Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Fall Preview: CBS' Vegas

Vegas stars (l-r) Dennis Quaid, Michael Chiklis

This past spring, after actor Michael Chiklis met with Ralph Lamb, the real-life inspiration for Chiklis and Dennis Quaid’s new western drama Vegas, “I walked away from lunch, called my wife, and said, ‘Wow! We have stories for years!”

In the mid 2000s, the MGM movie studio had commissioned a big-screen bio based on Lamb, a fourth-generation rancher who served as Las Vegas’ Sheriff from 1960 to 1978, the period in which the soon-to-be gambling and entertainment mecca was rising from empty desert.  The studio turned to author and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, who had already depicted the period in his 1995 film Casino.  But even as the writer’s first outline was delivered, everyone involved realized that with Lamb’s wealth of amazing stories, his life would make a great ongoing series instead.

“It’s kind of what I call the low-hanging fruit of Sheriff Lamb,” says Greg Walker, who, after Pileggi then turned the idea into television, was brought on board as the showrunner of Vegas.  “Every story Lamb tells, you just realize it’s a no-brainer.  They’re filled with such rich detail.  With such vivid characters, you can’t help but think about how his world could come to life on screen.”

Reading Pileggi’s pilot, “I got to page five, and was hooked,” Walker remembers.  “As soon as the DC-6 flew over Lamb’s cattle, I was in.  I loved the clash between the modern world and the Old West.”  Quaid, too, cites that first script as what lured him to play the colorful sheriff in this, his first television series.  Vegas pits Quaid’s Lamb against Chiklis’ Vincent Savino, a Chicago gangster and savvy businessman with designs on the budding gaming empire.  “It’s a story about how all that power corrupts on both sides,” says Quaid.  “Because the lines in Vegas were hazy back then.  It was a different set of rules.”

“In Vegas, you have two men who are thrust into the spotlight of being kings,” Walker explains.  “One who wants it, in Savino, and one who’s reluctant, in Lamb.”  With the face-off between the two men and their allies – including on Lamb’s side, his younger brother Jack (Jason O’Mara) and the town’s Assistant District Attorney Katherine O’Connell (Carrie Ann Moss) – as its underlying construct, “we created a hybrid procedural and character-based drama,” Walker says.  “The show has the adrenaline and satisfaction of solving a mystery, but at the same time, there are multiple characters’ stories getting more and more complicated, with greed, envy and desire whirling around this world of crime.”

With Vegas’ 1960 setting, Lamb and his deputies won’t be enforcing the law using fingerprints or computers or cell phones like in that other Vegas-set mystery, CSI.  “He is also not a guy who’s going to put a gun in people’s faces week to week,” Walker says. “He’s going to solve things with his own hands, man-to-man.”  That type of character, the showrunner says, “is something Dennis is uniquely equipped to play.  There are very few men who have that kind of stillness, that raw, masculine power.  We just don’t build them like that anymore.”

Vegas’ pilot was shot, coincidentally, in the small town of Las Vegas, NM, where an old commercial row, last updated in the early 20th Century, could be gussied up with props and CGI neon to look like the Fremont Street of ‘60s Sin City; the series will build it all from the ground up in Santa Clarita, CA.  Undoubtedly, today’s audience will be paying close attention to all that period detail, because we’re so intrigued by the town’s formative years.

“We’re all interested in how Vegas became Vegas.  Today it’s a fantasy world where you can get anything you want, and to watch how that was made is very captivating,” Walker notes.  Like Lamb, the town itself is a natural for a Hollywood treatment, its story comprising two cinematic archetypes, the cowboy and the mobster.  “These are two worlds that we’re very familiar with, but we haven’t ever seen them together.  When they collide, there’s something very electric.”

Premieres Tuesday, September 25
10 PM Eastern / 9 Central

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