I wanted. The character at the beginning was. In other words it wasn't that I was going to go be Hugh Hollywood Hero, but rather my brother was killed by this sonuvabitch and I'm gonna go avenge his death using these powers that kind of freak me out. I really don't want to know from them, but in order to avenge my brother's death I will learn to use them. And so it comes out of more of a darker motivation. Things played differently. Barry did use his powers for good. But that's kind of how it came about. I was the first one to read for the part. They auditioned about 60 or 70 other guys, and then they took two of us to the network to be tested. And I got the part, and it was a very exciting day over at CBS.

MARK: Was it always going to be a big-budget production, or did that come after the conceptualization of it?

JOHN: It was Warner Brothers and CBS, and it was the most expensive show they had ever done for television, which I think is one reason we didn't go another season. It was always in the cards. Danny Bilson and Paul Demeo did not want to do a low-budget superhero treatment for television. That's not where they saw their career going. Danny had directing aspirations. In fact he ended up directing a couple of episodes including the final Trickster episode with Mark Hamill. None of us wanted to be involved in an inexpensive treatment of TV for a superhero. It was a very hefty budget from the beginning, and then we ran over. We were a nine-day shoot per episode. Our pilot we shot for like six weeks, it was a long shoot for a pilot. I heard we were like $6.5 million for the pilot. Which certainly in the early 90's, even today, was a lot of money for a pilot. But CBS was very excited. They touted the show as their big hit, and Jeff Sagansky who was president referred to me as their newest star. They had a lot of hype because the reviews were excellent. They had advance screenings, and I was gratified that the acting was also well received, which is not always the case in an action adventure that spends a lot of time on special effects. We went into the fall season with all flags flying and all guns blazing, I think too much so. Because they immediately scheduled us on their toughest night out of the gate with their biggest competition which was THE COSBY SHOW at its height and THE SIMPSONS at its height. We were sandwiched in between those two shows. Plus CBS had the baseball contract for that fall, so we went on the air for a couple of episodes, then we went off or were pre-empted for baseball. Then they brought us back on because they realized they were a little too cocksure putting us up against that kind of competition right out of the gate. The following year when I was at the Tonys in New York, Howard Stringer who was with CBS at that point said "We killed that show with our scheduling." They kind of took responsibility for that. It was with a mixture of relief and sadness that I got the news that we wouldn't be doing another season. It was the hardest thing I could ever imagine doing. We would be in at say 7:00 on a Monday morning, and we would work until 10:00 Monday night, then we'd be in at 10:00am on Tuesday and work until 1am, be back at 1:00 on Wednesday and work til 3 or 4am. Then they'd either force our call, meaning less than 12 hour turnaround, and by Friday or Saturday we'd be finishing in the backlot as the Warner Brothers executives were coming to work. By Saturday morning it wouldn't be unusual for us to be shooting until like 9 or 10 in the morning, and we'd be back in on Mondays at 7. I would wake up, and if it was low light outside I wouldn't know if it was dawn or dusk. It was a wacky schedule. We had guest stars come on, and about halfway through the week they'd go "You do this every week?!" And that's how it was from the third week in August until the second week in May, and we got four days off for Christmas. I don't even think we took Thanksgiving. It was just grueling. Because Danny, to his credit, he envisioned a big show and the agenda was we were going to do it right. It's not going to be laughable. There are humorous elements, but when people laugh it's going to be our jokes. So he kept the integrity of it. And I think what happened in the end partially was they were going to go another year and merchandising was kicking in. Warner Brothers owned DC Comics, so they would have a lot of money for merchandising. But the network either did not up their contribution enough, or they wanted to cut back on the amount of money they were putting up. Danny was simply not willing to produce the show for less than the amount of money it would take to get the right final product. So that was that, and I went off to New York to do Broadway.

MARK: A lot of actors don't like the idea of playing a superhero, for fear of being typecast. Did that thought ever go through your head, or do you think you guys were transcending that?

JOHN: I think we were transcending it. A couple of things I liked about Barry was that he was very much in contrast to the Flash persona. The Flash was the superhero. Barry was kind of this ordinary guy. I loved the way they setup the relationship with the father, and that it was really Barry's brother who was the blessed child. He had the father's blessing. Barry Allen was sort of the unblessed child. He was the guy that agreed to go in the crime lab because he didn't want to worry the family. And Jay was the street cop. Jay was the one who really had our father's blessing. So when the beeper would go off, everyone would assume that it would be Jay's, cause he was the tough street cop in the mold of the father played by M. Emmett Walsh. And it would be Barry, so it's the crime lab. You know at one point the mother says "Be careful" and the father says "What's he gonna do, stub his toe on a footprint?" I loved those elements about it. So you had a really intensely human character as Barry Allen, and then this ultra persona. I never really felt that I knew quite what to do with it. I loved the fact that his first reaction of running to catch the bus and ending up at the ocean, or reaching for a cup of coffee and having it break against the wall, it freaked him out and he wanted to get rid of it. I loved that was his first reaction and not "I'M GOING TO SAVE THE WORLD NOW!"

MARK: I was very impressed with the costume on the show. As you said they obviously spent a lot of money on it. What was it like putting that red suit on for the first time and seeing yourself in the mirror?

JOHN: It had been such an ordeal up to that point. To build the suit, first they had to do a full body cast of me. Each individual muscle component was sculpted and tailored to my body. I was working out a lot in those days, and it would just expand on my musculature. At one point they covered me in grease, put me in a leotard, used glue that got hot when it was setting, and glued on these each individual muscle pieces. And then they flocked it with this red material. It was challenging. The first time I put it on, I really remember... I think I was in shock. I was glad the way they lit it. It was dark. We always had problems with the suit, because of the same things that made it appear very real, that it breathed with me. So when I would sweat the suit would sweat, and it would pop right through the foam latex. They ended up putting a sealant on it, which would keep all the water inside, because really early on the foam latex started crumbling. I would have the suit on for a half and hour, and when you took the gloves off they were half full with sweat. It would come pouring out. It was unbearably hot. I couldn't sit down, they had a leaning board. The pilot was such an ordeal of shooting. You'd come over and grab my arm and water would pour out of it. Then they came up with a vest like race car drivers wear. You plug it into an ice chest and it circulates water through the vest. I would put that on under the suit. Then in between takes they'd plug me up to an ice chest, just to keep my body temperature down. You'd start to overheat, and suddenly you're listening to them less, and they're like "John?!" It was a challenge, every aspect of it was a challenge.

MARK: From what I could tell, critics seemed to like what they saw, and the comic fans thought it was pretty great too. Was it really the budget ultimately what killed it? It seemed like CBS didn't know what to do with it. They were constantly moving its timeslot, and a lot of fans had a hard time trying to keep up with it. Was there anything going on behind the scenes that kept them from being a little more grounded in their decision making?

JOHN: Like Howard Stringer says, they totally missed... that was kind of a transition period for television. You know they'd give Sally Field one episode or two episodes, you know what I mean? And if it doesn't get big ratings then they'd kill it. In the old days it took one and a half to two seasons for a show to find its audience. They would nurture shows. I think THE FLASH was kind of in the middle. The networks were going more towards stunt broadcasting which was calculated to grab big ratings right away, and there were shorter attention spans which meant if it didn't they would dump the show faster. I do know that Sagansky and them were all really behind the show. It was an industry show, and people in the industry loved it. Our reviews were wonderful. Washington Post, New York Times, Chicago Tribune... heavy hitters. Oddly enough the one sort of "take it or leave it" review we got was the L.A. Times, and a really scathing review from the associated press, which is actually the one I memorized. It was just so mean. All the other major publications not only liked it, they loved it. But I think that when it didn't get a big audience right away they were surprised. And everything they seemed to do made it worse. Toward the end of the season I remember getting a call from Jeff Sagansky saying don't worry about the ratings, we have merchandising that's going to begin next year. He said the show is great and you're doing a fantastic job... don't worry about it. Then later the decision was made. I think it was actually Danny and Paul, when they (CBS) said this is how much money we're going to put in next year, they said no. You know, we won't do it for that, it's too hard, too big of a show, we're not going to compromise. So it was a combination of low ratings, scheduling, and pre-emption... and also the cost.

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