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?
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
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
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?
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
PTC: And of course there’s Sue’s hearing-ear dog, Levi.
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.
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.
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
PTC: How did you decide on Jessica Andrews’ song “Who I Am” for
the show’s theme? It’s very distinctive.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
not only is it blatant, but it’s phony.
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!
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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
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)
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?
(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?
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
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.
Yes! We’re very, very excited about that.
PTC: When does the first set come out?
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
PTC: Is there any bonus material on the DVD?
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
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
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?
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?
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
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.