‘The Good Wife’ Cast Is a Who’s Who of Broadway Talent

Friday, November 28, 2014
New York — Next time you’re seeing a show in New York, here’s a new diversion while you’re waiting for curtains to go up and people around you to, please, turn off their cellphones.

Take a look at the last few lines of the actor biographies in your program. Notice how many list a credit for guest appearances on The Good Wife.

I’m a little obsessed. While watching episodes of the addictive and smart CBS series, I am known to annoyingly point and call out “New York actor,” “New York actor,” at the TV screen. I get extra points, in my head, if I immediately identify the name of the less — famous faces I recognize from off-Broadway and Broadway stages. More often, the name pops out when the show is over, and I announce it proudly to no one in particular.

You may remember this game from the heyday of the Law and Order franchise. In those days, the three procedurals — the original, Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unit — employed so much New York talent they practically subsidized low-paying work in the theater.

SVU is the only one left now and, perhaps because it is more action-driven than its late siblings, fewer theater people seem to be passing through the police lineups.

But here, as if to the rescue, comes The Good Wife. In six seasons, the plot has moved far beyond the premise of Alicia Florrick, disgraced politician’s wife (Julianna Margulies), who tentatively returns to practicing law. From the start, we could bask in the familiarity of Broadway-baby Christine Baranski as a top partner in the firm and soon get used to the shock of seeing Alan Cumming, theatrical prince of pansexual debauchery, transformed into Eli Gold, campaign manager of Alicia’s husband (Chris Noth).

According to Mark Saks, casting director for the show, Cumming likes to say, “I just put on the suit and the wig and become someone else. I feel like I’m working in drag.”

Clearly, Saks is the place for a person to go for the inside story of the rewarding — to us as much as to the actors — parade of theater people in the series. Saks, who grew up in New Hyde Park, also grew up going to the theater. “My grandmother had an apartment overlooking Gramercy Park,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “There was lots of theater going. Theater is my roots.”

So when the producers of Good Wife, which is set in Chicago, decided to tape in New York, he was able to fulfill his intention to “dig deeper into the theater pool. And it’s a never-ending pool. Every year, every conservatory and acting program sends out graduates who work at every off-Broadway nonprofit theater. Eighty percent of the people we use come from theater programs or has a theater-based background.”

He says Good Wife is particularly well suited to theater people because “It’s about the words. Things happen in conference rooms, court rooms, offices,” as opposed to such action shows as The Blacklist.

A Good Wife list may not mean much to people who spend fewer nights at the theater than Saks and I do. But you should know that David Hyde Pierce recently accepted a recurring role as one of Alicia’s competitors in the race for Illinois state’s attorney. (Also running is the incumbent, played by Broadway musical star Michael Cerveris.)

Nathan Lane, who was busy when Saks first approached him for the role now played by Cumming, changed his mind later to be a buttoned-up court-appointed bankruptcy lawyer. Veteran theater actor Mary Beth Peil is deliciously squeaky-dry as Alicia’s monster mother-in-law, and Stockard Channing is wonderfully exasperating as her eccentric mother.

Sarah Steele, fresh from The Country Home on Broadway, is Eli’s truth-telling daughter. Dylan Baker, Christian Borle, John Benjamin Hickey, Laura Benanti, Nina Arianda, Linda Lavin, Denis O’Hare, Linda Emond, Karen Olivo — really, the list goes on. Just in my recent theatergoing, I found Good Wife credits for actors from The Last Ship, Grand Concourse, Lost Lake, Sticks and Bones and — look at this, America Ferrera from Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Erin Davie, half the Hilton sisters in Side Show.

I’ll stop naming names, I promise. But here’s just one more.

Bebe Neuwirth did guest spots on Good Wife before becoming a regular on CBS’ Madam Secretary. She marveled to me recently about the number of TV productions in New York now and how many people she knows who are doing guest spots.

She is amused that the Brooklyn studio where both shows shoot is named Broadway Stages. “All these theater rats are running around Broadway Stages — but it’s in Greenpoint.”

Diplomatically, she acknowledges, “There is a lot of fantastic theater in this country. But Broadway and off-Broadway are in New York, and a lot of actors come here. And while they’re here, they say, ‘Gee, if I can do a guest spot on a television series, that’s going to pay the rent for a month.’ ”

Salaries for big Broadway roles are negotiable, but few get those and, with few exceptions, actors can’t live off the paychecks from the nonprofits. According to Saks, all of the series’ guests make the same union pay, called “top of show” salaries, which, depending on the union, hovers between the mid-$7,000s and low $8,000s for eight days of shooting.

Of course, actors get more from TV work than money. If they are lucky, and also have theater jobs, they get to work all day at the studio then hurry into a van for the 40-minute drive to Shubert Alley. Saks says Broadway’s new early curtains, with some shows opening at 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m., makes scheduling even more of a “puzzle. It is even harder during a Broadway show’s tech rehearsals and previews. But we bend over backwards to fit people in.”

Then there is the artistic challenge. Saks says, despite the exhaustion, most actors get a kick out of “living a double life, putting on another mask.”

Neuwirth agrees. “It’s a new way of working and exploring as artists,” she said. “And it’s fun.” After all her gigs on TV, movies and voice-overs, she is amused to see schools offering “acting for television, acting for film. Yes, there are technical differences. You can’t make giant movements in front of a close camera.”

Finally, however, she has concluded that “acting is acting. It’s still living truthfully, moment by moment, under imaginary circumstances.” We, the audiences, are the ones who can enjoy the differences.