Alynda Wheat
March 26, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

James ”Jimmy” Caan, veteran actor and star of the godfather, is about to shoot a scene for his latest project. On the director’s cue, he straightens himself and walks authoritatively into the shot — past a throng of bikini-clad extras toward guest star Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray. ”I kind of bring the stability,” says Caan of his role on the show. ”All the serious stuff.” Or as serious as it gets in Las Vegas.

In spite of the presence of an Academy Award nominee, NBC’s Monday-night breakout dramedy is all titillation and tease. Set in the what-happens-here-stays-here adult playground of the Strip, Las Vegas is a hedonistic cocktail, a throwback to the last three decades of TV mainstays — ’70s jiggle, ’80s excess, and ’90s crime drama — updated with CSI-style visual effects. As model — turned — prime-time hottie Molly Sims explains while getting her hair teased for a scene, ”There’s a little flashiness. There’s a little sex. There’s a little murder. There’s a little drugs. Just a little bit of everything.”

Joining Caan for this ”fun ride through Sin City” — as NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker puts it — is former soap star Josh Duhunky (we mean Duhamel) as Caan’s second-in-command, Danny McCoy; For Your Love’s James Lesure as a valet/engineer; Sims as Caan’s daughter, Delinda; The Haunted Mansion’s Marsha Thomason as pit boss Nessa; General Hospital’s Vanessa Marcil as casino host Sam; and Unhappily Ever After’s Nikki Cox as Mary, the hotel’s ”special-events coordinator” (though in the pilot, Mary’s title was ”escort”). ”I always assumed that as a hooker you were a special-events coordinator,” jokes Cox. Why the promotion? ”I’m assuming…they felt they couldn’t have Josh hook up with a whore.”

Vegas’ mix of eye candy, gravitas, and a parade of promotable guest stars is working for NBC. ”It’s exceeded all of our expectations,” gushes Zucker. Though Vegas costs a stiff $2.3 million per episode (first-year dramas are usually made for a little more than $1 million), the network pitted the series against killer competition on Mondays at 9 p.m. ”We were going to get destroyed by Monday Night Football, then Everybody Loves Raymond, then Skin. And then My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance,” recalls creator and exec producer Gary Scott Thompson. ”But we’re still hanging in there.” With the exception of ABC’s limited-run Kingdom Hospital, Vegas is the No. 1 new drama among young adults and ranks in the top 40 among all shows. In fact, NBC gave the series an early renewal for a second season. Not bad for a show that often resembles The Love Boat on dry land.

Gary Scott Thompson is shortish and shlubby, and favors baseball caps to contain his unruly curly hair. In other words, he looks like a writer — though perhaps not the need-for-speed demon who penned The Fast and the Furious. But this is why NBC had him on speed dial. ”NBC called and said, ‘We want to do a Vegas show with your Fast and Furious bent,”’ says Thompson. One short pitch meeting later, Vegas was a done deal.

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