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‘Get Shorty’: You Know the Name, but Not This Story

And for Epix, a channel even the show’s stars have a hard time finding, the hope is that “Get Shorty” will help transform it from an afterthought to a player in the crowded premium TV landscape.

“This show has the opportunity to tell the rest of the world, ‘This is what an Epix show looks like,’” said Mark Greenberg, its president and chief executive.

What “Get Shorty” looks like might surprise fans of the book or, especially, the Barry Sonnenfeld film. A stylish crime flick in the 1990s mold, it combined violence and wisecracks into a confection that was glibly fun and self-consciously cool. (Its sequel, which introduced Chili to the music business, was even called “Be Cool.”)


John Travolta, left, and Gene Hackman in the 1995 film “Get Shorty.”

Linda R. Chen/MGM

By contrast the series is a slower, grimmer tale that originates not in glitzy Miami but in the bleak sandscape of Pahrump, Nev.

Miles is cool, certainly, but he cares less about that than about repairing his broken family by finding legitimate — or legal, at least — work in Hollywood. His way in is a potent visual symbol: A bloodstained script, taken from a murdered screenwriter, that Miles convinces Rick to help him turn into a film.

“Get Shorty” is to Elmore Leonard what FX’s “Fargo” is to the Coen Brothers oeuvre. Leonard’s taut stories, with their flashes of violence, shady morality and thugs oozing insecurity as well as intimidation, have tantalized television and film producers for decades — “Justified” on FX, featuring characters the writer created as well as his lyrical flair for dialogue, was a notable recent example. But like the FX adaptation of the Coen brothers movie “Fargo,” “Get Shorty” puts a well-known title onto a new story, using it to signal an idiosyncratic aesthetic sensibility and, from a marketing standpoint, draw in Leonard fans.

But unlike “Fargo,” which introduces a new story and cast each year, any future seasons of “Get Shorty” will continue the narrative and feature the same characters (those that survive the first season, anyway).

The unconventional choice of Mr. O’Dowd to play the heavy began with Allen Coulter, a former “Sopranos” director who helmed the “Get Shorty” pilot, and who early in the series’s development reviewed a casting list that included photos of potential actors. “He goes, ‘I want someone menacing, like that guy.’ And he pointed to Chris,” Davey Holmes, the creator of the series, recalled. “We said, ‘You’re not familiar with Chris’s work, are you?’”

But with his normally tousled hair shorn close to the scalp and some tattoos added in makeup, the six-foot-three actor transformed into a believable tough guy.

Mr. O’Dowd hadn’t read “Get Shorty” or seen the movie. But he was intrigued by the opportunity to play a “hard man,” especially one that was the focal point of the show. “To be the person in the room who can hurt people is kind of fun,” he said.

The actor, married with two young sons, was on a dad break, having walked the few blocks from his house to a cafe on Melrose Avenue. Born and raised in western Ireland, Mr. O’Dowd has lived in Los Angeles for several years and remains a fan of the city, even as he agreed that the central joke of “Get Shorty” — that criminal talents translate nicely to Hollywood — is well founded.

“The brutality that people can treat each other with in this business is undoubted,” he said. “People get rid of actors, get rid of jobs, lose people’s money, and then they go for granola somewhere.”

“They don’t necessarily do consequences in the way the rest of humanity does,” he added.

As a non-player who has been ground up by show business, Mr. Romano’s character is a symbol of the industry’s soul-killing tendencies. Though his hair was patterned after that of the producer Brian Grazer (“A Beautiful Mind,” “Apollo 13”), Rick is barely hanging on at the opposite end of the success spectrum. The role continues Mr. Romano’s move from an Everyman comic persona toward more psychically tormented characters, as seen in shows like “Men of a Certain Age” and “Vinyl.”

“I think it’s genuine,” Mr. O’Dowd said, laughing. “Ray finding his place in the world is a constant battle that he fights with himself, which is kind of gorgeous to watch.”

Mr. Romano’s latest challenge: Finding his show. “I’ve still got to figure out a way to get Epix,” he said.

Created in 2009 in a joint deal between Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Viacom and Lionsgate, Epix is now owned solely by MGM, which is also producing “Get Shorty.” The channel’s first two original series, the spy drama “Berlin Station” and political satire “Graves,” have brought solid reviews, but Epix remains relatively unknown in the pay-cable space dominated by HBO, Starz and Showtime. With roughly 14 million subscribers, according to SNL Kagan, Epix trails the other services by a wide margin.

The channel plans to advertise “Get Shorty” heavily and has posted the first two episodes on YouTube in an attempt to hook viewers. But there are no plans to put the show on a third-party streaming service like Netflix or Amazon. With the channel hoping “Get Shorty” can put it on the original programming map, the way breakout shows like “The Shield” on FX and “Mad Men” on AMC did for their respective channels, it’s crucial that the show remain closely associated with Epix, Mr. Greenberg said.

Mr. O’Dowd admitted that he wasn’t familiar with Epix before signing on to “Get Shorty,” but he wasn’t worried about its current obscurity, he said, because experience has shown him how quickly that status can change. When he was working on “Family Tree,” a Christopher Guest mockumentary series, there were two bidders: HBO, where the show eventually ran for one season in 2013, and Netflix.

“At the time we were kind of like, ‘Does Netflix even do TV?’” he said. “Everything ends up wherever it ends up.”

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