First, a few words about Al Capone's underpants.
When William Forsythe (Blind Faith, Dick Tracy) learned he would be playing the legendary Chicago gangster in the syndicated TV remake of The Untouchables, the Method actor threw himself into the role with an intensity that might have raised even Lee Strasberg's eyebrows. He took long strolls along the Windy City streets that Capone once ruthlessly ruled. He listened to hours of old recorded interviews to study Capone's voice. He pored over thousands of pages of Capone biographies. But to truly climb into character, to fully unleash the mobster within, he slipped into a pair of French-cut silk boxer shorts just like the ones Big Al used to wear.
''I have them on right now,'' the Brooklyn-born Forsythe, 37, offers as he waits to shoot a scene at a warehouse on the outskirts of Chicago. ''You always try to get under your characters' skin. You try to understand the things they love, the things they hate, their sex drives. If you don't, you end up with the depth of a goldfish bowl.''
Forsythe, it turns out, isn't the first Untouchables actor to seek inspiration from Capone's skivvies; Robert De Niro also wore a pair as Capone in Brian De Palma's 1987 big-screen version. But apparently this brief touch of realism still works wonders: The latest incarnation of the cops-and-robbers epic, costarring little-known Tom Amandes, 33, as federal gangbuster Eliot Ness, has been drawing more than 10 million viewers a week since its Jan. 11 premiere, making it the third-most popular one-hour syndicated drama on television behind Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The show has been doing so well it has even muscled in on network territory, with some local stations preempting network programs to make room for it in prime time.
Like the 1959-63 ABC series starring Robert Stack as Ness, The Untouchables is chock-full of bloody shoot-outs, screeching tires, and lines like ''This means war!'' But unlike the first series or the feature film the new version claims to stick to just the facts, ma'am, billing itself as a historically correct portrayal of gangland Chicago. ''Every damn thing we show actually happened,'' insists executive producer Christopher Crowe (The Last of the Mohicans). ''When they shoot (gangster) Deanie O'Banion's hand in the flower shop, that literally happened that way. When they shoot Hymie Weiss, that's the way they did it. We've done a huge amount of research to make sure everything and everyone is as accurate as possible.''
That includes the world's most famous fed. Played as a tight-lipped tough guy by Stack and as an overeager Eagle Scout by Kevin Costner in the film, Ness this time is a multidimensional good guy (the real Ness died broke and, by some accounts, boozy in 1957). And to play the part, the producers picked an actor nobody has heard of: Until now, Amandes' biggest role had been a bit part in the 1990 comedy Opportunity Knocks that ended up mostly on the cutting-room floor.
''You can't overstate the power of this story,'' says the Chicago resident, still buzzed by the sudden rush of success. ''Here's this animal, Capone, who beats his enemies to death with baseball bats, who has judges and police in his pocket. And here's this young guy, Ness, who decides to take him on. It's as if somebody like me decided to single-handedly arrest the Medellin Cartel. It's an incredible story.''
And an expensive one: The Untouchables costs about $1.5 million per episode twice as much as Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, another hour-long syndicated drama that debuted this season. Filming entirely on location in Chicago accounts for a large chunk of the budget, but hefty sums have also been spent on stunts, action scenes, and a fleet of vintage mob-mobiles (at $25,000 a pop). ''This has been more like making a feature film than a TV series,'' says Crowe. ''It's been a major production.''
As with most major productions, this one has had its share of problems. In the first few months there were artistic differences between the producers and Ernest R. Dickerson, Spike Lee's cinematographer, who had been hired to direct the show's two-hour premiere. Dickerson left the project early after an ''honorable, honest, dignified creative conflict,'' according to Crowe. (''That's basically what happened,'' says Dickerson. ''Let's leave it at that.'') Later there were also reports that several writers had been given the heave-ho. (''They had other offers,'' insists Crowe. ''It was cordial.'')