- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

I recently went house hunting with Josh Brolin. Well, sort of. The 34-year-old actor, along with a retinue of grips, gaffers and other crew members, was in Washington last week to film exterior shots for an upcoming NBC series, "Mister Sterling," a drama about the personal travails of being a U.S. senator.
In a scene filmed at the intersection of 10th and T streets NW, the eponymous Mr. Sterling a hunkish, do-gooding Southern California lawyer appointed to a seat in the U.S. Senate after its scandal-plagued occupant dies checks out a dilapidated row house owned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Maintaining two residences in two of the most expensive real estate markets in the country Los Angeles and the District is tough on a senator's salary.
Contrary to popular belief, not every senator can afford, say, a neo-Georgian mansion in the District's tony Kalorama neighborhood and still live in style back home.
These are the kinds of quotidian dilemmas "Mister Sterling" promises to focus on, unlike NBC's other political drama, the increasingly partisan "The West Wing."
"It's not about politics or government. It's about interesting characters in a highly pressurized environment," says Lawrence O'Donnell Jr., the Emmy Award-winning producer of the first two seasons of "The West Wing" who now is at the creative helm of "Mister Sterling."
Mr. O'Donnell, a frequent "McLaughlin Group" panelist and MSNBC senior political analyst, says the show, which he conceived about 10 years ago for a movie script he later shelved, is scheduled to air in January.
As you may have noticed the last time you flipped through the gusty gasbaggery of C-SPAN on your way to lighter fare, public proceedings in the Senate aren't exactly entertaining the great "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" notwithstanding.
But that was Jimmy Stewart. He could make taut drama out of painting the living room.
Still, Mr. O'Donnell thinks there's enough about the life of a U.S. senator to draw a wide viewership.
Riveting television, he says, can be done anywhere people are thrust into challenging situations.
"You can do it in a courtroom. You can do it in an emergency room, and I think you can do it in the Senate," he says, peeking at video playbacks from behind the director's chair.
Mr. O'Donnell would know: For three years he was a senior adviser to former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, New York Democrat, and later was chief of staff of the Senate Finance Committee, one of the most powerful legislative panels in Congress.
Before he was a political honcho, however, Mr. O'Donnell was a screenwriter so he's well aware of the dramatic limits of inside-the-Beltway parlor games.
Although it necessarily dabbles in politics, "Mister Sterling" steers clear of editorializing or punditry.
The wager is that television audiences will find the personal tribulations of a nonmarried senator who looks like Josh Brolin more dramatically compelling than "where he is on the capital gains tax cut," as Mr. O'Donnell puts it.
Probably not an unwise wager.
Second, there's Mr. Brolin himself: He's bookish and articulate but apolitical.
And he's acutely uninterested in being a big-time Hollywood leading man: In 18 years of acting, he says while taking a breather from a long day of shooting, "I think I've always fought against that."
Thus, he brings to the role of "Mister Sterling" precisely the kind of smarts and detachment that Mr. O'Donnell envisioned for the character.
Sterling is, not unlike director Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith," without pretense, foul motives or unchecked ambition nearly to the point of naivete.
"[Mr. ODonnell] hired me to do this role, which I think is very clever," Mr. Brolin says, "because I'm not right for the role."
Mr. Brolin may seem a little on the young side to those of us familiar with some of the more seasoned gentlemen of the Senate. (The age-defying careers of Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, and Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican, come quickly to mind.)
However, Mr. O'Donnell points out that, while senators in their 30s are unusual these days, they're not unprecedented, either.
"[Delaware senator] Joe Biden was elected at 29 and was sworn in at 30," he says. "[Massachusetts senator] Ted Kennedy was elected at 30."
The Sterling character is "definitely Lawrence O'Donnell," Mr. Brolin says. "I think it's in his imagination somebody that he wished existed when he was involved in the Senate" a "straight shooter," someone with an allergy for the ornaments and idleness of politics.
It was Mr. O'Donnell himself who convinced Mr. Brolin that he should take a role he may have shied away from had it been pitched by someone else.
"I just responded to Lawrence O'Donnell Jr.," Mr. Brolin says. "He's a great dichotomy: this kind of angry, Irish, visceral man with an incredible intellect."
So it is, to some extent, with Sterling.
"He's not a bureaucrat," Mr. Brolin says, "and he's not comfortable with that way of dealing with people."
As it avoids the left-liberal edge of "The West Wing," "Mister Sterling" also makes a decent effort to avoid the dopey mistakes of "D.C.," the WB network's deservedly short-lived Capitol Hill drama that saw twentysomething strivers living in a reality free zone: a stately Georgetown town house, expensive suits and corny idealism.
To ensure authenticity, Mr. O'Donnell has taken a few Capitol Hill refugees onto his staff, including Kevin Ryan, formerly chief of staff for Rep. Anthony D. Weiner, New York Democrat.
"I've been working with Lawrence and the writing staff, helping them work through story ideas just to make sure they remain accurate," says Mr. Ryan, who worked on the Hill for eight years and lived in Mount Pleasant before decamping to Los Angeles last January.
One of things he's helped the show's writers get a handle on is the bewildering lingo used by Capitol Hill staffers.
In the pilot episode of "Mister Sterling," for example, Tommy Doyle (William Russ), one of the new senator's top aides, describes himself as "Leg. Director."
The locution shorthand for legislative, pronounced "ledge" will sound familiar to the legion of Hill employees who actually use that word frequently enough to feel the need to abbreviate it.
Chris Campione, formerly an information technology administrator in the District office of Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, says the replica of "Sen. Sterling's" Russell Building office suite is accurate in ways that even Hill staff won't notice.
Arcane chamber rules allow marble to be used only in certain parts of a senator's office, he says. "Sen. Sterling's office" complies with those rules.
The meticulous attention to little details can only go so far, though. Before filming on Pennsylvania Avenue downtown, a member of the crew slaps a pair of "Potomac Grille" signs on the building that houses the National Council of Negro Women Inc.
"Potomac Grille?" you ask.
It's modeled after the nearby Capital Grille, the posh steakhouse at 601 Pennsylvania Ave., where mostly Republican lawmakers and their staffs rarely pay for a meal, thanks to the phalanx of lobbyists that hangs there when Congress is in session.
So, is "Sen. Sterling" a Republican, then?
That would be giving too much away.
Find out for yourself in January, when Hollywood and Washington our culture's twin peaks of hard celebrity glitter converge once again.


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