After all that nastiness, McDermott is a funny pilot

There's a light, loopy quality to "LA to Vegas." It's the sort of thing you expect to see on Fox ... and the sort you don't expect to see with Dylan McDermott as one of the stars. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Dylan McDermott has spent decades in TV's darkest corners.

He saved murder
suspects on “The Practice,” caught killers on “Stalker” and
“Dark Blue.” As a cop in “Hostages,” he schemed to kill the
president; as a psychiatrist in the first “American Horror Story,”
he lived and worked in a haunted house.

So what's he up to
now? In the Fox comedy “LA to Vegas,” he's a pilot known for his
mustache and his ego.

“This is a great
way to go to work,” McDermott said. “After doing so much dark
stuff for so long .... They feed me, they pay me, I get to laugh.”

And they worry about
life's little questions, including: 1) How do you haul a body down an
aisle? And 2) How do you tell Dylan McDermott from Dermot Mulroney?

“LA to Vegas”
was created by Lon Zimmet, recalling the days when he would fly to
Las Vegas for quick poker weekends. “You just kind of get used to
the rhythms of that flight,” he said. “And you start seeing the
same sort of people.”

One time, he said, a
fellow passenger helped him when he had a coughing fit. He happened
to ask her why she'd been to Vegas and she casually mentioned it was
for a quick weekend of making porno films. “She was the sweetest,
most unassuming girl in the world, and she (mentioned) it like it was

So this version
includes a sweet-spirited stripper, played by Olivia Macklin. “I
tried to do research,” she said. “(But) there really are not a
lot of comedic strippers out there.”

And it includes
crises that are sheer fiction. In the second episode (Jan. 9), a
passenger quietly dies. The flight attendant (Kim Matula) asks a
regular passenger (Ed Weeks) to help casually move it.

“I remember
saying, 'Just cast a little guy, (because) we're going to have to
believe they can move him around,'” said producer Steve Levitan.
“And then somebody was friends with Tim Stack and they cast him.
And he shows up and he's like 6-3 and 210. I mean, he's a big guy.”

Eventually, the crew
concocted a way to hide a small gurney under a large man covered by a
sheet. Stack – the former “Son of a Beach” star – was
“stellar at playing dead,” Levitan said.

And for the third
episode (Jan. 16), the show had an inside joke: The pilot (Dylan
McDermott) was unable to fly that day and his replacement was his
nemesis ... played by Dermot Mulroney.

People have been
confusing those two names almost forever; there was even a “Saturday
Night Live” sketch about it. “It's been 30 years,” McDermott
said. “It's a very long joke .... When I would do a bad movie or
bad show on television, I would blame him.”

And now?. “Here we
are for the first time on-camera together ... and we had the best
time,” McDermott said. Pleasant things can happen, when you exit
the dark corners.

-- “LA to Vegas,”
9 p.m. Tuesdays, Fox

-- Debuted Jan. 2;
the dead-guy episode is Jan. 9, the Dermot Mulroney one is Jan. 16


This Amazon epic had danger, discovery ... and an ex-president

My own bucket list has never included a trip through the Amazon, where even the sloths are dangerous. But then again, I'm no Teddy Roosevelt. On Tuesday (Jan, 9), PBS has an ambitious film about Roosevelt's adventure in 1914. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

We all know what
ex-presidents do. Some paint, some para-sail, all write books and
give speeches ... but only one went on a deadly journey down an
uncharted tributary of the Amazon.

That was Teddy
Roosevelt, in an idea that spiraled. He “had a plan to do some
adventure travel,” Tweed Roosevelt said of his great-uncle. “But
it wouldn't have amounted to anything more.”

Then Brazil's
foreign minister suggested Roosevelt lead a mission to chart what was
then called The River of Doubt. The result – which will be traced
Tuesday in a PBS documentary -- was epic.

“Before it was
over, one member of the expedition had drowned, another had committed
murder and ... was abandoned to perish in the jungle,” said John
Bredar of WGBH, the station that produces the “American Experience” series. “Roosevelt
himself would be bady injured and (almost) left behind to die.”

He survived, but
died five years later, at 60. His widow said the ordeal had robbed
five years from his life; “it probably took more,” Tweed
Roosevelt feels.

But one survivor
seemed unfazed. Candido Rondon would live another 43 years, dying at
92. “TR never would have gone on this without Rondon,” Tweed
Roosevelt said.

This was officially
the Roosevelt Rondon Expedition. It was not the usual white-man
journey into native territory, said Larry Rohter, a Rondon

“Rondon (was)
5/8ths Indian descent ... He was an orphan from the age of 2, poor.
Grew up in what was essentially an Indian village until he was 7 and
went to study in school.”

He was a
“postivist,” Rohter said, believing in the quality of the people
deep in the jungle. He worked with them while bringing power lines
into the Amazon area – and during this river expedition.

The two leaders had
much in common, but also had key differences. Rondon never wavered
from his goal of charting the river meticulously; Roosevelt, however,
soon was more worried about the son who had accompanied him and was
planning to marry when he got home.

Eventually, Tweed
Roosevelt said, the ex-president “only wanted to get his son out
alive. On the other hand, Rondon (was) a tremendously committed man”
who stuck to the charting goal.

The mission would
take more than three months, emerging with the first map of what
became Rio Roosevelt. It was a huge project ... as was the “American
Experience” film.

The documentary
makes rich use of old photos and movies, but also required new
footage on an Amazon tributary, shot in black-and-white. (“The
overwhelmingness of the green ... just felt too much,” said
producer-director John Maggio.) There were the expected dangers, plus

One cameraman,
Maggio said, decided to pose with a sloth. “You think, 'What damage
could a sloth do? They're so slow.' Well, it slowly grabbed his
forearm and it took five (people) to pull the claws off.”

The natives fixed
the gash with the resin of a local bean. These were skilled guides,
Maggio said; the leader, Abhijius, had recently taken David Beckham
on a motorcycle trip through the Amazon.

“Beckham gave him
these designer boots that he wore the whole time. The only thing that
Abhijius could say to me in English was 'Beckham boots.'”

-- “American
Experience: Into the Amazon,” 9-11 p.m. Tuesday (Jan. 9), PBS


"The Four" searches for a star ... or, at least, a ratings hit

Do we really need another music-reality show? Well, Fox needs one ... and it's the network that started it all. So "The Four" starts Thursday (Jan. 4); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

music-competition show is upon us..

Fox's “The Four”
has solid roots, a big build-up ... and a network that desperately
needs it.

“There's nothing
like a big, unscripted hit to drive viewership,” said Dana Walden,
Fox's co-CEO. Consider:

-- CBS was the
old-folks network, the place where Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke
solved mysteries. Then “Survivor” debuted in the summer of 2000;
it would spend its first four seasons in the Nielsen top-10, bringing
young viewers who also caught “Big Brother,” “Amazing Race”
and more.

-- In its first 15
years, Fox never had a show in the top 15. Then “American Idol”
arrived in 2002 and soon scored -- fifth, then second (twice), then
No. 1.

-- NBC soon imported
other concepts. “America's Got Talent” arrived in 2006,
dominating summers; “The Voice” followed in 2011, toppling

-- As “Idol”
drooped, Fox decided the 15th season would be the last.
But ABC – fresh from failures with “Boy Band” and “Duets” –
is restarting the show April 11, after it missed only one season.
“The fans have been clamoring for it,” network chief Channing
Dungey said.

And now Fox is back,
with an Israeli concept. “It's really an experiment .... an event,
(so it) has to run across less weeks,” said Rob Wade, Fox's
reality-show chief.

This will be six
Thursdays, during a stretch when “Voice” is resting. Four music
pros – Sean “Diddy” Combs, DJ Khaled, Meghan Trainor and
Charlie Walk – choose four singers. Each week, newcomers challenge
them; on the finale, the four survivors challenge each other. “It's
basically like 'Game of Thrones,'” Wade said, “with better
singing and less nudity.”

Those experts will
try to push the winner to stardom, Walden said. That's “been
missing lately in music competitions.”

For a while, “Idol”
brought superstar winners (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood) and more
(Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Katharine McPhee, etc.). Now “Four”
tries to do the same.

-- “The Four,”
8-10 p.m. for six Thursdays, starting Jan. 4, Fox


They failed their way into Broadway triumph

OK, we're back. A technical glitch caused this to go blank for two weeks. I was still sending stories and columns to papers, but the Web site was in limbo. Now it's all set; I've put the stories and columns back here, even if -- like this one -- they're a tad outdated now.

By Mike Hughes

There's something to
be said for failing at a good school.

It helps you find
your true field. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul can tell you that; “we
bonded over our failure,” Paul said.

Now they're hot
songwriters. Their “Christmas Story” will be live Sunday on Fox
.... three days before their “The Greatest Showman,” with Hugh
Jackman, reaches theaters. They've won a Tony for best musical (“Dear
Evan Hansen”) and an Oscar for best song (“City of Stars,” from
“La La Land”).

These composers,
both 32, reached the University of Michigan's prestigious
musical-theater program from opposite parts of the country – Pasek
from Philadelphia, Paul from St. Louis. Then things crashed.

“We quickly
learned that we were the two worst ballet dancers in our class,”
Pasek said.

They had dreamed of
being singer-dancer-actors. Pasek was cast once, as “man with
camera”; Paul said he was cast as a backup dancer, “and I
couldn't even dance.”

Instead, they began
writing songs together. (Paul, a pianist, leans toward the music,
Pasek toward the lyrics) and scored. In 2005, “Edges” -- a
collection of their songs – debuted near the campus; two years
later, they won the Jonathan Larson Award for young composers.

Broadway was tough;
their “Christmas Story” had a brief run in 2012, getting
nominations for best musical and its score. TV was more promising;
they wrote for “Smash,” “Johnny and the Sprites” and the
“Flash” musical episode.

Then “La La Land”
and “Dear Evan Hansen” soared. “All of a sudden, we were a lot
smarter in meetings,” Pasek jokes.

Hollywood hired them to do some of the songwriting for Jackman's
Barnum movie and for Disney's upcoming, live-action versions of
“Aladdin” and “Snow White.” And now their “Christmas Story”
-- with some new songs – has its TV moment.

-- “A Christmas
Story Live,” 7-10 p.m. Sunday, Fox.

-- Benj Pasek and
Justin Paul have added new songs to their 2012 musical (based on the
1983 movie), including an opener sung by Bebe Rexha.

-- In addition to
its young actor, it stars Matthew Broderick, Maya Rudolph, Jane
Krakowski, more.

Her career cruise has ranged from soaps to Trump to the Queen Mary

OK, I'll admit there are too many -- well, WAY too many -- Christmas movies. Still, the people behind them are interesting. Here's the story I sent to papers about Vivica Fox, who produced and stars in "Christmas Cruise," Dec. 16, 23 and 25 on Ion.

By Mike Hughes

In her big, busy
career, Vivica Fox keeps meeting interesting people.

There was Kristoff
St. John, the pioneering soap star. He worked with her on
“Generations,” a generation ago ... and on “Christmas Cruise,”
which debuts Saturday.

And there was Donald
Trump, her “Celebrity Apprentice” boss. Her verdict? “Charming.
Strikingly handsome .... As a businessman, he was very good; as a
president, not so good.”

She thrived on the
show (which was taped in 2014) , finishing third of 16, behind only
Geraldo Rivera and winner Leeza Gibbons. It was a great experience,
she said, despite Trump being distracted. “He kept saying he was
going to run for president. He was obsessed with it.”

One thing – maybe
the only thing – Trump and St. John share is height. That's
important to Fox, who used to be rejected for parts because she's
5-foot-7. Then she saw St. John; “I was glad to see this tall
(6-1), very good-looking man.”

A college kid, fresh
from Indianapolis, she had a little acting experience. (“They had
to keep telling me not to look at myself in the monitor.”) She'd
done some “Days of Our Lives” episodes and the pilot for “Living
Dolls” ... which promptly replaced her with another promising black
actress, Halle Berry.

Now she was in
“Generations,” the first soap to have a black family as an
integral part from the beginning. St. John played a rising
businessman; he then moved to “The Young and the Restless,” where
he's been for 25 years, winning a daytime Emmy and lots of

Fox did “Y&R”
briefly, but she went on to big movie roles, starting with
“Independence Day” and “Soul Food” in 1996-97. She's had
regular or recurring roles in TV series, from “Arsenio” in 1997
to the current “Empire,” where she'll be back in the second half
of the season as Cookie's sister Candace.

And resisting all
the trends for actresses' careers to fade, she began creating her own
work. She produced a successful cable series (originally called
“1-800-MISSING”), a reality show (“Glam God”) and lots of
cable movies, including “The Wrong Child,” “The Wrong Student,”
“The Wrong Crush” and “The Wrong Man.” Apparently, a lot goes
wrong in Lifetime movies.

Fox also did last
year's “A Husband for Christmas” for the Ion network. “It did
really well, so they said, 'How about another one?'”

Sifting through
scripts, she found “Christmas Cruise,” which resists most holiday
cliches, including snow. “We even got to work on the Queen Mary
(now anchored in Long Beach), which was beautiful.”

And she got to cast
St. John. He plays the cruise director, who's all about fun; she
plays a passenger who keeps thinking of work.

For Fox, that's
perilously close to type-casting. “I'm a very Type-A personality,”
she admitted. That gives her at least one thing in common with her
old “Apprentice” boss.

-- “A Christmas
Cruise,” 9-11 p.m. Saturday (Dec. 16)

-- Repeats on 1 a.m.
on the night of Dec. 23, then 9 p.m. Dec. 25