A nuts-but-true prison-escape story becomes a compelling mini-series

There are lots of good TV shows and a few truly great ones. The latest (and, almost, greatest) is "Escape at Dannemora," a superb, seven-week mini-series (debuting Nov. 18), with director Ben Stiller getting amazing work from Patricia Arquette, Eric Lange, Bonnie Hunt and more. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In the summer of
2015, a New York prison escape seized national attention.

“I just thought it
was nuts,” Eric Lange, a co-star of the “Escape at Dannemora”
mini-series, recalled. “It was mind-blowing -- sex in prison,
cutting through steel.It was all like this big soap opera.”

For 170 years, the
prison held everyone from Lucky Luciano to Tupac Shakur, without
escapes. Now two murderers were free; three weeks later, they were
shot (one fatally) within 35 miles of the prison.

Fresh details kept
emerging in the news, recalled producer Brett Johnson. “When you're
watching it in real time: 'Holy (crap), this guy's a painter .... His
paintings are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.' And then you find
out she was having sex with both” men, prior to their escape.

“She” is Joyce
“Tilly” Mitchell, a worker convicted of aiding them. In “Escape,”
Patricia Arquette creates Tilly's unusual sound (“we had a great
dialect coach”) and look.

This was a chance,
Arquette said, “to show a woman who enjoys sex, who doesn't have
this type of body that Hollywood people are supposed to have.”

Arquette didn't
arrive with a Tilly body, but she built it. “We became buddies,
trying to gain weight,” said Lange, who plays Lyle Mitchell, her
husband. “We'd sit at the table, eating pasta.”

In two months, Lange
put on 40 pounds. “It totally affected how I walked, how I did

It helped him adjust
to the heaviness of the world these people inhabited.

Dannemora is a town
of 3,900 people – almost 3,000 of them prisoners – just 25 miles
from Canada. “They call it 'Little Siberia,'” Lange said. “They
say there are two seasons – winter and July.”

The mini-series
people – who did some filming outside the prison and in the town –
recall the mood. Arquette calls it “desolate.” Ben Stiller, who
directed, talks of “the heaviness they were living with.” Paul
Dano, who plays one of the escapees, recalls “the smell, the
temperature in the air, the sound.”

The town has “a
lot of really lovely people,” Lange said. Some had adjusted to a
no-frill life. “The most exciting part of Lyle's day is, 'Where are
we going to eat today?' And for him, that's enough.”

His wife is
different, Arquette said. She “is kind of bored and wants to feel
alive. I'd hear these stories of all these people who were having
affairs .... I think we as a species want to feel alive.”

Tilly “would play
the top-40 music station in the tailor shop all the time,” Stiller
said. “Here's 40 convicted felons and one civilian worker and one
corrections officer in a room.”

The Mitchells had a
working-class, Americana life -- something Lange, 45, can relate to.
He grew up near Cincinnati, in Hamilton, with a dad who worked with
software and a stay-at-home mom.

“I was alway in
choir,” he said. “I would drum, I would play the piano, I would
sing.” When there was no choir available to high school freshmen,
he tried the drama club. “The curtain went down, then went up again
and everyone clapped. That was it; I was sold.”

He did lots of
theater at Miami (Ohio) University, then found jobs in California.
Many were in heavy dramas – the villain in the first year of “The
Bridge,” the station chief in “Narcos,” the coroner in “Wind
River,” Mitch in a stage “Streetcar Named Desire.” But he also
played the theater teacher in “Victorious,” a broad teen comedy
that propelled Ariana Grande, Elizabeth Gillies and more.

A casting director
asked him to audition for “Escape” and sent a tape of Lyle being
interviewed. “He seemed befuddled and confused,” Lange said. “It
was really quite moving.”

Lange added a wig
and fake teeth and auditioned. Forty pounds later, he entered a
“nuts” world.

-- “Escape at
Dannemora,” 10 p.m. Sundays for seven weeks starting Nov. 18,

-- Opener reruns
daily – 11:05 p.m. Sunday, 9 p.m. Monday, 7:55 p.m. Tuesday, 10
p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 9:30 p.m. Friday, 10:30 p.m. Saturday
(Nov. 24), 1:55 and 6:55 p.m. Nov. 25.