The New Zealand-born actor (right) is part of the large ensemble cast starring in ABC's spooky new drama Happy Town, premiering tonight at 10 p.m. on ABC and /A\.
Way, way back in the '80s when I had just started working in Los Angeles for TV Guide Canada, I was asked to drive over to Beverly Hills and interview Neill at the offices of Barry Stagg, a Hollywood publicist (now toiling in Manhattan). The editors wanted me to get to Neill who had just shot a historical miniseries about to air in Canada.
At the time I was green-as-grass photo editor with very little writing experience. About the only celeb I had interviewed to that point was Richard Dean Anderson on the set of MacGyver. He was friendly enough, walking me through a tour of a location shoot (he showed me how cars were made to look like they were driving by rocking them up and down with two-by-fours under the chassis). I did get a dirty look when I asked him what it felt like to playing a $1.98 version of Indiana Jones on TV.
Armed with that same tact, I headed off to interview Neill. I was the last of a dozen or so journalists who had yakked with the actor that day. He was clearly out of gas and in no mood to play nursemaid to some idiot from Canada.
I asked him if period pieces were a special attraction. Not really, he replied. I informed him I was from Toronto, where the miniseries was shot, and asked if he enjoyed working in the city. It was okay, he said.
This went on for what seemed like an hour, but was probably only a few minutes. The dude didn't want to talk about anything. Finally I asked him what he wanted to talk about.
"Whales," he said. Long pause. Did he mean Ireland, Scotland, Wales, I asked. No, whales. Big, swim-in-the-ocean whales.
Neill was into whales. This did not help me at all. TV Guide tended not to run stories about whales.
After a few more torturous minutes, I left in defeat. I called the office in Toronto and confessed I had nothing. The message was not well received.
Today I would have asked Neill, politely, to stop being such an asshole. Back then I didn't know Jack.
I've told that story to a few other journalists and they all react the same way--not Sam Neill. He's always been great with me, they say. So I must have caught him on a bad day (and a few years before I should have been interviewing anybody).
He was nothing but friendly in the scrum following the ABC session for Happy Town last January in Pasadena, Ca. Neill cheerfully took all questions, said he loved shooting on the north shore of Lake Ontario. Much of Happy Town takes place in Port Hope, Ontario, as I wrote last week in Starweek magazine and earlier this year for The Canadian Press. Neill and most of the cast were driven each day to Port Hope from Toronto. The 62-year-old says he cooked and hosted several meals for the cast because apparently he had the largest apartment. "We had a big cast, most of us were away from home," he says. "It's good to have a home meal and have a few laughs."
Neill plays an eccentric outsider and movie buff who runs a local collectibles shop. He lives in a boarding house with seven widows who all adore him. "That was one of the things I really loved about it when I first read it," says Neill. "All these old widows like twittering birds just head over heels in love with this old geezer." The well traveled actor was just back from shooting The Last Dragon with Samuel L. Jackson in China and finds himself cast more and more in children's movies. "When you do kids films, you either play the dad or the villain or, increasingly in my case, the grandfather."
Happy Town features quite a few Canadians in the cast. Our deep talent pool was one of the reason the producers say they came to the Toronto area. Executive producer Scott Rosenberg says he had to fill 35 recurring roles with locals. “The call sheet was ridiculous,” he continued in the Starweek piece:
“Our casting director did a little grass roots poll and talked to all of her friends and found out there was this great, great wealth of talent in Toronto,” says Rosenberg, adding that, in his opinion, Vancouver is a little over fished.”
As a result, 80% of the cast is made up of Toronto actors,” he says, “and they’re amazing.”
One of the key roles went to 22-year-old Sarah Gadon (left), a Toronto actress who has appeared on The Border and Being Erica. She plays Happy Town high school love interest Georgia Bravin. “We never thought we’d be able to cast her,” says Appelbaum, who was looking for an actress who could walk a fine line between spooky and seductive. “You either get into that Gossip Girl thing or they’re too quirky,” he says.
Linda Kash—best known to Canadians as the Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese angel from a long-running series of commercials—also gets plenty of face time in Happy Town. Peter Outerbridge (ReGenesis) has a recurring role as “Handsome Dan.”
The producers admit that “there’s a lot of Twin Peaks DNA in Happy Town” and that comparisons with the early ‘90s ABC cult series are inevitable. “It’s a spooky, small-town show, and that was sort of the gold standard for spooky, small-town shows, so I think we have to embrace it,” says Appelbaum.