It’s the last day of production on the Manhattan set of Sidney Lumet’s new legal drama 100 Centre Street, and the beloved 76-year-old director is ready to roll. Climbing up on a camera platform, Lumet bellows an announcement to his madly chattering troops. ”Gang, we can either talk or we can shoot!” he shouts. ”Shaddup!”
This outburst from the five-time Oscar nominee (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) and famous mensch who kisses cast members on the mouth and lovingly refers to burly crew members as ”Bunny”? ”He’s a hard-ass when he wants to be,” says LaTanya Richardson (U.S. Marshals), who co-stars on the A&E series as a no-nonsense judge. ”I’ve never seen a man who can quiet the set the way he can.”
Lumet’s been on a lot of sets in his 50-year career, but Street (which debuts Jan. 15 at 9 p.m.) marks his first TV work since NBC’s live Play of the Week series in 1961. Why return to the small screen now? ”The age thing has a lot to do with it,” he admits, adding that among movie studios, ”there’s a nervousness about hiring older directors.” The down-and-dirty drama has also allowed Lumet to explore Manhattan’s night courts, an arena that’s fascinated him since he did research there for 1981’s cop epic Prince of the City. The setting puts longtime New Yorker Lumet squarely on his home turf. ”All Sidney’s best stuff involves New York City politics — even Network,” says Alan Arkin, who plays a liberal jurist.
The man who skewered broadcast TV so brilliantly in that 1976 satire was relieved when NBC passed on his Street script a few years ago: ”I felt with the subject matter we were pursuing and the language we wanted to use, it might be a little tough for network TV.” Street’s story lines — like one about a hooker raped by a star athlete — are harshly realistic, and the profanity would make the cops on NYPD Blue blush. (Sample line: ”You drop the judiciary of this city into a bowl of s— and now you make smart-ass cracks at me?”) Looking for its own Sopranos, A&E ordered 13 episodes, making Street its first original dramatic series. Says Lumet, ”They needed something that could make them a player.”
The basic-cable network has long ruled with reruns of another NYC courtroom drama, Law & Order, yet the Street team swears its show is different. ”This is a reverse image,” says coexecutive producer David Black, a veteran of the NBC series. ”You get into the personal lives of the principals — it’s not just what happens in the justice system.” Adds Paula Devicq (Party of Five), who plays a fledgling ADA: ”It’s got a good balance of defense attorneys and prosecutors and judges. You’re not just seeing one side.”
But you are seeing one man’s vision. Unlike some filmmakers who slap their names on TV series and turn them over to others to run, Lumet has been incredibly hands-on, writing four episodes and directing five. ”He has more energy at 76 than I had when I was 30,” says Arkin. Devicq is equally effusive: ”I’ve never learned so much. He can give me a one-word note, and it changes the entire scene.”