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Anchoring the News

Jeff Daniels stars in the newest Aaron Sorkin show, “The Newsroom,” on HBO, a behind-the-scenes look at today's media world.
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Jeff Daniels-The Newsroom, July/August 2012

(continued from page 4)

“HBO is where the writers are. After I looked at several things, along came this script by Aaron Sorkin—and I chased it.”
And then HBO chased him: “When we read the pilot, in part because the character is a newscaster, there are whole pages of dialogue for him. We were wondering who could pull it off, because Aaron writes with a certain cadence that’s really challenging for a lot of actors,” Lombardo says. “So it had to be someone smart and fresh. Then Jeff’s name came up and we thought that was an interesting choice. He’s the right age, and he’s got the good looks. When he read for it, there was no question after we heard him that Jeff Daniels was the best choice. After he read, we couldn’t imagine anyone else. It was so clear that Jeff was made for this role.

“It was the perfect confluence of actor and role. You never see Jeff act; there’s an ease with which he inhabits the role. You never feel as though there’s a speech or a monologue going on; it’s just this character talking. Jeff does that better than any actor I’ve ever seen.”

It’s a quality Daniels had from the start—even before the start—of his career: the ability to mix the serious with the silly, to be funny and heartbreaking, glib and vulnerable within the same scene. His talent was apparent to Marshall Mason, one of the founders of New York’s Circle Repertory Company, who discovered Daniels while Mason was a visiting director at the University of Eastern Michigan one summer in the mid-1970s. “He was unusually honest in his work,” Mason says. “He had this natural, innate talent.”

Mason was a visiting professional at Eastern Michigan, imported to Ypsilanti in 1976 to direct a college production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke for a summer repertory season. But he was having trouble casting the central male role, a young doctor who has an affair with a prim older woman.

“Then in walks this big blond boy, this big jock who looked like he’d strayed in from the football field,” Mason recalls. “It was Jeff; he was a student at Central Michigan—and his reading was a miracle. He put himself in my hands and did everything I asked in the exploration of the character.”

“I think Marshall saw a simplicity, an honesty and truthfulness in what the character was saying,” Daniels says. “I think I had that back then. I don’t know how, because I was very raw. Marshall would give me a direction and I’d execute it with a simplicity that I guess was unusual for a 21-year-old college actor.”

Says Mason, “Jeff was very funny but also very serious about the work. I talked to him about his experience and, in fact, he did play football. But he had also done musicals and plays at school and enjoyed that. He was just a natural, honest actor who showed a natural talent.

“I never encourage anyone to be an actor but I felt strongly about him. I said I’d do anything in my power to help him. I offered him an internship at Circle Rep, which paid, I believe, $50 a week, and he came to New York.”

It was the moment that changed Daniels’ life. He left Michigan for New York and, almost immediately, landed a role in a Circle Rep play visible enough to earn him an agent. He kept working there, and then playwright Lanford Wilson wrote a role specifically for him.

The play, The Fifth of July, played off-Broadway, then was presented in Los Angeles. When it went to Broadway—with a cast that included Christopher Reeve and Swoosie Kurtz—Daniels rode it all the way to a Tony Award nomination in 1981. Hollywood called shortly afterward—a small part in Milos Forman’s Ragtime, followed by career-making roles in Terms of Endearment and The Purple Rose of Cairo.

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