New Dramatic Series Finally Receives A Time Slot by Lou Angeli
(Hollywood, CA) -- The long-awaited TV dramatic series Rescue 77 has finally earned a time slot on the WB Network, as well as Warner's satellite programming service the WEB. According to Richard Firth, a resource consultant for Spelling Entertainment, Rescue 77 will begin airing on March 15th, replacing the WB's audience ailing Hyperion Bay.
Certain embargoes keep me from revealing the plot of the segment that I've reviewed, but I can say that it is totally different from the pilot episode that has seen substantial distribution within the fire service. (Now in Fred Windisch's trunk) The writers have revamped the premiere episode, to introduce various new characters, new equipment, and additional incidents that weren't included during the production of the initial episode.
Leading the creative team at Rescue 77 is former firefighter Greg Widen, whose collaboration with Ron Howard created the runaway motion picture hit Backdraft. Regardless of what some of us in fire and rescue may think of Backdraft, it remains the consumate film about the firefighting industry, and with a gross of $220 million, made a nice chunk of change for the Opie and the studio.
As I noted in my first report of Rescue 77 the story revolves around a mythical LA area fire station. The production crew has actually taken ownership of a former Glendale fire station, just on the other side of the tracks from LA city. The program is reminiscent of the television classic Emergency in as much as the storyline follows the exploits of the station's three-person paramedic team, thus the label Rescue 77.
Commanding Station 77 is veteran actor Richard Roundtree, whose first television series, ABC's short-lived Fire House, saw him as the minority rookie firefighter. Our own Jim Perry, recently retired from Los Angeles City FD, served as one of the technical advisors on that series.
As firefighters, TV often portrays us as stiff and dumb, lacking any real personality. But Widen breaks that mold, by portraying the lighter side of the job. Throughout the series, 77's real antagonist will be their second due Engine Company, whose characters balance the morose side of the job with a few laughs and antics.
The pilot episode also sees the addition of a second female firefighter, assigned to the 4-person Engine Company. And unlike the Baywatch-like babes that graced Fox's disgraceful LA Firefighters, this jake (or is it jane) is beefy enough to handle a deuce and a half, solo!
Manufacturers are well represented in this series, with Wheeled Coach and Pierce presenting the two major "Hero" rigs for the show. In reviewing some of the other scripts, TFT, Elkhart, American Pacific, Augustus Fire Tool, Ambu and a dozen other manufacturers are featured in subsequent programs.
To welcome Aaron Spelling, the Executive Producer, to our family, my partner Amy shipped him a new-tech fire helmet, with his name, and company designation 77. In a brief thank you note, he promised her a "compelling series, that will make your people proud." We'll see, Aaron, because on March 15th we're holding a fitting kickoff party for Rescue 77 during the FDIC in Indianapolis. Special speaker: Jim Cottrell.
Like Backdraft, 77's will likely have it naysayers - those who will lash out against the show or discredit some of the character portrayals. But I can say this, Rescue 77 is to the firefighting industry, what ER is to emergency medicine or what Homicide is to Cop shops. And with the recent fiasco in Boston, any medium that presents us in a good light is a godsend.
Rescue 77 will air each Monday evening at 9PM (Eastern-Pacific), 8PM (Central) and whatever time it is in the Mountain states. It will rerun on Tuesday evening March 16th at 9PM (Eastern).
Editor's note: The pilot episode of Rescue 77 will be shown Monday March 15, 9PM E.S.T. on WB Networks.
Date: Sun, 7 Mar 1999 16:38:40 EST
Subject: Interview With Greg Widen of Rescue 77
On Monday evening March 15th, the WB Network will debut its log awaited series Rescue 77, the first dramatic series dealing with Fire, Rescue and EMS since the ill fated Fox program LA Firefighters.
In advance of the series' premiere, Spelling Television granted Firefighter and Filmmaker, Lou Angeli, an exclusive interview with the program's Executive Producer, Gregory Widen, who is probably best known as the screenwriter for the blockbuster motion picture, Backdraft, directed by Ron Howard. Greg is a former firefighter and paramedic in Southern California, and since graduating from UCLA's film school, has been writing and directing for motion pictures and TV.
(Lou Angeli) “Greg, let me lead off by thanking you for the work you've done to present Fire, Rescue and EMS in a positive light to the general public.”
(Greg Widen) “Thanks!”
(Angeli) “Greg, what prompted you to develop the new series, Rescue 77?”
(Widen) “For years the Fire Department was a cold idea for Hollywood, because they just couldn't get a hold of the concept. The irony of this fire department theme is that when I was trying to make Backdraft, everyone came to me and said, ‘oh, fire department, that’s TV’ because they were thinking of Emergency. Then, when I was trying to do TV, they all said ‘firefighting, well that’s the movies.”
“For a long time the television business thought, ‘firefighting’, that means having to create a fire every week, and how do you do that? But what seemed to change everyone’s mind was the Oklahoma City Bombing, when they saw the Urban Search and Rescue Teams.”
“I think that the thought of divorcing firefighters from doing anything else but firefighting is often difficult for people to make in their minds. So, the Oklahoma City Bombing was like an anvil dropping on their heads, ‘oh firefighters do other things, too!”
(Angeli) “So suddenly Hollywood discovers that firefighting is a diversified job?”
(Widen) “Right, and Urban Search and Rescue was a big part of it. And that’s when people (in Hollywood) discovered they wanted to do a series about firefighters. They made one, not so good, a television show called LA Firefighters.
(Angeli) “I’m glad that one went away...”
(Widen) (he laughs) “...and they developed several pilots. And they still have a hard time getting their hands around it, but at least there was renewed interest in it.”
“WB came to me and said they wanted to do a paramedic-ambulance kind of thing. So, I just started telling them my stories from my days on the rescue ambulance. They said, gee, well we wanna do the Greg Widen story, and I kind of developed it from there.”
“In many ways it’s much more personal to me, because as great as Backdraft was, and as fun as it was, reality is that, when I was in the fire department, easily 80% of our calls were EMS. So to me, this TV series is much more true to life.”
(Angeli) “Greg, what about the distinction between EMS and Fire, even though they may fall under the same authority?”
(Widen) “Well, New York of course is completely separate, even though the name on the ambulances says FDNY. And in Chicago, medics are now firefighters, but that’s been only recently. But here in Southern California, since paramedics were invented here, they’ve always been an integral part of the fire department.”
“The LA County Fire Department first conceived of paramedics, but they were always firefighters first, and medics second. Then LA City hired civilian paramedics to work out of their stations, and it was an awkward situation.The medics felt envious of the firefighters, because the medics worked three times as hard. They also felt they weren’t getting respect that they deserved, and there was a lot of bitterness.”
“But most of the suburbs in and around LA, even the larger departments like Long Beach and Orange County, they all were firefighter/medics. Which makes so much sense to me, because if you get burned out, you just jump on a fire engine for awhile.”
“The problem they all have, which I guess is the problem in a lot of places is that no one wants to be a medic anymore. Even though it’s 17% higher pay, it’s just such a difficult job. And with fewer and fewer fires, the engines go out of the barn less and less, and the medics more and more.”
(Angeli) “And what you’ve done in this new program is to create a new fire department?”
(Widen) “It’s based on the LA City Fire Department, using their tactics and organization and the look of their uniforms. We call ourselves the Los Angeles Fire Authority...
(Angeli) “What an interesting idea...”
(Widen) “When I first did Backdraft, I could’ve walked into any fire department in American an they would’ve lent me anything they had. But that LA Firefighters thing really ticked off a lot of people. And we (Spelling Entertainment) came around, and everyone was reluctant, on a bureaucratic level, to be the guy that said ‘yes’ to another show that would embarrass them. So to make everyone happy, we didn’t call it city or county, but I must admit that they’ve been very pleased with the program.”
(Angeli) “How did you make the evolution from writing screenplays (for motion pictures) to working television, where you have to pump something out every two weeks or so?
(Widen) “I’ve always wanted to do a TV series, because I thought it would be fun. I still have a million firefighting stories left in me, but I wasn’t sure I had another movie in me. If you’re going to do a movie about firefighting, you have to have a really driving plot. But I wanted to do something more chaotic, sort’ve incident-based, slow development of character, which is kind of what the fire service is. To impose a plot on the fire department seems out of place, because it’s not the nature of the job.”
(Angeli) “So, how do you go about telling the firefighters’ stories?”
(Widen) “As far as the stories in it, I think that there’s a lot of station stuff. There’s a girl who dies in the pilot, which is a true story, that happened to me. Poignant stuff, because she actually asked me not to mess her up when she died. Then from my days of working on the ambulance, there is a lot of interaction with working with nurses at the hospital.”
(Angeli) “So the hospital plays a role in Rescue 77?”
(Widen) “Yeah, they go there every episode. It’s there other main hang out, other than the firehouse.”
(Banter about the old Firehouse Series)
(Angeli) “The other station members, do they have a role in the show?”
(Widen) “Yeah, we’ve got a character known as Peter Bridges who kind of emerges as an ongoing character. Firehouse antics, proding and probing between Wick Lobo and him. There’s a female firefighter who we introduce as a secondary character, named Carla, played by Mercedes Cologne. She comes in as a probationary firefighter, so she spends one whole episode being hazed.”
(Angeli) “Have you used real firefighters in the program at all?”
(Widen) “Yeah, we do alot. We have a couple of tech advisors, who throw the odd bit of dialog out, and they operate the machinery. There’s a highway accident with a newlywed couple who are trapped, one of them makes it, the other doesn’t. But that scene uses quite a few real firefighters during the extrication.”
(Angeli) “Sorry to interrupt Greg, but that strikes a chord. In other shows about the fire service, no one ever dies...”
(Widen) “In our show, it seems that half the victims die. One of our episodes opens with a 7 year old girl dying in a fire. Ours is much darker.
(Angeli) “I think it’s great that your exploring the dark side of the job”
(Widen) “We went easy in the beginning, because the fire service is so frightened at looking bad. It’s hard to explain to them that overall, you guys look great, but it’s a drama, and sometimes we have to make someone a pain in the neck who’s a firefighter.
(Angeli) “ Like Backdraft...”
(Widen) “When I was doing Backdraft I could’ve walked into any station in the country and gotten a cup of coffee, and (at that time) everyone thought that it made them the biggest heroes in the world. But when you look at that movie, of the three main characters, Scott Glenn’s a murderer, Kurt Russell’s a drunk, and and Billy Baldwin is a renegade, having sex with his girlfriend in the hosebed.”
(Angeli) “And yet it’s considered the most accurate portrayal of the fire service of any motion picture.”
(Widen) “Yeah, but if I tried to pitch that story to fire department out here, without ever having seen it, they would’ve shot it down instantly, because everyone’s not saying ‘yes ma'am’, ‘no ma'am’. And that’s frustrating. Overall you’re going to look fantastic, but it’s a movie, and somebody has to be less than perfect. And hopefully, we’ll be able to explore other issues in the department, the issues that matter.”
(Angeli) “You’ve written a wide variety of screenplays, The Prophecy and Highlander, and not all have been about emergency services. What do you like to write about?”
(Widen) “I like wide, epic pieces. Backdraft was a wide canvas movie. In our show, I like to try to create a sense of myth. For example, there’s a locked room at a firefighter bar, housed in an old fire station. Medics are only allowed to go into the room, and we don’t know why until the final episode.”
Interviewer’s Note: You’ll have to watch the show to learn the significance of the locked room.
“To take something that has a reality basis, and just give it that extra twist. And maybe that doesn’t exist anywhere, but it’s something that people would feel comfortable with.”
(Discussion about the Emergency series and that the old Station 60 on the Universal Lot, was renumbered to Station 51. It’s an in service station that is a set-piece on the Jurassic Park ride.)
(Angeli) “How does Spelling Television fit into this mix?”
(Widen) “A good friend of mine is President of Spelling, Johnathan Levine, and he came to me with the WB pitch. Aaron Spelling made it very clear to me that this was not going to be another Melrose Place or 90210, but it would be very different. He’s given us free-reign in terms of the dramatic element and unSpelling or New Spelling is the way to put it. Something that has an edge.”
"People have a preconceived notion of Spelling programs. I think that’s why the LA City Fire Department was so annoyed with us at first, because it was Spelling. You know, women firefighters in crop tops. And the great thing with Aaron is that he understands what the show is, and has embraced the drama and realism.”
(Angeli) “Does he like it?”
(Widen) “I think it’s a favorite over there, they like to have shows that are a little different than the usual mix. I mean, they watch an awful lot of teenage witches and high school kids.”
(Angeli) “Dropping to Backdraft for just a moment, I think the notion following the film’s release was that you were a former Chicago firefighter...”
(Widen) “Part of that might have been Universal, they screwed up writing a press release that said I was from Chicago. (laughs)”
(Angeli) “It seems to me that you took an awful lot of heat from some firefighters, you know the comments, ‘we never go in without SCBA’.”
(Widen) “In that film, anything that anyone did, someone in Chicago was doing. I mean I based Russell on a Chicago Captain, a legend. They told me that the guy would never buckle his coat, and refused to get on his knees at a fire.”
“The first time I started riding with the Chicago Fire Department, when I was first developing the idea, they knew I was a firefighter and they just had me jump on the rig and go into buildings with them. We went to a high school fire...and I’ve got bunker gear and a helmet on, and they said, ‘OK, let’s go!’
"And we go into this burning, smoked-charged auditorium and no one has a BA on. And we’re going deeper and deeper into the building, and my eyes are running and my throat's choking. I’m literally at the edge saying to myself, ‘I gotta get outta here’. And these guys are standing around me like it’s no big deal...and then, one of them lights a cigarette. But that was Chicago, the movie’s about Chicago and that’s how those guys were.”
(Angeli) “Greg, it’s obvious that you’ve done a lot for the fire service image, I’m curious, do you have a message for firefghters, or doesn’t it run that deep?”
(Widen) “I was a firefighter in the early 1980’s. And I think that there was this abhorence of EMS was a result of firefighters not liking the notion of medical care. I remember the older captains going around saying ‘If I wanted to deal with patient care, I would’ve become a nurse.’”
“There are no more fires! In LA there are half as many fires as there were a generation ago. But a firefighter does a lot more than squirt water.”
“The average Joe doesn’t know what the fire department does, except put out fires. I know that in LA you pretty much have to grab firemen by the ear and draft them into the EMS program. Even though these paramedic units are running around town with LA Fire Department written on them, nobody gets it.”
“It seems to me that the logical evolution is to have transporting Engine companies. The fire department has to evolve into something else, or their going to disappear.”
“It’s the failure of the fire department to present itself as a full-service rescue entity, which in a generation is what it’s all going to be.”
“I think that fire departments do a disservice to themselves when they don’t express their diversity to the public. Often, EMS and Rescue are treated as an embarrassment by fire departments, but it is becoming what they do.”
Amy Steelman will be offering an exclusive interview with Marjorie Monoghan, who plays the Senior Medic on Rescue 77. The program review will be issued on Tuesday March 9th.
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