Series TV returns to Chicago

January 12, 2011

In the last few years, at least two blockbuster feature films have shot on the streets of Chicago: "Batman, The Dark Knight" in 2007 (released in 2008) and "Transformers 3, Dark of the Moon" just last year (release date next July 1). Such multi-million dollar giants are sensational for Chicago-based suppliers of film equipment and services, and for Chicago actors, too, who fill in many of the usually-small background and cameo roles.

But good as a big feature film can be, from an actor's perspective nothing can beat episodic television; a weekly TV show shooting in or near Chicago that needs a fresh set of local faces every seven days. Episodic TV is the gift that keeps on giving, and at this particular moment it's a rich gift for Chicago talent due to two network shows, "Detroit 1-8-7" on ABC and the upcoming Fox series, "The Chicago Code." The Chicago casting for both shows is done by Simon Casting, headed by Claire Simon, a 15-year veteran of the casting biz.

As the title suggests, "Detroit 1-8-7" is filmed in Detroit—something even more rare than an episodic show shot in Chicago—but the nearest large talent pool is us, so Simon reports she casts between seven and 25 local actors in every episode of the show, and there have been 18 so far. The total for Season One of the program has been 161 Chicago actors, not counting co-star Jon Michael Hill, a member of the Steppenwolf Ensemble. "There's an LA casting director, too," Simon says, "and every episode we determine which roles might come out of LA and which might come out of Chicago or Detroit." It's too early to know whether or not there will be a Season Two for "Detroit 1-8-7," but the reviews have been good.

"The Chicago Code" is even better for the local acting and crafts community because it's shot here on the streets, and on the Chicago Studio City sound stages. The show, which stars Jennifer Beals and Jason Clarke, wrapped up shooting 12 episodes (plus a pilot) here in December. It debuts on Fox on Monday, Feb. 7. For its dozen episodes, Simon Casting filled 197 roles with Chicago actors.

The roles available for local actors on the two programs have ranged from day players with one line to guest star performances. Large or small, keep in mind that all of the roles are covered by an AFTRA union contract which guarantees a pleasant-to-juicy paycheck that might range from a few hundred dollars for one day's work to several thousand for a guest star role. And actors are well-fed on a set, too! Background extras are finding work as well, although that's a separate casting task. Among the well-known Chicago actors engaged by the shows have been Tony Award-winner Deanna Dunagan, Steppenwolf's Francis Guinan and James Vincent Meredith.

Eric Chaudron, the executive director of AFTRA's Chicago office, agrees that episodic TV is a great boon for the local talent community. He has high hopes for "The Chicago Code," which has been developed for TV by Shawn Ryan, a producer with both a track record of success ("The Shield") and local roots (he's from Rockford). Chaudron points out that the last episodic show to film here was the late Patrick Swayze's final project, "The Beast," which lasted only one season (2008-2009). The last successful TV series filmed here, and then only in part, was "Prison Break."

Perhaps the greatest frustration for everyone attached to the local film industry is when a show pretends to be set in Chicago but isn't filmed here, the current example being "The Good Wife" on CBS. They send a second unit team here periodically to shoot background exteriors while the real filming and casting—are done in New York. As smart as TV producers are, they still sometimes make dumbass errors and you can see one in "The Good Wife" where they haven't figured out that Chicago doesn't have parking meters any more!