LOS ANGELES, CA (LA ELEMENTS) 11/29/2017 -“My mom always wanted me to be an actor because she used to say to me, ‘Anthony, you’re going to become an actor because you’re the greatest storyteller that ever lived.’ Meaning, that was a euphemism that I could lie really great.”
The New York born (Harlem) and raised (Queens, Long Island) actor, Tony Denison, has brought a number of memorable stories to life. Early in his career, Denison gave a searing portrayal of mobster Ray Luca in the Michael Mann drama Crime Story that ran from 1986-1988. Time Magazine took notice and named the character of Ray Luca, “Best Villain of The Decade.” But it’s the role of Lieutenant Andy Flynn from The Closer and TNT’s top rated series, Major Crimes, that Denison is best known for. A role he has played for 13 years, earning him a devoted fan base. Throughout the seasons, viewers of the two shows have delighted in Flynn’s antics with detective Provenza, played by GW Bailey. But as Major Crimes moves towards its series finale, “Sanctuary City: Part Five” easily ranks as one of the most memorable episodes to date with the wedding of Andy Flynn to Commander Sharon Raydor, played by Mary McDonnell. We caught up with the actor and producer over Thanksgiving weekend at a Larchmont Village café to discuss among other things, the long run he’s enjoyed as Detective Flynn and his plans after the series finale of Major Crimes.
You’ve been playing Andy Flynn for 13 years, that’s quite a long time.
“It’s unbelievable. This is one of the first times in a long time for anybody in the networks to go 13 years. Now, it’s like two seasons, three seasons and they’re gone. So this has been great.”
How do you see the evolution of Andy Flynn from the man he was in The Closer to the man he is in Major Crimes?
“Well I think it’s like everything in life. You know in AA they say; if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans. For me as Andy it’s kind of like, Andy has his plans. He’s divorced, he’s going to stay single, and he’s going to be cavalier about all that stuff. He’s getting involved in all kinds of shenanigans with Provenza. Then suddenly, from the place you least expected, comes your superior officer and at first you don’t like her at all, or seemingly you don’t like her. But then you get an opportunity, which James Duff wrote brilliantly in like the first episode of Major Crimes. (Editor’s note: James Duff is the executive producer of The Closer and Major Crimes) He didn’t wait for like episode four or five where we started to become more like teammates. In the very first episode, she makes a discovery about something and I look at her and the look on my face was like, ‘Damn, that’s great!’ So from the very beginning of working together, we immediately clicked as teammates. And then as it moved on and on and on, it seemed like the natural progression. So again, it’s like no matter what Andy thought his plans were for the rest of his life, they changed. And they changed in a way that he never expected.”
What have been some of your favorite storylines from Major Crimes and The Closer and which storylines have been a little difficult in terms of the impact that they may have had on you?
“Well it’s funny. Some of my favorite storylines started in The Closer, you know when GW and I are going to the Dodger game with skybox tickets (“To Protect & To Serve”). To this day, as I understand from all the fans we’ve had throughout the whole thirteen years, that’s their favorite episode bar none.”
“In the third year of The Closer, we had a really rather gruesome crime scene that is based on one of the stories of Mike Berchem, the lead detective for the city of Los Angeles who was a technical advisor on that show and now he’s an executive producer on our show. It just got to me. Two young kids were killed, not just killed, slaughtered, and I had to leave the set. Even though I know that it’s fake blood on the wall and it’s just a set up that we have. So I said to Mike, ‘How do you do this? Doesn’t it get to you?’ He goes ‘Well you sort of discovered a formula.’ Because early on when I was doing The Closer, I started to ad lib some stuff which James Duff very graciously allowed. I had interjected some humorous events, some humorous observations and he said, ‘That’s very important because if you don’t try to have some way of letting go of all this stuff, you’ll blow your brains out, you’ll kill yourself.’ Because when you think about man’s inhumanity to man, I mean you’ve heard about terrorists, serial killers, you look at this stuff and you wonder about the police who are there at the scene and you think, ‘What do you do? What’s your outlet?’ A lot of them drink and a lot of them try to make…not light of the situation, but they just try to find a way so that they could focus on something else.”
“I think after that episode, I suddenly started to improvise a lot with GW where we would do eye rolls and stuff like that. Tap the other one on the back like you know at the end of Chinatown, ‘Forget it Jake it’s Chinatown.’ So we would do that kind of stuff and that’s how I got through. When we got to Major Crimes, the crimes were even more gruesome and is a much more serious show than The Closer. At least that’s what I’ve been told by people. I mean I don’t know I was the same character in both of them.”
So in Major Crimes what was the storyline that you felt was especially difficult in terms of the effect that it had on you?
“It was the one where the mother, played wonderfully by Gail O’Grady, was responsible for her son who died.(“Boys Will Be Boys”) He was sort of a transgender kind of kid. Going through that with her and her family, it was pretty gruesome and it hit me pretty hard. There was another one where this woman, I can’t remember her name, the actress, she was fantastic. She was from Sweden but you could never tell, her accent was flawless. We had to give notice that her two kids were killed and she had no idea. She was still hoping that they could be found somewhere. And the way she played that scene!”
“The thing that was great about Mary, one of the reasons why Mary and I get along so well as people and then as actors on the show, Mary has this really great intuitiveness to her. She could tell a lot of times, like in those two episodes that I was telling you about that I was affected. Not just Andy Flynn, but Tony was affected by what it represents. And a lot of times, she would do something very subtle, where she’d come over and then she would sort of stand next to me and our arms would touch. Before, she’d just walk over and just stand with me. So there’s a lot of that especially in this season. Like even the episodes that are going on now. Like where the kid dies because he couldn’t get to his insulin. Craziness.”
Yes. Something that was so preventable! So on the opposite spectrum. What have been some of your favorite story lines on Major Crimes? I’m imagining one might have something to do with the big wedding that’s coming up?
“Well I hate to be obvious about it but the episode that aired last week was one of my favorite ones. (Sanctuary City: Part 4) because as the fans will tell you, it’s the first time really that Sharon and Andy got the chance to tell each other how deeply they love one another. And also the intensity of that moment. For me as an actor, I was excited to go to that place, as was Mary. So that scene will stick in my head forever. Forever. And then this week’s scene, the wedding, that was very joyous.”
Scene from Major Crimes: Sanctuary City Part 4
Sharon Raydor is facing her mortality and it’s a beautiful moment when she tries to give Andy an out, a graceful way of getting out of the wedding and he won’t take it. No matter what path her life will take, he will be by her side as her husband. This was years in the making. Six years in the making.
“Yes, finally. Finally! A couple of times they hinted about doing a spin-off with GW and I and I always thought that would be fun. There are two different scenarios. One where we’re moonlighting as investigators for a company, and the other one is where we officially retire but wind up helping this FBI agent, a young woman, solve these unsolved cases. And I always thought that now that both characters got married, how much fun it would be if we did do that with that series. Mary, GW and I, but it’s not going to happen. At least I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
So, Major Crimes has been consistently the top rated series on TNT.
“By leaps and bounds. Apparently all four of the new shows on TNT, their combined rating doesn’t equal what Major Crimes is getting.”
With that being said, why won’t there be a Season 7?
“Go figure. I don’t know why, it sort of makes no sense. But you know, Kevin Reilly is the boss and he makes the decisions. One day, I’ll run into him at some event and I’ll ask why and he’ll be gracious enough to tell me why.”
Before I came here, I was requested by a very devoted fan, to ask you if there’s any chance that Major Crimes will go to Netflix or Hulu?
“I know that they approached Netflix. Hulu’s a little tougher because I think Warner Brothers as well as some other studios and the network own parts of the collective. And I think in terms of TNT being partially owned by Warner Brothers, for Warner Brothers to take a show from TNT and then put it on to Hulu, someone said it was kind of like a stick in the eye to TNT. Especially if the show goes there and does just as well if not better. Then it’s kind of like, ‘Come on guys. Don’t embarrass us.’ There was talk about going on to some kind of streaming. CBS apparently has some streaming network but for whatever reason, they just said ‘no.’ Which is surprising because as a procedural cop drama, it’s pretty good. It’s the kind of show that I would watch.”
Former District Attorney of Los Angeles, Gil Garcetti, is an advisor on the show. Is that correct?
“Gil Garcetti is an advisor. He’s a supervisor; he supervises a lot of the authenticity of what we do.”
What was Major Crimes able to address that The Closer maybe did not?
“What The Closer was about, Brenda Lee Johnson (played by Kyra Sedgwick) would get somebody to make a confession and that’s why she was called the closer. An important element in police work is having someone who can close the case.”
“However, what we didn’t get the chance to talk about in The Closer, which we get the chance to do exclusively in Major Crimes, is that so many cases don’t go to trial because they’re so expensive that the state is looking to plea bargain every case that they can. It leads to what is sometimes unaffectionately refered to as “misdemeanor murder” because states are broke and as far as the municipalities go, money is really, really tight. So what they try to do, Mary’s character basically is the progenitor of closing the case. She’s also the one who tries to offer a plea bargain. So if you look at a lot of the people who plead guilty in our episodes, you realize they’re only going to get this amount of time or that amount of time. They’re not going to get what you would think, like life imprisonment. Sometimes, the state and the city have no choice but to go to trial. But whenever they can avoid a trial they will. That’s because their funds are so low.”
Throw in the death penalty and things get even more complicated. I know Major Crimes did an episode where a homeless serial killer was sentenced to death. With death penalty cases, especially here in California and nation-wide, you have the pharmaceutical companies withholding the drugs used in executions because quite frankly, they don’t want to be affiliated with the death penalty. I imagine that kind of plays a part in wanting to plea bargain as well. Apparently, it’s more expensive to execute someone…this is such a grim discussion, I know.
“Well, no, it’s not that grim. What we tried to do on Major Crimes was try to be as realistic as possible in terms of the aftermath. If you look at all the different states throughout the United States, especially in this time of really tight budgets, but even before though, the amount of money that the state spends when a person is sentenced to death, especially with the appeals process, is unbelievable. I mean, it’s mind-numbing how much money one particular case…then again, let’s say you’re on death row and let’s say you really are innocent, you’re going to look for anything to get the hell out of there. But at the same time, you have this opportunity even if you are guilty to appeal. And they do. They appeal and appeal and appeal. If there was no death penalty, well they would just have parole board hearings and that would be it and those are so less expensive. Then there are people who want their ounce of flesh. I know if you kill somebody close to me, I mean if you let me at them at a room by myself…
Crime Story. There’s that persona coming out.
(laughing) “It’s a tough answer. A tough question. There’s a line from Starman with Jeff Bridges who’s one of my favorite actors. When he said, ‘You know what I’ve observed about people on earth? When things are at their worst you are at your best.’ So at the end of the day, the criminal justice system, you know, they’re figuring it out. Some people are going to get away with it and a lot of people not. We’ll figure it out.”
Towards the beginning of this interview, Denison mentioned that each pilot he’s been involved with was ordered into series. With that kind of track record, could a Major Crimes spinoff centering on Andy Flynn be in the future?
Switching gears here, fans of Major Crimes are desperate to save the show. So much so that I know they are still hoping for an “eleventh hour” save. Earlier you mentioned the word spin-off. You obviously have the fan base to do so, which is a huge advantage.
“Well clearly whatever show we did spin it off in any one of those scenarios with GW and I, it would almost be turned into a ‘dramedy.’ When GW and I are working together, I’ve observed that somehow we’re blessed with the idea that both of us take turns being Abbot and Costello. Sometimes I’m Costello to his Abbot and he’s Costello to my Abbot. And that I think is unique, that’s really hard to find. Usually, it’s clearly delineated. One guy’s kind of the fool, the buffoon and the other guy is clearly the straight man. So I think that would make for a really wonderful TV series.”
Is there a lot of kidding around on set?
“I think everybody gets along, the crew is amazing. When we’re waiting for the shot to be set up or whatever, we’re all usually cracking jokes or being amusing about some particular thing. GW is one of the greatest storytellers who ever lived. When he tells you a story, and they’re true, you are rolling with laughter. Everybody is just rolling with laughter. So I’m going to miss that. I really am because I love to laugh and I think laughter is so super important. Like I said, everybody gets along. We have the three new actors to the show, Leonard, Jessica and Daniel, we didn’t really get the chance to explore more than one year with them, but it would have been nice to have more years with them.”
You’ve been so open with your personal experience with addiction. And you’ve mentioned that you sponsor young actors through AA.
“Recovery, we’re asked not to say AA. Especially the ones who’ve sought alcohol or drugs as a relief from the pressure that you can experience in this business. I try to tell them look, this has nothing to do with competition, this has to do with your preparedness. At the end of the day, you get a role or not get a role and it’s not based on ‘Oh, I gave a bad reading even though I was prepared.’ There’s no rhyme or reason for why somebody is picked. None. None whatsoever. Other than you may have turned a phrase in a way that nobody else turned their phrase, or you come in and you have a particular persona and the writer looks at you and goes, ‘That’s the guy I was thinking about!’ So, I always tell everybody that when you go out and you read for a role, and you get the role, then you know they really wanted you.”
“I also try to remind them that they’re not in competition with other people. The program I’m involved in for my sobriety, talks about being of service. And so, you can be of service when you go into an audition. It’s important to be of service to the writers and to the producers and directors. Maybe they’re playing it cool because they don’t want to feel bad if they don’t think you’re right. At the end of the day they want to like you; otherwise, they wouldn’t have you in. And they have a lot at stake in their minds. As actors we have at stake, ‘Gee I’d like to get this job, get a steady paycheck,’ but for them they want to get the pilot made and they want to make it into a series, so there’s a pressure that exists that affects both sides of the table. It’s a funny thing. Like somebody once pointed out to me. ‘Tony’, she said to me, ‘It’s called show business. You do your show, but the business part of it is a really important part of it to.’ So if you keep that in mind, your disappointment level won’t be as great.”
What’s next for you?
“Well, I don’t like to give titles or whatever of things that I’m involved in, but I have a dear friend, his name is Joel Bess. He’s not in the business at all, but he knows how to make money. We have been friends for 14 or 15 years. Usually, you’ll find me at his house on Friday night for Shabbat dinner. We’re going to produce some stuff with our mutual friend Judah Friedman. We have a certain number of people already in the cast of name value, and they’re really right for the roles. It’s quasi reality and quasi scripted. It’s like a Larry David kind of thing. Judah will be the executive producer on the show for us and I’m even going to be in it. I hope that it goes. We’re going to shoot it in about three weeks.”
“My favorite quote especially applicable to this business is Bob Dylan’s, where in a song he says, ‘He who is not busy being born, is busy dying.’ So everyday I want to be alive and awake to a new idea. And I don’t pretend to think I know everything. I’m so happy in any situation to say to somebody when they ask me a question, ‘I don’t know. Let me think about it. What do you think? That’s how I live my life today. Do not presume to know everything. It’s impossible. And even in the business where I’ve spent 30 years in earning a living, there’s so much stuff I don’t know. But I’m willing to learn.”
What would be a message that you would have for the fans of Major Crimes who’ve been on this journey with you for six years?
“Oh there are so many messages I could give them! I get how they’re going to be disappointed. Right now as I understand it, we’re not coming back. But their enthusiasm and support for our show, obviously by the Save Major Crimes movement, and then look at the blogs! The amount of dialog and writing that goes on. It’s so intense and I think, ‘this is what it’s all about!’ I never played a character to have people like the character. I’ve always played a character to have people understand the character. I’ll say this; the fans of our show so understand us. They really do. They get us in a way that people are meant to get us. Which is rare.”
You can watch Major Crimes Tuesdays on TNT. Check you local listings for airtimes.
All photos of Tony Denison courtesy of Jolson Creative.
Video clip from Major Crimes courtesy of TNT/TBS
Follow Tony Denison on Twitter @RealTonyDenison