On the Road Again
Back on Viper after four years away, James McCaffrey sounds a little uncertain about how he feels to be sharing the screen with the most famous vehicle since the Batmobile. "I'm not a car guy," he confesses on a day off from shooting the Vancouver-based series. "I really lack the proper appreciation for any kind of sports cars. I don't like fast cars, I don't like speed. They offered me a Viper the first season, but I said, 'No thank you - I drive a Mercedes.'"
Since his departure in 1994 from the show which subsequently left NBC for syndication, McCaffrey has gained a new appreciation for both the car and the series. "When I left, I wanted out," he admits frankly. An Actor's Studio alumnus who prefers stage to television, McCaffrey was unhappy with the fantastical aspects of the show and the emphasis on the futuristic car, choosing to make himself unavailable when the series picked up production in 1996.
But the executive producers of Pet Fly Productions remained friendly with McCaffrey, offering him subsequent roles despite his decision to leave Viper. "They're very loyal, great people, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo," says McCaffrey. "In the past five years since I worked with them, they've been overly generous with every new project that they've started up, but I was always busy. They called again and said, 'We're starting up a new season of Viper, would you come back and be the driver,' and I said no again at first, but then I left a project I had been working on; it was a timing thing. It feels very strange, but good, to be back."
Something old, something new, not to mention something blue: McCaffrey is back to replace Jeff Kaake, whose character Thomas Cole has been removed from the Viper team, and the series has a brand-new Viper, a blue GTS Coupe, to replace the RT/10 Roadster destroyed in last season's final episode. In addition to missile ports, battle bumpers, and a capture net, the new vehicle can operate in amphibious mode as a hovercraft as well as a new 4x4 mode. The Chrysler Corporation, which created the Viper and worked with Paramount to develop the series, built the limited-edition vehicle and the Defender into which it morphs.
"The first season I totally disrespected the car," laughs McCaffrey. "I thought, this is a wanna-be Maserati. But I've been proven wrong - I've seen several articles, the front cover of Car and Driver magazine and a lot of the huge sports car publications rank the Viper as the number one road-worthy sports car in the world in all the different categories of sports car driving, 0-60, 0-100, braking, turns. According to these articles, the Viper doesn't just beat all of the other cars, it blows them away." The Viper was named by Fortune magazine as a "Product of the Year" and selected as the pace car for the 1996 Indianapolis 500.
McCaffrey blames his own bad attitude for much of his displeasure with his first Viper experience. "I had just been fired from a new show, NYPD Blue, so NBC asked PetFly to look at me for this series. I told my agent, thank you but no - I ended up doing it anyway, but it was far from what I really wanted to do, which was NYPD Blue." McCaffrey didn't try to understand the concept of the show, set "the day after tomorrow," nor was he interested in the high-speed chases and sophisticated weapons. "Now I have a better attitude and I have a little better understanding, and it just makes it a lot easier to work on."
The Irish-born actor intends to play Joe Astor as someone who enjoys driving as opposed to law enforcement, using the job as an excuse to have fun with the car and the people. "I think I am going to be romancing Cameron Westlake [played by Heather Medway]," he says hopefully. "It would be a pleasure. I see that it's going towards a little romance with us. We have fun with some flirtation, and it builds throughout the episodes, so we'll see about that."
McCaffrey never worked with Medway before, since she wasn't on the series at the time he left, but he did work with Joe Nipote, who plays mechanic Frankie Waters. "It's great to work with Joe again - he's still a goofball, but not as much," kids his co-star. "He seems to have lost some of the mechanic thing; now he's like an undercover cop. I don't know how that happened, or why. Each episode that we read, I say, you don't work on my car anymore!" Nipote may not be fixing the Viper much these days, but he gets to go undercover as a stripper in an upcoming episode, so he's probably not complaining much.
Because he hadn't followed the show during his absence, the producers gave McCaffrey tapes of episodes to watch so that he could catch up. He watched "just to make sure that whatever I was doing wasn't going to be anything like what it was." Joe Astor is nothing like Kaake's Thomas Cole and indeed only similar to the version of the character McCaffrey played five years ago: "Just the backstory and the criminal past. They've allowed me to have a lot more fun with it this time."
Though he says he does "probably 75% of the car stunts," McCaffrey notes that "the very serious stuff that you will see is these outrageous, mad stunt drivers - anything that looks dangerous, I stay way away from." He enjoys the location shoots and doesn't mind the green screen work necessary when the Viper transforms into the Defender, but isn't as comfortable with some of the storylines: "I'm strongly against handguns and gratuitous violence, but my character seems to like that. So there are some odd things that I have to work out personally."
In choosing his roles, the actor says, he looks less for a particular genre than for a sense of social interest. "I like comedy, I like drama, I like a little bit of everything; I look for some kind of intelligence or morality, ethics. This time around, I'm able to make sure that my character feels these things, so maybe subtly it will come across subtextually. I do like action, but not on television - I'll see an action movie once in awhile. Science fiction I don't mind but I don't see a lot of science fiction in this series, although I know it's supposed to be. The trick is to always keep busy, and one of the perks that you get with doing a show like this is you can do the theater in the off time."
One of the founders of the Workhouse Theater in New York, live performance is very important to McCaffrey. A University of New Haven graduate who attended college on football and baseball scholarships and worked as an artist and graphic designer, he stumbled into a career onstage when his work as a commercial art director was foundering.
"I was in my early 20s, working as a bartender, trying to supplement my waning graphic design income. One of the managers at the restaurant that I worked at was also a playwright, and was producing a play and asked me if I'd be interested in playing the lead. I did, and ended up getting good reviews, and haven't stopped since. I always liked the theater - just never thought of me as being a part of it. But now I couldn't think of me without it."
McCaffrey is hoping to work more as a director, which he has done in theater but never for television. "I wouldn't mind getting a shot at Viper - these guys at PetFly are really good, and hopefully if I do enough episodes with them, they might be able to give me a shot at directing an episode," he says. In part, McCaffrey wants this experience for a project he's developing as a writer, an idea for a television series which he describes as "a one-hour 'dramedy,' character-driven, sort of like M*A*S*H meets Cheers, set in a blues bar in Greenwich Village." The actor would like to appear in it but adds that if someone picked it up and didn't see him as one of the leads, that would be fine; he'd like to be able to direct some of the episodes and produce the series.
"I don't like most of the stuff that's on television," he admits. "I seem to be leaning towards writing just because I think we've come up with an interesting concept, something that you've never seen on television before. I think what made M*A*S*H a great show is that it was completely different than anything we've ever seen on television. This idea that we have, I know it would be entertaining to me but whether a studio executive would like it, who knows?"
The producers at Pet Fly are receptive to having McCaffrey pitch stories for Viper, but weren't interested in the one idea that he pitched for practical reasons. "I was trying to a concept where the Viper team teams up with the Sentinel team," he explains. "But they said, since Viper's supposed to be a couple of years in the future, how would you do that, and I haven't been able to come up with an answer for them yet."
Sentinel Richard Burgi has appeared on Viper and McCaffrey has had offers to play cameos on The Sentinel, but his schedule has not permitted it yet. "I haven't seen him in years, and now we're working right in the same studio but it seems like whenever we're in the studio, they're on location, and vice versa, so I'm looking forward to running into him again." Because of Pet Fly's extraordinary loyalty to their actors, there are several others who have appeared on both shows, so the idea of a crossover seems plausible as well as fun for fans.
McCaffrey has two movies coming up: The Florentine, about a bar in a small town in Pennsylvania which McCaffrey played a major role in onstage ten years ago, and The Tic Code, about a kid with Tourette's Syndrome. "The Florentine is a lot of fun. It's a group around a dying bar, you see the characters go through these transformations, it's similar I guess to Diner. I worked with Michael Madsen and Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore, it was a good group." Hal Holbrook plays the role McCaffrey originated onstage, a 65-year-old dying alcoholic. "For film I wasn't able to create that role, so that was interesting to watch how he played the role that I created," notes the actor.
In The Tic Code, McCaffrey plays the misunderstanding father of a child with Tourette's Syndrome, while Gregory Hines plays a jazz musician who also has Tourette's Syndrome "who helps this child realize that it's not such a bad thing to have and how it can help through music." He observes, "My main interest as an actor is doing things that I wouldn't do myself, or else I wouldn't really have to act. I've always had a problem with anything that needed to be a lot like me."
McCaffrey's aspirations are for the projects that he's involved in "to entertain people and make them think, and make people use their imagination. And hopefully in the future it will lead to projects that I've created; as an actor, I don't really have that input, although the people at Pet Fly have given me a certain amount of creative input to this show." He laughs when asked if he has a ten year plan: "I had hoped several years ago that I would be able to make what I would consider to be the greatest American film ever made, but I only have a couple of years left on that. But maybe for the next millennium I could do it!"
In the meantime he's going to keep driving the car he doesn't pretend to understand, but with which he seems to have a lasting bond. Viper's a good place for me to be right now," he concludes. "In a few years, I hope to be working on my own material."