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Living a Lie

A master of disguises joins this fall's hero list

By Edward Gross, copyright Cinescape Magazine
Date unknown
Reprinted without permission

Jarod, the lead character in NBC's *The Pretender,* is this fall's man of a Thousand Faces, but he's far more than Artemus Gordon redux. This quick-change artist eschews makeup and accents in favor of actually *becoming* other people.

Michael T. Weiss portrays Jarod, a genius who was taken as a child to the mysterious "Centre" and made to participate in a variety of scientific and military "exercises" that have some very grim results. Jarod has the power to get into the minds of others, and through that gift he is able to assume any identity he chooses. So if Jarod wants to be--not just imitate but *be*--a doctor, lawyer, priest, airline pilot or whatever, he simply has to flip through some mental crib notes and...*presto-chango!* In the premiere episode, we see him, as a child, re-enacting the assassination of President Kennedy and "becoming" Lee Harvey Oswald, simultaneously establishing that there was indeed a second shooter on that fateful day in Dallas.

In the series pilot, Jarod escapes from the Centre, consumed with guilt over the loss of life that can be attributed to the work he has done for his keepers. To repent, he decides to dedicate himself to helping people in need. Naturally, the Centre wants him back, and a mysterious Miss Parker is sent in pursuit, along with Jarod's "guardian," Sydney.

Co-creator Craig Van Sickle says that during the show's gestation he and partner Steven Long Mitchell heavily researched the phenomenon of "pretenders," focusing specifically on Ferdinand Demara, a real-life pretender who died in 1982 at the age of 60.

"Demara is the most famous pretender," says Van Sickle, "and we drew a lot from his history. That, more than anything else, served as an inspiration in part for the character--his exploits and some of the interesting worlds he went into."

Mitchell adds, "What's fascinating is that there are real people like this. It wasn't like we made up a superhero. Demara was, in fact, a surgeon--he read a book and became a surgeon and even taught surgery. He became a prison warden, a Trappist monk and a college professor. It was fascinating to us that someone could just walk in and do a difficult job in such a way as to convince everyone that he was very much as learned as the profession demanded. I think the most fascinating thing when we studied the psychology of 'pretenders' was that they felt absolutely no anxiety."

Another source of inspiration for the series was a book titled *The Genius Project,* which examined in detail the testing of preadolescent prodigies by the CIA during the 1950s and '60s.

"In the morning," says Mitchell, "they'd play Tiddly Winks and in the afternoon it'd be, 'Now we're going to play Thermonuclear War.'"

The result of the producers' research is a protagonist who's unique in the history of episodic television. "Because pretenders can tune in to people--tune in to their weak points, their likes, their dislikes--we have an opportunity to have a character who gets to the answers in a different way from every other detective you've seen on TV," he says. "He tries to get into your head a little bit to have you help him with the answers."

For actor Michael T. Weiss, who co-starred in NBC's short-lived revival of *Dark Shadows,* the appeal of *The Pretender* is rather straightforward.

"It doesn't come along very often in the TV world that you get to play a different character every week," he says. "As an actor, that's probably one of the most exciting aspects of playing Jarod. It's like a dream role, so I'm particularly thrilled about that. I know I want to watch TV that's a little twisted, and I think a lot of America does now too."

Weiss got so into his role that during the shooting of the pilot he decided to try out a bit of pretending for himself. "I snuck into the New York Stock Exchange," he smiles sheepishly, "wearing their clothes, and pretended to be a trader on the floor and got right in. I have to admit, it's a lot of fun to be able to give yourself that kind of freedom. You can have a lot of fun, and that's what I plan on doing, though I know the role is a tough one."

One question critics had regarding the show was how tension could be built on a weekly premise when the premise features a character who can effortlessly immerse himself in any world.

"There are two parts of that," says Mitchell. "One, Jarod will not be invincible. He will have Achilles' heels, most of which will be emotional. He can be anyone, but he doesn't know who he is. In searching for his family, his emotions drive him. And his emotions drive him in a relationship with all the characters in the show. That's one thing that makes him different."

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This page last updated September 25, 1999