Chicago Magazine
November 1996

Real Lives Segment ~ Go Fish

by Marcia Froelke Coburn

Actor Fisher Stevens - known for his shifty characters - returns to play a scheming friend in a new TV series.

Since the premise of his new TV show, Early Edition, centers on an inexplicable phenomenon, it is only fitting that Fisher Stevens is having strange encounters. Now that he is back in Chicago working on the CBS series, which appears locally on Saturdays at 8 p.m., he says, "People keep coming up to me to say that they went to school or camp with me." Although the 32-year-old actor, whose films include Only You and Super Mario Bros., lived in the North Shore suburbs until he was 12, he is baffled. "I've never met any of them before."

The plot of Early Edition is eerie: A divorced Chicago stockbroker (Kyle Chandler) mysteriously gets the Sun-Times delivered to his door a day early, enabling him to know - beyond a doubt - what is going to happen the next day. He decides to use the information not to short Iomega but to save the world. Stevens plays the broker's cynical, scheming friend - the foil who is always trying to steal the early edition in order to bet on sporting events or play the lottery.

"The show feels a little like a Twilight Zone episode," says Steve Johnson, the Tribune's television critic. "In fact, it may have been; it rings a distant bell in my memory."

Originally written for a New York locale, executive producer Micheal Dinner changed Early Edition's setting. "After shooting on location here for Chicago Hope, I realized the city could offer us a wide range of stories we could tell for Early Edition," Dinner said. "There's something magical about the place. Chicago is a very real city, and it photographs beautifully."

For Chicagoans, the picture that's painted isn't always logical. "There's some creative useage of Chicago," says Johnson, "with characters saying they're heading south and then jumping in a cab that's going north. Or the intersection of Damen, Milwaukee, and North Avenues is called 'the South Side.'" With seven episodes in the can, the shooting for Early Edition has also included the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the Chicago Historical Society, and the bullpen at the Sun-Times.

That location shooting is what has brought Stevens back to Chicago, where he now works four to five days a week on the series, then commutes back to his home in New York's Greenwich Village and his girlfriend, an editor at American Homestyle magazine. If the series flies - and it has a 13-week commitment from CBS - it could bring a new kind of recognition to Stevens, who so far is best known for the shifty characters he plays and his three-year romance with Michelle Pfeiffer, which prompted a weekly tabloid to run their photo with the headline, "This Guy Lives With Her?"

"One of the things women find so attractive about Fish," says Andrea Fisher, Stevens's stepmother, "is that he has a vast number of interests. He's not very show biz."

Certainly during our meeting, Stevens is more interested in discusing politics, his volunteer plans to register voters, and how he and his Chicago family - Andrea, father Norman, sisters Tracy and Julie - get together now for Sunday breakfasts.

"It's interesting to be back in town," says Stevens, "especially since so many strangers insist they know me."

"It's hardly surprising," says Johnson. "Stevens, who is one of the best things in Early Edition, comes across as a real Chicago neighborhood guy. I'm just not sure exactly what neighborhood he's from."

Try Highland Park. Stevens, who back then was named Steven Fisher, spent his formative years there. After his parents divorced, he and his mother moved briefly to Evanston, then settled in a Greenwich Village loft.

"My mother was having some difficulty paying the rent in New York, so this acting teacher looked at our space and said he'd pay her if he could run his acting school out of our home." A stage was built across one end of the living room; urinals were put in the bathrooms. "I'd come home from school and there would be people in my living room doing monologues," Stevens says. "It was not exatly Highland Park."

Acting became "an addiction" for Stevens, who changed his name when Actors Equity said there was already a Steven Fisher in the ranks. At 14, he was playing an extra in the soap opera Guiding Light. At 16, he made his film debut in The Burning. In Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide, that film, described as an "awful Friday the 13th ripoff," garners a bomb rating. "It was the first movie for Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander, and me," Stevens says. "And we all survived."

Two years later, he ran into a high-school friend named Matthew Broderick, who told Stevens that he would soon be leaving an Off Broadway play called Torch Song Trilogy. Stevens auditioned and won the part in the Tony-winning play, which took him to Broadway for more than 500 performances. After that, he again appeared on Broadway, this time as the star of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs. "My friends went to college," he says. "I did plays."

"Fish came to visit me at school in Madison," says Todd Feldman, a commodities trader who has been friends with Stevens since they were three years old. "When he wasn't acting, he got a kick out of being a college guy for a week."

In 1986, Stevens and actress Lily Taylor (another former North Shor resident) founded Naked Angels, a New York-based ensemble company that specializes in prestigious avant-garde productions. His movie roles have included the weaselly blackmailer in Reversal of Fortune (1990), the sneaky reporter in Bob Roberts (1992), and the sad cross-dresser arrested for shoplifting in The Right to Remain Silent (1996).

Currently, Stevens's interests lie in making his own films. "I have two shorts that have made the rounds of film festivals," he says. "In one, Wile E Coyote finally strangles the Road Runner. And the other one is about a Muppet that gets kidnapped. These are the kinds of things that appeal to me. Last year, I did an episode of Friends, and while the actors are great people, I have to say that I just don't get the material."

So how did he end up working in a TV series?

"There is the financial security and that four-month vacation, both of which I could use to make my own films. Plus, I like the location because of my family. And Early Edition is using some great movie directors like Susan Seidelman, who directed Desparately Seeking Susan."

For Stevens, the downside of Early Edition is working with the yellow tabby cat and the German shepherd that appear in every episode. "As an actor, you want a human reaction," he says.

As for the future of the TV series, no one has gotten an early edition of the ratings yet. "You can make the concept of the series interesting for a couple of episodes, but how do you sustain it after that?" asks the Tribune's Johnson. "When you have a show hung on a concept as gimmicky as this one, you have to rely on very strong scripts and good solid direction. And, in general, those tend to be in short supply."

On the other hand, Early Edition is taking the slot that was occupied by Touched by an Angel, the show in which Della Reese plays an angel who helps out troubled characters. (That series has been moved to Sunday nights.) "The Angel show achieved a certain success," says Johnson. "So there appears to be a market for the do-good kind of TV shows."

"The key will be if all those people who insist they grew up with me watch the program," says Stevens. "You know, if they just want to keep tabs on their old buddy. Then we'll be a hit."

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