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Stanley Tucci Broke Through in a Legal Drama Ahead of Its Time

ABC's Murder One offered a plum role for one of our most beguiling actors.
  • Stanley Tucci and Daniel Benzali in Murder One (Photo: ABC)
    Stanley Tucci and Daniel Benzali in Murder One (Photo: ABC)

    Stanley Tucci is back on TV this month with the Netflix/BBC co-production Inside Man. Tucci plays a convicted murderer on death row who's trying to use his criminal expertise to help solve other murders. It's the kind of role you cast a Stanley Tucci for — one that requires the kind of dexterity to play appealing yet repulsive, shrewd but secretive, villainous but with a glint in his eye.

    It's not a register Tucci is always in; he's versatile enough to play loving husbands, steadfast business partners, and caring lovers as well as he plays bad guys. But Inside Man gives us occasion to recall the last time that Tucci played a morally suspect (possible) murderer on television, way back when he had his first major breakthrough on the screen in the short-lived but much discussed ABC legal drama Murder One. The groundbreaking series gave Tucci his first taste of real acclaim, showed off his considerable skills as a performer, and put him at the center of a show that was significantly ahead of its time.

    Premiering in the fall of 1995, Murder One was the latest series from TV uber-producer Steven Bochco, who had helped redefine the TV drama over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s with Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue. It only lasted two seasons, but Murder One burned brightly, especially for its first year. When Bochco died in 2018, The Guardian wrote that "The gripping, labyrinthine 1990s legal procedural Murder One feels like it should be jockeying for a place in the Bochco pantheon, especially in our longform-worshipping age."

    The show was unique at the time, especially on network TV, for following one murder trial as it unfolded over the course of 23 episodes. At this point in TV history, the dividing line between the kinds of stories told in episodic dramas and more longform stories told in miniseries was pretty stark. Hill Street Blues was influential in helping to introduce storylines that played out over multiple episodes, a style that was reflected in mid-'90s shows like ER, but Murder One took that a step further. In doing so, it helped build a bridge towards the increasingly serialized TV shows of the 21st century, from The Sopranos to Lost, all the way towards our current landscape that is almost entirely serialized dramas and limited series.

    Murder One's bold step — and biggest challenge — was to tell a limited narrative over the course of the still-maximal network TV model of a 23-episode season. This encouraged all kinds of twists and turns. The lurid rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl was eventually pinned on tempestuous Hollywood heartthrob Neil Avedon (Jason Gedrick), and it was up to his high-powered attorney Ted Hoffman (Daniel Benzali) to get him off. But in the early episodes, suspicion fell most heavily on Richard Cross, a wealthy and well-connected businessman whose serial philandering and relationship with the victim's older sister made him a prime suspect.

    Tucci played Cross, who immediately attracts the viewers' suspicion, with his expensive suits and blasé attitude towards cheating on his wife Annie, who was played by Broadway legend Donna Murphy. That was just one of the show's many casting coups, which included early roles for Mary McCormack, Dylan Baker, Anna Gunn, Adam Scott, and Patricia Clarkson (years before she and Tucci would co-star as Emma Stone's parents in Easy A). Tucci, though, was a standout from the start, playing Cross as untrustworthy — no one who chooses their words this carefully could be innocent — but not over-the-top slimy. In the New York Times's review, John J. O'Connor singled out Tucci for praise, wrting that he "brings a wonderfully elegant sleaze to the role of Cross, the rich conniver who may or may not be the real killer." The Los Angeles Times’s Howard Rosenberg was equally effusive in his wrap-up of the show at season's end, describing Tucci as "superb as someone whose subdued loathsomeness clouded the entirety of Murder One."

    Up until Murder One, Tucci had done mostly theater work, with a handful of small film roles, most memorably playing an assassin opposite Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief. Murder One marked a turning point in his career, especially when the acclaim for that role dovetailed with the superb notices for Big Night, the film he co-directed with childhood friend Campbell Scott and also starred in. Big Night premiered at Sundance in January of 1996, winning the festival's Waldo Salt Screenwriting award. By late '96, Tucci was beginning to reap the first accolades of his career. Along with Barbara Bosson, who played prosecuting attorney Miriam Grosso (and was married to Bochco), Tucci was one of two performers who got Emmy nominations for Murder One (though he lost to Picket Fences's Ray Walston). That same year, he collected an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay for Big Night, as well as nominations for Best Male Lead and Best First Feature. The New York Film Critics Circle also awarded Tucci and Scott with Best First Film honors.

    Tucci's tremendous success in 1996 unfortunately did not extend to Murder One as a whole, and despite a boatload of press and critical attention for trying to do something different with its longform storytelling concept, the show couldn't get a foothold in the ratings. Three things were commonly identified as the causes for the show's failure, the least of which was Benzali's performance in the lead role, which was divisive. He cut an odd figure as the protagonist of a network drama, and reviews noted his bald visage ("imagine Patrick Stewart crossed with Robert Shapiro") and unusual line delivery. Some called it a "whispered, Brando-level intensity" while others likened it to "drifting through most episodes with a deadpan expression suggesting that an unpleasant odor has just offended his rather haughty nose."

    The show's struggle in the ratings, though, came down to two culprits and four letters: O.J. and ER. Murder One was clearly inspired by the O.J. Simpson trial, something that's clear from watching even five minutes of the show. The obsession with the intersection of celebrity and trial law, the expert recreation of Court TV images and on-air personalities, the concept of a high-priced legal team obsessed with the optics of who's sitting second chair — it's all straight from the Simpson trial. That, of course, cut both ways. An O.J.-obsessed nation could be intrigued by a legal drama that spoke the same language, but it also already had an O.J. trial to obsess over. The verdict in the Simpson case arrived on the same day as Murder One's third episode aired, a supremely unlucky twist of fate that helped to keep audiences away in droves.

    After airing three episodes in NYPD Blue's Tuesday night domain, Murder One made a planned migration to Thursday nights at 10:00 PM, opposite NBC's ER, which in its second season was already enjoying juggernaut status. ER had demolished all competition in 1994 and 19995, including CBS's similarly hospital-themed Chicago Hope. The decision to place ABC's much-ballyhooed legal drama in the lion's den of Thursday nights was hotly debated among entertainment writers at the time. ABC's entertainment president Ted Harbert all but threw up his hands when asked about the strategy, saying, "We just don’t have the stomach to let ER run unopposed." ER executive producer John Wells, for his part, seemed supremely unbothered when assessing Murder One's chances to challenge his show, saying "To put in a show that has the identical demographic of what’s already there is a bit of a suicide mission."

    Wells was right on the money, and Murder One flailed in the ratings, unable to keep up with a critical community that was at least willing to follow a show that was so admirably ambitious. No matter how many "best new show of the year" pull quotes it garnered, the viewership wasn't there. It's easy to look at Murder One and think it would have been far more at home in the current climate of limited series and anthologies. Alas, after the ratings struggles in Season 1, ABC retooled the show for Season 2, backing off of the one-trial-across-a-whole-season premise and replacing Benzali with Anthony LaPaglia as the show's lead performer. (The far more colorful version of Benzali's ouster, as told by Bochco many years later, was that Benzali was fired for being chronically late to set because he couldn't leave his Malibu home without using the bathroom, something he refused to do on set.)

    Murder One remains a footnote in '90s TV history and a fascinating stepping stone on the way towards our current conception of what TV can be. Stanley Tucci is but one of the gifts that show bestowed upon the entertainment industry, and having him back on TV playing a bad guy again is a great reminder of that. It's a moment in time well worth revisiting (and if you have a spare dozen or so hours, Murder One is available for purchase on iTunes and Prime Video).

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Stanley Tucci, ABC, Inside Man, Murder One, Steven Bochco