- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Charles Durning appears to be asleep. His character, Supreme Court Justice Henry Hoskins, is seated on the bench, his Humpty Dumpty figure slumped, his face resting in his cupped hand.

"He may pretend like he's asleep, but he's using it as a device to cut out a lot of stuff except what he really needs to listen to," says Mr. Durning, explaining his character's sometimes snoozing demeanor.

James Garner plays Chief Justice Thomas Brankin. Joe Mantegna is the court's most recent appointee, Justice Joe Novelli, on the new CBS drama, "First Monday," which airs Friday nights (9 p.m. on WUSA-Channel 9).

Novelli, the series' central character, has a pivotal role in an evenly split court of four conservatives and four liberals. Brankin is a staunch conservative, and Hoskins is one of Brankin's closest allies.

Helping the justices are a group of young law clerks played by Randy Vasquez (Miguel), Hedy Burress (Ellie) and Christopher Wiehl (Jerry).

The courtroom and its surrounding corridors and offices have been built on sound stages at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood. The scale is impressive. The floors and pillars look like marble but they're just plaster.

"We have to dub in the click of footsteps afterward," explains Executive Producer Don Bellisario, whose military-court drama "JAG" also airs on CBS.

The veteran producer says it only took "20 seconds" to sell the concept of this new series to CBS President Leslie Moonves. He ticks off the compelling ingredients: well-known older actors for the justices; attractive, younger actors for the "passionate young clerks"; and "ripped-out-of-the-headlines" plots.

"I wanted to play Toto and pull the curtain aside to reveal the nine wizards behind it," says Mr. Bellisario, who believes the timing is right for the series about the inner workings of ultimate American justice.

September's terrorist attacks have "sobered the public up," Mr. Durning says. "They want to know what goes on, as we all do," so he hopes the series may prove to be a bit of an "eye-opener."

"Court Date" is the episode being shot on this day. It focuses on a young athlete's right to skip high school to play in the big leagues.

The young clerks chatter as they walk down the corridor, entering the court to hear the case being argued. The nine justices, dressed in their black robes, peer down from their eminence, interjecting questions and comment.

Mr. Durning says the view from the elevation of the justices' bench is "like looking down on people," but senses that "actually it seems a very humanistic and humbling experience, because as a judge, no matter your personal feelings, there must often be some conflict because the law is the law."

The actors have plenty of time to joke with each other as they wait for the complicated camera moves to find their mark.

Mr. Bellisario says a "little bit naughty limerick" element has been added to Mr. Durning's character, who tends to be politically incorrect around ladies. (That will not stop him from hitting it off in a future episode with a blind date, played by guest star Debbie Reynolds.)

On Mr. Mantegna's recommendation, Mr. Bellisario immediately bought the idea of casting Mr. Durning as Hoskins because "Charles brings a chuckle to everything. And a world of experience."

Mr. Durning describes himself as a "Depression baby" who left home in his midteens. His early jobs included ushering at a burlesque show, then quick-changing backstage to take to the boards as an all-singing, all-dancing comedy star.

He has been nominated for two best-supporting actor Oscars, one for his role as the prancing politician in 1982's "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," and the other for playing a Nazi in 1983's "To Be or Not to Be," also starring Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft.

He won a Tony for his role as Big Daddy in the 1989 Broadway revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

His role as the blustery small-town doctor Harlan Elldridge on the hit ensemble sitcom "Evening Shade" with Burt Reynolds, which ran from 1990-94, brought him two supporting-actor Emmy nominations.

Mr. Durning, who turns 79 on Feb. 28, knows well how to channel his energies, which probably explains his clever sleeping-old-dog take on the Hoskins character.

The cameras eventually find their marks. Mr. Garner's Brankin asks the basketball player's lawyer, "Are you saying this case is a slam-dunk?"

She insists it is, stressing that all the young man wants is to use "his talent to support his family."

Hoskins' eyes open with penetrating acuity.

"But counselor, where's it written in the Constitution that Mr. Greene has the 'right to work'?"

Mr. Durning utters his lines with perfect timing, clearly never asleep on the job.

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