For ten years David James Elliott portrayed Commander Harmon Rabb Jr on the popular TV series JAG. His new role of Wolf West on Scoundrels couldn’t be more different. He’s a career criminal who is now serving four years in prison, while his wife, Cheryl (Virginia Madsen), has decided it’s time for her and their children to get out of the family business and go straight.
Elliott spoke with us about his new series and how crime doesn’t pay.
Can you give us a little background on your character?
He’s a career criminal who brought the family in, it’s a family business, hence the title Scoundrels. It’s sort of a Robin Hood ideal about our crime. We’re a tight-knit dysfunctional, typical American (family). Every family’s dysfunctional, and our level just happens to be a little left of center. Crime has been how we’ve made a living, but we only pick on the bad guys, the guys who steal from us.
It’s based on a show out of New Zealand called Outrageous Fortune that has been very successful. And I understand they’ve made two attempts at making it that didn’t go. I was amazed at really how good this was.
Lynn Greene and Richard Levine, they come from a comedy background, half-hour background, and they also work on the Nip/Tuck writing team for many years, so they’re really accomplished, they’re at home with this stuff. It’s just so rich, varied and fun, it’s a gas.
Had you been looking to get into another series?
It would be great if that was really how it worked, if you could go, ‘Yeah, I think I’ll do this for six or eight months.’ You’re always looking for something that might inspire you; you’re looking for something that grabs you artistically. And this was just really a terrific opportunity, not only was it more than just a pilot but it was really well written and it just looked like it would be a lot of fun to be a part of.
I was in the Amazon with my family, living with a tribe and exploring the trials and tribulations of what those poor people down there are faced with, and when I came back, I wasn’t back a day and I got a call and they asked me to come in and replace a character that they had cast. But I had to leave the next day. It’s like, ‘Yeah, we want you, but you’ve got to come now.‘
The great thing about this show is Virginia’s carrying the lion’s share of the work. I’m number two, I was number one for 10 years, and that’s just a back-breaking job. This is great, I can play this great, colorful character and come in for four days, go golf a little bit, fly back to L.A., hang out with my family, show up again, it’s been great.
Neal McDonough was originally cast in your role, but refused to do the love scenes because of his religious beliefs. Have you had that problem?
I’m an actor, that’s part of the job. Listen, I know Neal, I’ve worked with him, he’s a terrific actor, wonderful guy, so I wasn’t a part of that whole thing. Neal’s thing is Neal’s thing, and more power to him.
I remember being in theatre school and there was a guy who was a re-born Christian who said he couldn’t do love scenes, and they told him, ‘How are you going to be an actor? You’re supposed to hold a mirror up to nature,’ as Shakespeare said. So that’s where I come from and that’s just part of the job.
He doesn’t get out of prison for the entire series?
Well, I got out on a day pass in one of the episodes and that’s pretty wild – episode four. But there’s some conflict within the family, because Virginia’s suddenly trying to (go straight).
We were childhood sweethearts, and we had a system and it was working great, and then suddenly a wrench was thrown in the works, when I wind up going to jail for longer than I’d anticipated. A lot of changes are going on and it’s frustrating me, but I’m working my machinations from behind steel doors.
Are the kids more with their mother about wanted to go straight, or are they with you?
One of them really doesn’t care, she’s on her own path, and the other one is definitely against going straight. One of my twin sons is dad’s boy and works with me pretty closely, I’ve involved him in the criminal empire. And that was a tough one for me to try to find the motivation, without turning him into a bad guy. I worked with the writers, I had a lot of talking sessions with the writers and how we were going to get around this.
Was part of the appeal of doing this role the fact that he is a scoundrel?
It’s a great departure from a role that I’m very well known for, that I played for 10 years on JAG, a really moralistic character. This guy is not a horrible, nasty criminal; he’s a loveable rogue, that’s how I see him. It’s just a very primally-driven personality. He tends to just go with what feels good.