Back in 1953, CBS premiered “Topper,” a funny fantasy sitcom based on the 1937 film of the same name about a stuffy banker (Leo G Caroll), who inherited the former estate of a young couple (RobertSterling and Anne Jeffreys). The two had died in an avalanche along with the St. Bernard who wanted to save them. But no sooner does Carroll’s topper move into the property with his wife than he discovers that the couple and the dog are haunting the home, and he happens to be the only one who can see and interact with the ghosts. The series, which ran for two seasons (a young Stephen Sondheim wrote some screenplays), was nominated for a 1954 Emmy for Best Comedy Series. And “Topper” has lived on ever since in syndication, DVD and now streaming services.
And nearly seven decades later, CBS returned to the paranormal last fall with another spirited fantasy comedy, Ghosts, which was a hit with audiences and critics alike for the Tiffany Network. Based on the popular British comedy series of the same name, Ghosts revolves around a young couple, Samantha (Rose McIver) and Jay (Utkarsh Ambudkar) who decide to open a B&B in the sprawling old country house she inherited from a distant relative. Not only is the house falling apart, it is inhabited by several ghosts who have died on the site. Samantha is able to see and interact with the spirits after having near-death experiences in a bad fall. However, Jay cannot.
Recently, the “Joes” (creators and executive producers Joe Port and Joe Wiseman-Mciver), Ambudkar and three of the spirited actors — Richie Moriarty (Peter), Danielle Pinock (Albert) and Brandon Scott Jones (Isaac) – reunited for a lively Variety Zoom talk. Although the 18-episode freshman season recently ended, the Joes are busy planning the second year of Ghosts. “We have an embarrassment of wealth on the show,” Wiseman said. “We have 10 absolutely amazing actors giving us 10 places to go. So we’re just excited to continue what we’ve been doing and continue to explore the spirits’ backstory while telling contemporary stories of how they were held together for eternity, changed and influenced them. And having Sam and Jay come into their lives and Sam being able to communicate with them has transformed them and allowed them to grow.”
Doing the show is a ridiculous affair for the cast. “It’s definitely a job where we all have a lot of laughs on set,” McIver said. “We’re having a really good time. It’s such an ensemble. We really all bounce off and rely on each other. That gets stronger as the season progresses.”
“Ghosts” has reminded critics of such classic ensemble comedies as “Cheers.” But Ambudkar quipped that the series is more like The West Wing. “A comparison often made,” added McIver. “Yes. The dead west wing. That’s what they call us. Rose is our Martin Sheen.”
Moriartys Pete was a Boy Scout leader who died in 1985 after one of his Boy Scouts accidentally shot him through the neck with an arrow. And the arrow wreaked havoc on the rest of the cast. “Everyone gets hit by the arrowhead all the time,” Moriarty explained. “Well, I mean, every other day I’m like ‘Whoa,'” McIver quipped.
“Fortunately, we were spared any major injuries during the first season,” Moriarty noted. “I hope the same for season two. It was a delicate matter because we all depend on each other. There are so many shots where someone is right over my shoulder, whispering in my ear, or I’m over Rose’s shoulder the whole time. I had to be very aware of what my expanse really is. “About mid-season with a very close eye contact with Roman Zaragoza,” Moriarty said of the actor who plays Sasappis, a cynical Native American. “I have his eyelid. At first it was a metallic tip, not sharp but metallic. They replaced the arrowhead with a styrofoam point, so it’s less deadly now.”
Pinnock revealed it was a lifetime honor to play Alberta, the larger-than-life prohibition singer — she’s a cross between Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. “As an actor, I feel like I can stretch my wings with her. She really is a bad ass. i just love her I think there are moments of emotion with her. She is a black woman in the house. The 1920s were rough. They were fun and fabulous but full of racism.”
“Danielle makes a good point,” Wiseman said. “We want to make people laugh, but also make them think. The show is about an unlikely group of people who would never have known each other in real life. Right now we’re at an uneven time in American history… And you know, they literally stuck harder, but it’s hard to hate people and not understand them when you’re forced to know them. I think that’s a big part of what the show is about – people getting to know each other. That is a message that we are happy to pursue.”
Jones’ snooty Captain Isaac Higgintoot was an American Revolutionary War officer who died of dysentery. He was insanely jealous of Alexander Hamilton and horrified to learn his life was being made into a blockbuster musical. Isaac was also a closeted gay man during his lifetime and he discovers his identity over the course of the season. “It’s a story that I think is often reserved for young people on television,” Jones said. “I think someone who’s older goes through that … It’s just a 250-year coming-out story.”
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