TELEVISION Keeping Mabius wasn't easy
ABC had to manipulate more than plots to free the actor from other commitments.
In the first episode of ABC's midseason drama "Eyes," Eric Mabius' Jeff McCann sleeps with a co-worker's beautiful wife and uncovers the mole undermining his high tech risk management firm. That's a good start for an intriguing and complicated character.
Then, in the final scene of the pilot, Jeff gets shot in the head at very close range. Normally massive head wounds fit under the heading of "less encouraging signs."
"All these things had to happen in order for me to continue to live," Mabius chuckles, "and they did."
On a textual level, viewers only had to be convinced that Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon's Nora is either a really bad shot or that she has reasons for wanting Jeff alive. Behind the scenes, though, many things had to fall into place for Mabius, a guest star in the pilot, to return as a regular. Several stars had to take pay cuts, several people at ABC had to be persuaded to expand an already bulging ensemble and, most importantly, Showtime and Ilene Chaiken had to let Mabius out of his contract for "The L Word."
"It was mutual," Mabius explains of his departure from the Showtime drama, now in its second season. "We understood that Ilene created the show to always be by, for and about women and women who love other women. Being the only guy, I was somewhat of a novelty. I'd just blow in, do my scenes and go off and enjoy the countryside in British Columbia."
While Tim Daly's Harlan Judd is the drama's ostensible lead, Mabius' role typifies the unpredictable nature of the ABC show. He's lying to nearly every character and his allegiances shift with the wind. For the actor, most familiar from the first "Resident Evil" film and the second "Crow" sequel, the character's variable morality was ultimately liberating.
"You can't make a mistake because it's all in the vein of who Jeff McCann is, how complex or how simplistic he is," the 33-year-old actor says. "That's what's great -- once I found his immoral compass, I found it easy to move from that place in any direction, whether it's sincerity or duplicity."
The "Eyes" ensemble -- which also includes Rick Worthy, A.J. Langer, Natalie Zea and Laura Leighton -- bonding during the unusual multi-week rehearsal schedule mandated by director Jon Amiel ("The Singing Detective") before the pilot even shot.
"Rarely on film do you get rehearsal periods and never on TV, so this slammed everyone together in a kinetic and wonderful way," Mabius recalls. "I think trusting one another's abilities, whatever the writers throw at us and whatever turns our characters take, make us exponentially better at what we're trying to do."
What they're trying to do now is get people to watch. ABC has slotted "Eyes" on Wednesday nights, following "Alias," a series with a similar mixture of gadgets and character development. Compatibility aside, though, "Eyes" has to face two established brands in NBC's "Law & amp; Order" mothership and CBS' "CSI: NY." Through its first two airings, "Eyes" has averaged a solid, but unremarkable 8.2 million viewers.
"Either the audience is going to find us, or they're not and that's directly related to advertising dollars being spent on our show," Mabius says, sounding a little punchy.
Even as he hopes that the network lets "Eyes" find an audience, Mabius appreciates the creative freedom ABC allowed.
"ABC took a risk by not making the show be strictly procedural," he says. "It's easier to facilitate the murder-of-the-week as opposed to the relationship as it develops and unfolds between the characters. Instead of the relations being incidental to the crime-of-the-week, I think it's the other way around on our show and I think it breeds loyalty in the audience."