Three-time Oscar nominee Debra Winger’s mostly known for her work in films. But the 60-year-old Cleveland native has worked on a variety of different television shows since her first appearance in 1976 as Wonder Girl on “Wonder Woman.”
None of the TV jobs have had her working on a comedy where the show is taped in front of a live studio audience. That’s changed with the new Netflix comedy “The Ranch.”
Winger plays the mother to the brothers played by Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson. Colt (Kutcher) left the family ranch for a professional football career. Older brother Jameson (Masterson) stayed home. Financial troubles at the ranch bring the pair together again.
“It really is a different beast,” Winger tells me of working on a sitcom. “But, it’s been fun to stretch and find a new muscle at this age. How many opportunities do you get when you are at retirement age?”
This is giving me a chance to learn something brand new.
One of the things that has helped Winger adjust to this new acting world is the man who plays her ex-husband in the series, Sam Elliott. She says they both share a desire to want to conquer this new world of acting.
They have had some help. Both Masterson and Kutcher are veterans of the format going back to their days co-starring on “That ‘70s Show.” They are helping Winger and Elliott work their way through the process, which the veterans describe as being like a sideshow.
“It is really a combination of theater, stand-up comedy, the circus and the dentist,” Winger says.
It didn’t take Winger too long to adapt. She’s become so comfortable working in the sitcom style that when it is necessary to film a segment without the studio audience, she finds it a lot more difficult to do.
One thing that has made doing the show a little easier for Winger is being on Netflix. The streaming service isn’t under the restrictions of censorship rules. That means it’s OK to use more adult language, which makes the process feel more organic to Winger.
Winger says television is offering better opportunities for actors than films.
“TV used to be for families and children. Films used to be for adults. But now, movies are for children and families while television is for adults,” Winger says.
Plays a doctor on TV
Not since Howie Mandel starred in the NBC medical drama “St. Elsewhere” has there been as unique a casting as in the new NBC medical drama “Heartbeat.” Stand-up comedian Jamie Kennedy is part of the medical staff built around a hotshot female heart surgeon (Melissa George).
Kennedy likes the comparisons to “St Elsewhere” because it was one of his favorite programs when he was growing up. He adds that there are some elements of “House” in the show. This all goes together to create a show that has funny and dark moments.
“There are a lot of great stories,” Kennedy says between bites of his dinner. “The characters are very great at their jobs but terrible in life. My character is like that. He’s disenfranchised with medicine because he was a true zealot of it. Then he saw patients are just numbers and that is why he is disenfranchised.”
That backstory helped Kennedy make the character quirky. It also helped that while “Heartbeat” deals with a lot of medicine, it’s not the typical procedural program because more attention is spent with the characters than in the operating room.
Working on “Heartbeat” has given Kennedy a deeper understanding of the medical world. He never realized how much emphasis was put on financial matters.
“I didn’t know that some of the procedures we do on this show are very cool. I didn’t know that could be the calling card for the hospital to attract more business,” Kennedy says.
Kennedy’s career has been a mix of TV and film work. In 2012, he starred in “Lost and Found in Armenia,” the feature film produced by Roosevelt High School graduate Valerie McCaffrey. Kennedy plays an American tourist who vacations in Turkey to get his mind off a bad break-up. He ends up in a small Armenian village, where he is accused of being a Turkish spy.
“I loved doing that movie because it’s always nice to go where you are the minority,” Kennedy says. “The movie mirrored my own experience because I was a foreigner in a foreign land.
“It wasn’t huge but the people who saw it really liked it.”
He has nothing but praise for McCaffrey, saying she gave him some big breaks in his career.
The show was brilliantly structured so that there really was no fourth wall. My very pregnant wife and I found out what that meant when we attended a taping. During the closing credits, the cameras were turned toward the studio audience.
That gave us a chance to be part of one of TV’s most under-appreciated series.