Data Annex

A Great Pretender

Idea came from a non-fiction book about CIA experiments with children geniuses

By Steve Hall, copyright The Indianapolis Star
July 28, 1996

Reprinted without permission

PASADENA, Calif. -- When Craig W. Van Sickle was growing up in Indianapolis, his businessman father was frequently annoyed to find him in front of the TV set. "What are you ever gonna do with that?" he'd growl.

The answer took a few years. Van Sickle, 38, and partner Steven Long Mitchell, 35, have written, produced and guided more than 100 hours of television, including such hits as Murder, She Wrote, Magnum, P.I. and Alien Nation.

They've now created their own show, The Pretender, an unusual NBC drama airing at 9 p.m. Saturdays this fall on WTHR.

Sort of a cross between The Fugitive and Touched by An Angel, the series stars Michael T. Weiss as Jarod Russell, a former child prodigy able to successfully masquerade in almost any profession -- policeman, doctor, lawyer, even airline pilot.

On the run from a mysterious think tank that used his talents for nefarious purposes, nonviolent vigilante Jarod uses his skills to help the disenfranchised, discover his own secret background and pretend to know his way around some really cool jobs. For instance:

"There's one show where we see Jarod strapping on a race helmet at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway," Van Sickle said gleefully. The sandy-haired Indiana University graduate, who has a 1979 degree in television and radio, religiously attends the Indianapolis 500 every year.

While the idea of a total novice mastering the intricacies of an Indy car at 230 mph may seem farfetched, Van Sickle and Mitchell point to Ferdinand Demara, one of the great pretenders of history and an inspiration for Jarod's character.

Demara successfully masqueraded as a doctor (who taught surgery to other doctors in the Canadian army and navy), a prison warden, a college professor and a Trappist monk by simply reading a few books and never breaking a sweat in each new profession.

"Pretenders in general never feel any anxiety," Van Sickle explained during an interview at an NBC press party. "So they could walk into an operating room and be utterly cool cutting someone open for the first time."

Van Sickle and Mitchell, who previously co-created and produced the action series Cobra with Stephen J. Cannell, got the idea for The Pretender from The Genius Project. The nonfiction book details how the CIA performed experiments with child prodigies in the 1950s and 1960s.

"In the morning, the kids would play Tiddly Winks. In the afternoon the CIA types would say, 'Now we're going to play Thermonuclear War,"' said Mitchell, a New Orleans native and the more talkative of the duo. "Basically they exploited the kids' genius in role-playing, which was unencumbered by the jadedness of having grown up."

The product of similar role playing, the childlike Jarod uses his pretending to right wrongs. He proves a drunken doctor was responsible for disabling a child during surgery -- ensuring the child will receive millions of dollars from the hospital.

It's a popular conceit. In advance audience testing, The Pretender pilot scored higher than NBC's ER, the most-watched show on TV now.

Testing is admittedly an imprecise science. One recent example was the Hal Linden/Suzanne Pleshette sitcom The Boys Are Back, one of CBS' highest-testing comedies ever, yet canceled after just four months in 1995 because of low viewership.

Nonetheless, NBC is demonstrating its faith in The Pretender by premiering the show in ER's Thursday time slot Sept. 19 and then moving its to its regular time slot on Saturdays Sept. 28.

It will air with two other similarly offbeat shows, Dark Skies (invading aliens have influenced recent U.S. history) and Profiler (ex-FBI agent is almost psychic at being able to see crime scenes from a killer's point of view).

With this trio, NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield said the network hopes to capitalize on "the ooga-booga factor" -- namely, viewer interest in conspiracy-themed, sometimes paranoid material stirred up by Fox Broadcasting's The X-Files.

"Our Saturday night lineup sucked," Littlefield said in an interview. "Since we were fourth for the night, we really don't have anything to lose. All the networks are trying to do something different than the traditional medical or cop show, and Pretender is the strongest of those properties."

Van Sickle believes viewers will like the show because "at a time when no one wants to take responsibility for their actions -- the O.J. Simpson trial was in the news when we were creating this show -- this guy takes charge and fights for the underdog."

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