Like many of us, actor Luke Kirby spent much of the pandemic lockdown period watching television. Unlike the rest of us, his viewing provided some inspiration for his next TV role.
“The two shows that I watched the most were ‘Columbo’ and ‘Golden Girls,’” the Hamilton-born actor said in a Zoom interview, referring to the 1970s drama starring Peter Falk as a homicide detective and the beloved 1980s comedy about four older women living together in Miami. “And I felt like playing somewhat of a gumshoe inside of Florida, it was sort of like those two worlds could merge in some way. And that would be really fun.”
There is definitely fun to be had in “Panhandle,” a dramedy in which Kirby stars as eccentric amateur detective Bell Prescott.
Bell has the deduction skills of a Sherlock Holmes — if Sherlock wore seersucker suits, drank a lot, had a pet alligator, was agoraphobic, set up a crime lab in a barn and talked to his dead wife.
Bell crosses paths with sarcastic traffic cop Cammie Lorde (Tiana Okoye) — who’s in fact the only cop left in Boggsville, Fla., after budget cuts — when a body turns up on the estate he shares with his widowed mother (former “Cinderella” Lesley Ann Warren).
Bell and Cammie make a bargain: he’ll help her flex her detective muscles on other unsolved crimes and she’ll help him try to find his wife’s killer. The odd couple partnership makes for a delightful TV pairing.
Kirby said he was smitten with the character of Bell when he first read the script.
“He seemed a little different from things I’m more accustomed to (and) I appreciate the profane, I appreciate silliness. But I also felt, within the story, there was a true beating heart that was pumping real human blood, especially with the community of characters.”
Indeed, Bell and Cammie can be quite funny, as can the people around them, but Bell’s mental illness is treated as a serious issue.
Cammie has issues of her own. She’s a single mother with a mysterious past she’s trying to keep from bleeding into her life in Boggsville. “She has such moments of vulnerability, but she is incredibly strong as well,” Okoye said in a separate Zoom interview.
This is the biggest screen role that Okoye has played after doing guest parts in TV shows and a handful of movies.
The actor, singer and dancer, who appeared on Broadway in “The Cher Show,” wanted to play Cammie so badly that she taped the audition despite being sick with what she thinks was an undiagnosed case of COVID-19.
“I was so nervous about playing a cop,” Okoye said. “I didn’t know if this is going to be like (a) cop propaganda show … I read the pilot and it had so much heart, it had so much humour. I was so obsessed with the character and just her attitude and the way that she walked about life. I really loved the banter and the chemistry between Cammie and Bell.”
Though Okoyewas “terrified” before shooting started, “thankfully, I felt such support from the creative team as well as Luke. Him and I got to know each other straight away so that we could talk about the script and talk about our characters, and the dynamics between the two.”
This is Kirby’s first lead role in a series since the Canadian drama “Crash & Burn” (2009-10), in which he played an insurance investigator.
His profile reached new heights after he won an Emmy Award in 2019 for portraying comedian Lenny Bruce in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” But he’s had plenty of other notable roles, including the gay son of Italian immigrants in movie “Mambo Italiano”; a Hollywood star turned thespian in cult TV comedy “Slings and Arrows”; the other man in Sarah Polley’s film “Take This Waltz”; the lawyer for a wrongfully convicted ex-con in acclaimed drama series “Rectify”; and a hot, rich dad in the “Gossip Girl” reboot.
There’s a difference, Kirby acknowledged, in playing a fictional character like Bell and a real person like Lenny, “who was obviously not a contemporary but historically close enough. There’s a lot of recordings and a fair amount of footage that really can inform a sort of specificity of sound and physicality.” But with any character Kirby plays, “I kind of feel I have to — protect sounds too precious because there’s nobody out there trying to, you know, defame my character — but you just sort of hold it tenderly, I guess.”
Asked if he feels successful, Kirby said it’s a moving target.
“It’s a mercurial business. Even the kind of barometric pressure of the self that you have to contend with playing different things, you’re tracking all of these different lives … with success, it’s probably best to try to assess it as a day-to-day thing.
“I like to work,” he said. “And it’s important to work for a multitude of reasons, some very practical, some a little more fanciful, some a little more dreamy … to me, it’s always been ‘Can I get a heartbeat here and can I maintain a heartbeat with a character and with a story?’
“The work itself, the kind of dreamy aspect hasn’t changed, the kind of exploring of imaginary universes: it still just feels like a very lucky thing to get to do.”
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