When Jerry O'Connell started out on Sliders, he was just an actor. But as of season four- the first for Sliders on the Sci-Fi Channel beginning this month (June 1998)-he's acting, producing and directing. And one need only look at his tired eyes and listen to his rambling, caffeine-piqued speech to know that O'Connell is finding the going tougher than he expected.
"It's a lot tougher," says O'Connell, pulling up a chair during a break from an early evening round of shooting on the Universal Studios lot. "I thought it was going to be about chicks and a cell phone and making my own hours. But this is all crazy work. I know now that I may have bitten off more than I can chew. I'm on a real course for burnout. But I guess that's why they invented coffee."
As if to justify his mania, O'Connell temporarily excuses himself as the director of this week's episode, Sliders' new executive producer David (Beauty & the Beast) Peckinpah, calls him back to the set. O'Connell, as de facto Sliders leader Quinn Mallory, finds himself in a screaming pushing match with a muscled military type while Cleavant Derricks and Kari Wuhrer try to separate them. The argument continues until Peckinpah, finally satisfied with the action, calls "Cut!" O'Connell steps through conversations with the director, director of photography, his fellow actors and, as he reaches the periphery of the set, a cell phone call. From the look on his face, the person on the other end is not the hoped-for "chick." More likely it's somebody interested in discussing budget, script changes or O'Connell's directing of next week's episode, the third of four he will helm this season. O'Connell once again collapses into his chair and, in his trademark tongue-in-cheek manner, bemoans his lot in life. "As you can see, I now have a grownup job," he laughs. "I don't get to stay out all night anymore, and I have to be on my best behavior."
The popular actor (previously profiled in STARLOG #215 & #229) claims that he was "thrown the production bone" midway through the third season. His knowledge of Sliders and the fact that he was one of only two creative people present from the series' inception made him an ideal choice. But he freely admits that producing, to a large extent, is something he has learned by doing.
"Sure, I knew the show, but I didn't know much about things like budgets and the importance of keeping to shooting schedules. So I went to a lot of meetings, met with a lot of bosses and learned about money and numbers and how to make it all fit. It was a great deal of on-the-job training. Producing was definitely a nice bonus, but it was something I was really serious about and pursued."
O'Connell's transition to hyphenated performer couldn't have come at a more precarious time. Sliders, forever on shaky ratings ground, was nearing the end of a third season marked by discontent. Creator Tracy Tormé, after numerous arguments with Fox executives about the show's direction, had finally washed his hands of Sliders and was present in name only. John Rhys-Davies, equally unhappy, exited (discussing his departure in STARLOG #240). Newcomer Wuhrer came in near mid-season's end to balance the genders, alongside Sabrina Lloyd, who would ultimately depart after the third season. And finally, adding insult to injury, Fox cancelled Sliders.
"Being on Fox was kind of a double-edged sword," concedes O'Connell. "Yes, they kept us on, which was nice. But, because we were on at what was considered the family hour, we really couldn't do anything too wacky. When they finally cancelled us after the third season, I thought Sliders was pretty much over. But then I've felt this show was over after ever season, and we just kept sliding right back
"When we knew Fox was definitely not going to pick us up, a few of us got together and went looking for a new home for the show. We deliberately went after a more specialized network-not one that had to appeal to the masses, but one that could get away with appealing to only a science-fiction audience. At that point, we heard the Sci-Fi Channel wanted to do more original programming, so we approached them and struck a deal."
The deal, for 22 new episodes, came at a slight discount, with an estimated 30 percent of the previous per-episode budget reduced. But O'Connell, 12 episodes into the new season, claims that it has been a small price to pay and has, in fact, resulted in Sliders returning to basics.
"We're going back to what the show originally was," he offers. "Now, it's about what direction our society could have gone in if certain things did or did not happen. We're still sliding into parallel Earth dimensions, but, due to the budget constraints and the fact that we're on the Sci-Fi Channel, we can tell more complicated and intelligent stories that reflect on society, make statements about society and don't always have to rely on special FX and the monster of the week."
While there will definitely be action and FX sequences in the new Sliders, O'Connell reports that there won't be the "unwarranted gimmicks" that characterized season three. "I felt that, last year, we were basing many of our scripts around big explosions and action stunts. It was like, 'Oh, we've just purchased this big truck that we can blow up, so let's write a script around that.' Much of what we were doing last year wasn't very cerebral and didn't have much to do with science fiction. This year, we're building a lot more around character and story, much the way Rod Serling did with The Twilight Zone. It's being done more with the words and the set-up rather than with special FX. And yes, because we're doing it that way, we're having to work harder, but we're all happy that we have more of this kind of work to do."
O'Connell, not surprisingly, doesn't want to spoil the surprise of this new season by giving away too many plot particulars, but he does offer up some tidbits of what is to come. "There's more of a resistance to the Sliders from the Cro-Mags, who will play a much bigger role this season, emerging as more of a threat to the parallel universes than to the Sliders. The Sliders and the Cro-Mags will be butting heads quite a lot this season. It will also be more of a goal this season for the Sliders to try and return to their home Earth. But what they'll find once they -et there is a totally unexpected twist that I can't give away."
He can give away some insights into his character Mallory's evolution. O'Connell initially paints in the broad strokes of "maturity" and "depth" before adding more detail. "When the show first started. Quinn was more of a student, because he had Professor Maximilian Arturo [Rhys-Davies] to plav off of. But, with the Professor gone. more weight was put on Quinn's shoulders to be the leader. I panicked when John left the show. My character, at that point, had pretty much been the goofus, the flake. Now, Suddenly, I had to magically become this authoritative character. Fortunately, with John I was able for three seasons to learn from one of the best about how to play that."
And, despite the arrivals and departures of actors, O'Connell insists that the chemistry on the set remains good. "There has been no problem working new actors in. Fortunately, we had Kari for part of last season, and she picked up on things quickly. And you don't get any cooler than Cleavant. But this new actor, this Charlie O'Connell, is kind of a putz. I don't know who he thinks he is."
O'Connell is jokingly referring to his own brother, who joins the regular cast as Quinn's long-lost brother Colin in episode six (see sidebar). "Charlie auditioned with 2,000 other actors while in disguise," he teases. But he soon provides the more likely explanation that "his brother Jerry became a producer, and so Charlie got the job. Although, if you stop and think about it, casting Charlie did make sense. How can you have a character who's supposed to be my brother not [in reality, closely resemble] my brother?"
Ironically, O'Connell's career appears to be at a crossroads. Following good reviews for Jerry Maguire and Scream 2, the actor appears primed for the big screen and admits that his hiatus from Sliders will be filled with feature work. "There's a great deal to be said for going on location on a big-budget movie for three months and working with many different people. But Sliders has given me the opportunity to act, produce and direct, things I might not have the opportunity to do away from television. Besides, it's impossible to get bored with this series. We're constantly all over the place. So, if you're asking me if I would ever consider leaving the show, right now I would have to say, 'I'm here until there is no more Sliders.'
"At this point, I feel like I can handle it all," says O'Connell. "I know Sliders inside and out. And the show continues to have an edge to it, which I like. I never see myself getting bored with it."
Nor does he foresee leaving the science fiction universe. "I've based my choices to this point on the opportunity to play different characters, and SF, fantasy and horror have certainly afforded me those opportunities. I'm also not one of those actors who's using the genre as a stepping stone to other things. This genre is definitely legitimate and is becoming more so all the time. I have a very strong base in the genre, and I would be crazy to completely go away from it."
Likewise, two Sliders alumni may slide again. According to O'Connell, Rhys-Davies has tentatively agreed to return for a few episodes. And Lloyd hasn't ruled out the possibility of re-appearing this season either. "That's the neat thing about Sliders. Nothing is definite or for sure. Just because something happened in one universe does not mean it's that way elsewhere. Anything is possible in this show, and for me that's really neat," O'Connell explains.
"Jerry! We need Jerry on the set!"
O'Connell sighs at the call of the director to return to action. Next week, he'll be in the director's seat. But this night he's just an actor-and the producer. "I'm doing 2,000 things," chuckles Jerry O'Connell as he gets up to leave. "But that's why I'm getting the big bucks."