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Exclusive Interview with Sue Thomas creator Dave Johnson

 

Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye was one of the most popular programs on the former Pax network. A family-friendly program which has been awarded the PTC Seal of ApprovalTM, Sue Thomas is now being released on DVD. The PTC recently caught up with Sue Thomas’ co-creator and writer Dave Johnson to find out more.

 

 

PTC: What is Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye?

 

DJ: Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye is a show about a deaf FBI agent and her friends on her FBI team. It’s based on a real person – there is a real Sue Thomas, who was a deaf employee of the FBI, and the show is loosely based on her time with the Bureau. Sue gets a job at the FBI, where they discover her incredible talent for lip-reading and assign her to a surveillance team. The program follows Sue and her co-workers as they investigate crimes, but it also deals a lot with the interaction between people. There’s some action and some mystery and some humor, but there’s also a lot of characterization and humanity to the show.

 

PTC: Sue Thomas was the number one show on the Pax network.

 

DJ:  It was. The number one spot on Pax went back and forth between Sue Thomas and another show I helped produce for Pax, called Doc. They probably tied, frankly, as much as they did anything else. By the end, Sue Thomas was a little bit ahead in the ratings, but then it had Doc as its lead-in, and Doc had already been on for a year. Doc was on for four years and Sue Thomas was on three, and both lasted until the PAX network basically went away.

 

PTC: We previously interviewed your brother Gary Johnson, with whom you created Doc and Sue Thomas, F. B. Eye. He discussed how the two of you came up with the concept of the program, and how you cast Deanne Bray in the lead. Could you tell us about the other characters, and the actors who played them?

 

DJ: Sure. Jack Hudson is the surveillance team’s leader, and he’s also a little bit of a love interest for Sue. We didn’t really pursue the romance angle much in the series, though many of the show’s fans – who tend to be quite vocal! – wanted us to.

 

PTC: Why didn’t you?

 

DJ:  Because as soon as you do something like a major romance in a show, if you’re going to be at all realistic about it, it changes the focus of the program, what the series is. We wanted to focus on Sue as an independent woman with a group of friends. Certainly she’d be open to romance, but making the show about a romance would have limited other things we wanted to do. So we wanted to maintain the relationship as we’d established it. Had the show run longer, we might have gone in that direction, or we might not.  If we do a new Sue Thomas movie, which we’re talking about, we might go in that direction!

 

But Yannick Bisson, who played Jack, was very popular – especially with our female fans! Yannick’s a very successful actor. Up in Canada where he’s from, he has another series [Murdoch Mysteries] on right now, and he’s had great success.

 

One thing that I liked, and that our fans liked was that, unlike on some other crime procedurals where the characters sometimes tend to blend together to some extent, on Sue Thomas all the characters were very different and distinctive.

 

PTC: For example?

 

DJ: Well, obviously Myles was a favorite of everyone, because he served as the comic relief. Myles Leland III is another agent on the team. Myles is from Boston, went to Harvard, and is a bit of a snob. At first he’s opposed to Sue being on the team, but after she pulls his fat out of the fire that changes somewhat. But because he’s a bit pompous and acts a little superior to everyone else, he’s always ripe to have a practical joke played on him or to be taken down a peg or two.  But over time we did some more serious storylines with him, too. Ted Atherton, who played Myles, is such a nice guy and just has a great way about him, but he was terrific in the part as the guy you secretly enjoy being around, but sometimes love to hate.

 

Then there’s Dimitrius, who is the most senior agent on the team. He’s the only one of the team who’s married and has children. Marc Gomes played Dimitrius Gans, and the way he got the part…On Doc, there was a main character, a policeman by the name of Nate. He was Doc Cassidy’s best friend on the show. Marc Gomes was our second choice for that role. We had seen him read for that part, and we really liked him, but we went with Richard Leacock because he was just a little more right for that role. But we loved Marc and everything about him, so when Sue Thomas came up, we said, ‘Y’know what, Marc’s the guy for the part of Dimitrius.” So we gave that role to him.

 

We did the same thing with Bobby. Bobby Manning is another agent on the team. He’s Jack’s best friend, and he’s kind of a laid-back, fun-loving sort with an Australian accent. In the story, Bobby’s mother was American, which makes him American by birth, but he grew up in Australia.

 

Now, what’s interesting is that Rick Peters, who played Bobby, is not Australian.

But he lived in Australia when he was a kid, from about age 10 to 18 or so. And when we were just sitting around talking to Rick this came up, and we said, “That would be an interesting character. Do you know how to do the accent?” And he just went right into this Australian accent, and I said, “I think we should make the character Australian!” And it wasn’t like it was a really a cheat, because he did live there during his whole formative years – both the actor and the character.

 

I’d actually had a long-standing friendship with Rick. He’d been on another series I did, a show called Against the Grain, which was on NBC in the ‘90s before I did Doc or Sue Thomas. He was a regular in that, along with Ben Affleck, Denise Richards, and Wayne Knight, who was Newman on Seinfeld. Rick and I have been friends ever since, and I just think he’s terrific. We wrote the part of Bobby specifically for him.

 

Enuka Okuma played Lucy Dotson, who is both the team’s office manager and Sue’s roommate, There’s a special friendship between them – on the show, Lucy is better than everyone else at learning sign language, so she and Sue can “talk” privately to each other – and they like hanging out together. One thing that was very important to me, and that I feel very strongly about, and am very proud of, is the fact that the show had multi-ethnic characters, and nobody makes any big deal out of it, which is the way the world ought to be. I played college basketball and I’ve had a lot of black friends my whole life, and race has never been an issue. It’s never even come up, and that’s just as it ought to be.

 

Rounding out the cast was Tara Samuel, whose character was also named Tara. Tara’s the team’s tech expert, so sometimes she comes across as shy and a little geeky, but she’s also a very sharp lady. We did play out some more romantic stories on the show with Tara – there was a storyline with Tara dating an actor, and then toward the end she and Bobby got interested in each other. Tara is terrific. She truly is one of the most gracious and loving people you will ever meet.

 

PTC: And of course there’s Sue’s hearing-ear dog, Levi.

 

DJ: Oh yes, how could I forget Levi? (Laughs) That dog – and we used to tell the actors this – if everybody came as prepared and was as good as Levi, we would’ve finished each episode in about three hours, that’s all we would’ve had to work. That dog was unbelievable. Before we did that show, everybody – and I mean everybody -- told me, “If you’re going to use a dog, you’ll have to add extra time in your day, it’ll cost you more money, and you’ll have to work extra hours, because it takes longer to get animals to perform.” Well, I’m not kidding you, that dog – I don’t know if we did more than one take, ever, with that dog! It was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen. That dog was really something very, very special.

 

PTC: You’ve touched on something that a lot of the fans who are vocal about the show liked, which was the strong ensemble cast.

 

DJ: One of the things I think that comes across in the show so well and that people just pick up on is that these people genuinely like one another, and I don’t just mean the characters. I guess sometimes actors can fool people, but I think you can tell when a cast really does like each other. And this group did. They all got along, and it really was like a family.

 

I think that was key to the show’s popularity. All of the actors in the cast were very giving, as people and as actors and performers, and you could see it. It wasn’t like any of them would “save it” until their close-up so they could look good. That happens all the time in TV. Some actors don’t invest in the character, they don’t act, they don’t give you anything when the camera’s on someone else, but when it goes on them, then they turn it on. These folks were different. They were always there for each other, and they would be doing the best they could do when the camera wasn’t even on them, because they knew it made it easier and better for the other actors and for the show.

 

PTC: How did you decide on Jessica Andrews’ song “Who I Am” for the show’s theme? It’s very distinctive.

 

DJ: It’s really is. When we were putting the show together, naturally it was on my mind a lot and I was thinking about the show all the time. I just was driving down the road one day -- I like country music, so I’m listening to a country station -- and I heard that song. All of a sudden I just said, “Wow! That is a home-run theme song for our show!” And so we went after it, and we were very blessed and fortunate to have gotten permission to use it.

 

PTC: One of the things about Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye that many people found appealing is the fact that, in addition to the action and the crime-solving aspect of the show, there also tended to be a good deal of humor. Do you think the lighter touch is missing from a lot of TV today?

 

DJ: Desperately. The only show I can think of right now that has it is The Closer. That program has some humor and lighter character bits to it. But yes, I think a sense of humor is definitely missing from television today, especially on the dramatic programs. Everything now is earnest and relentless and really heavy-handed. And to me, that is very one-note. It started with Law & Order. Now, having some programs like that, some dramas that are 100% serious and sober, that’s fine; but when every drama on TV is like that, it becomes tedious.

 

On Sue Thomas and Doc, we took the approach that, in real life, people want to be around people who make them feel good, who make them happy. Everybody wants that. So we figured, if you want to be around these people and invite them into your home every week, or buy the DVDs and watch them all the time, wouldn’t you want people who will make you feel good, who make you laugh? That was always at the forefront of our mission. Now, humor in a TV drama has to be organic; it has to come out of honesty about the character. It can’t happen at the expense of the story or the rest of the episode. But people who we’re attracted to in real life are people who are clever and funny and smart, and who we can mess around with and who can kind of rib us and whom we get along with and enjoy being around. And that kind of happiness and upbeat interaction is just missing on TV today, in my opinion.  

 

PTC: Another thing that sets Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye apart from the other crime dramas on today is its relative lack of violence. Of course, it’s a police show, so there’s action, but there’s never any overt gore or bloodshed.

 

DJ: Exactly. We just didn’t think that was necessary. I think a lot of people in the industry use that as an easy crutch. But if you make a program about the relationships and the story and the dialogue and the interaction between the characters, it’s more interesting. It’s harder to do, but it’s more interesting.

 

PTC: Speaking of the relationships on the show, you’ve touched on the various characters, some of the romance between Sue and Jack and between Tara and Bobby; but unlike just about every other show on TV today, there was never any hint that these folks were hopping into bed together.

 

DJ: Exactly. I’ll be honest with you, so much of television today just bores me. Even the romance bores me, because everything is just so blatant and overt.

And not only is it blatant, but it’s phony.

 

I mean, it’s possible to have a good human relationship with somebody, to laugh and talk and work with them and be friendly with them and be around them, without having sex with them!

 

But not on TV. Not today. Today, any time you see a man and a woman having any kind of workplace interaction, you just know that sooner or later they’re going to end up in bed together.

 

But that’s not real. Those kinds of relationships on TV, they’re not three-dimensional, genuinely human relationships; but realistic, genuine relationships are what really draw people. Other TV shows have had them, and done it well. Cheers did it. Moonlighting did it to some extent.

 

When I think back on the great movies and the great TV shows, there was always a kind of twinkle about them, a kind of innocent fun that was decent and pure and, above all, honest. And that honesty is not about sex, it’s about people connecting on a much more dimensional level. And that is so lacking today. I think it’s sort of the natural crudeness that our society and culture has gotten to. And I see and hear from so many people, of all ages, of all generations, complain about it. They don’t like it. Everybody likes the honest, heartfelt connections.

 

When you think back on the great, great shows of television, whether it’s The Andy Griffith Show or Mary Tyler Moore or Bob Newhart or The Cosby Show, when you talk about those shows, what was really appealing was the characters and the interaction between them. None of the jokes or the storylines were all about sex, and most of they never used four-letter words. Now you can hardly find a show that’s not about that.

 

I have two children. They’re a little older now, but when my daughter was eight or ten, I didn’t need to be sitting in the room with her, grabbing the remote to turn the channel because people were talking about things she didn’t need to hear or see. I just think there’s such a lack of creativity in all that. It’s the easy low road to take, and I find it not at all interesting or creative, because everybody goes there.

 

When we made Sue Thomas, we made a conscious decision. We really wanted to do something that the kids would want to watch even if Mom and Dad weren’t there, and that Mom and Dad would want to watch even if the kids weren’t there, but most of all, something that they would both want to watch together.

 

PTC: It sounds like Sue Thomas F.B. Eye has some similarities with other popular shows on today, like Law & Order or NCIS. You have a strong lead character (though in your case it’s a beautiful woman), you have an appealing ensemble, and they’re working in law-enforcement. You don’t have all the blood and the sex and the profanity, but you do have genuine human relationships.

 

DJ: Exactly. And we have an element of humor that some of those shows don’t have. Some do have a little, but some don’t.

 

What I’m always amazed at is that the people who know about Sue Thomas truly, truly love it. It’s one of the most loved shows, with one of the strongest fanbases around. And the people who find it – a number of people have just happened on it, on Pax or in reruns, just found it on TV without knowing about it in advance– the people who are new to it are just thrilled by it

 

PTC: To what would you attribute the success of Sue Thomas?

 

DJ: A couple things. People are drawn to the idea. The concept of the deaf woman on the FBI team is interesting. The mix of action and humor and character drama plays a big part. I think part of it had to do with the character of Sue Thomas itself. Because I think that a woman who is faced with some difficulties in life, but who never looks at those difficulties as obstacles and overcomes them at every turn, is a very relatable and very attractive character in our society. Today, all women are, I think, probably dealing with difficulties or with something that is an issue to them. The rest of the cast, as I’ve said, is terrific.

 

But I believe that what really makes it sing is Deanne Bray. She is just incredibly delightful. Deanne is a magical actress, one of those people who sparkles as a performer and in real life, and I think she really captured people’s hearts. I think the positive attitude, the overcoming, the hope that this character represents, and that Deanne brings to life so perfectly, strikes a chord with a lot of people. Of course, I like to think the writing has something to do with it, too. (Laughs)

 

But I do know that there’s a hunger for this kind of positive, upbeat show. And we’re just kind of fortunate, frankly, that nobody else is doing it. We’ll happily take all the viewers that the rest of industry is pushing away. (Laughs)

 

PTC: It’s obvious from the tremendous popularity and success of Sue Thomas that a lot of people do want that kind of positive, optimistic entertainment. Why aren’t the networks making more shows like it?

 

DJ: (Sighs) That’s a long conversation, but the short version is: the network executives know what they like, and that’s what they do. And for whatever reason, they just don’t program for people who like this kind of show. I don’t want to be insulting or tar everyone in the industry with the same brush, but I think a lot of it is that this kind of show doesn’t make them cool among their friends. There is definitely this idea among creative executives in the business that to be cool and hip you have to push the envelope farther and farther. And I just think that’s the opposite of what is true. I think the best things are not those that push the envelope farther; I think that what is really excellent is a program or a movie that figures out what the human element is, and touches that deeply.

 

PTC: Do you see the industry’s attitude changing any time soon?

 

DJ: No. In fact, I see it going in the opposite direction. It seems like they all want to be HBO or Showtime, where they can show as much gore and sex and profanity as they want. It makes no sense to me, but that seems to be what is happening.

 

PTC: Do you see anyplace on the broadcast or the cable landscape that might be more open to the kind of programming you’re talking about?

 

DJ: On a couple of the smaller networks, yes. The Hallmark Channel I think does some good stuff.  I know their head of programming and she’s terrific.  I really like what Gospel Music Channel is doing. I think they are working to expand their base and are making some really good decisions.  If people haven’t checked them out they should.  Of course, they’re also running Doc and Sue Thomas, so maybe I’m biased. (Laughs) And there are a couple of others – some of the reality networks like HGTV have some fun non-scripted shows. But of the broadcast and major cable networks, no.  Oh, there are individual shows that make it through – Fox has American Idol, NBC has The Biggest Loser and ABC has Extreme Makeover: Home Edition  -- but as a whole, no, I don’t see it. I think they’d all like to be more like HBO then they’d like to be what they used to be.

 

PTC: Then it’s good news that Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye is coming out on DVD.

 

DJ: Yes! We’re very, very excited about that.

 

PTC: When does the first set come out?

 

DJ: Right now, we’re just putting out the first 12 episodes. As some other DVD television releases have called it, it’s Season 1, Part 1. We did it that way as a test. We don’t have a big studio behind us; it’s our own money that went into producing the DVDs, so we thought we should test the market, to see what the demand was like. We thought it would be pretty good, but it’s turned out even better than we had imagined. We haven’t even advertised the DVDs yet, and we’re almost sold out of our first order already and we’re ordering more! The commercials will start to run next week, and the DVDs will ship towards the end of that week. The sets go on sale November 5th, but people can pre-order them now. [To order Sue Thomas, F.B.Eye on DVD, click here.]

 

PTC: Is there any bonus material on the DVD?

 

DJ: When we first presented the show to the advertisers, Deanne did a really magical presentation that just won everybody over, and we’ve included that in the DVD. I talk a little bit about how we cast Deanne and how the whole show came about in the first place. So there’s a little bit with the creator and a little bit with Deanne.

 

We hope to do several other sets and ultimately have all the seasons released. If sales on this first set are good, in future sets we’d like to do full commentary tracks, and sit down with some of the cast and do a complete discussion of some of the episodes.

 

PTC: One last question: there’s been a lot of interest among the show’s fans in a Sue Thomas reunion movie. You hinted at that earlier. Can you tell us any more about that?

 

DJ: It’s actually in the works right now. We have a big chunk of our funding. Not all of it yet, but a good chunk of it. We’ve talked to all of the cast members, and they’re all open and willing to doing it if we can work it all out. We hope that we will be able to release it next year.

 

PTC: Would it be a theatrical release or direct-to-DVD?

 

DJ: Probably the latter. There has been talk about doing something theatrically, but I think for the first one it would probably go straight to DVD. Frankly, that’s a decision we will make later; but financially, at least at this point, it makes more sense on the first movie to do it direct.

 

PTC: What can fans of Sue Thomas do to help the movie get made?

 

DJ: Buy the DVDs! (Laughs) If these DVDs sell well, that will help a ton. Not only will it help the set-up financially, but it will demonstrate that there is an interest in seeing more of Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye.

 

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