If Looks Could Kill: The Curious Rise and Fall of A Certain Mr. Richard Grieco
“You Say Ta-Booker, I Say Ta-Marker, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off!”
AHHH, the heady days of the late 1980′s; specifically, 1987. Though still fresh off the heels of the Iran-Contra scandal and a war crimes conviction by the International Court of Justice, U.S. America was still buzzing enough off of a Reaganomics-fueled kegger of laissez-faire capitalism to remain relatively optimistic about the whole affair. There were, after all, other, more pressing issues occuring domestically, and some of those those issues involved drugs – more specifically, drugs in the nations schools. With the percentage of women in the workplace at an all-time historical high, this meant that between single-parent homes (courtesy of a skyrocketing divorce rate) and homes where both parents worked part- or full-time jobs, often just to financially tread water, a young generation was spending more and more time without the presence of either parent, alone for hours after school in an increasingly dangerous world.
AFTER all, as anyone who read the newspaper headlines or watched “A Current Affair” could attest, gang violence between Crips and Bloods was purportedly becoming endemic in high-profile regions around the country, fueled by the chemical bumper crop of crack cocaine, a cheap and hugely profitable new form of the drug that quickly attained a near mythic reputation for quickly destroying lives. As opposed to the cocaine parents had dabbled with during the ’70s, which was often prohibitively expensive and seen more as a chic accoutrement for the glamorous go-getter rather than more populist (and cheaper) alternatives like reefer or LSD, crack cocaine was widely reputed to be instantly and dangerously addictive, with rumors that sometimes even a single hit of this baking-soda Boogeyman could kill you.
AS luck would have it, this new variant on cocaine represented an increasing chemical sophistication in drugs that took hold during the 1980′s; the carefree experimentation of the previous decade had given rise to a massive black market, and as Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of economics dictates, where there is demand, there will invariably be supply, and the increasingly volatile chemical landscape grew to compensate. Thus did the parents of the country find themselves spending more time than ever away from their children while being deluged by the media with horror stories of crack rocks for sale in elementary school bathrooms, of some kid who puffed on a cigarette dipped in PCP and had to be wrestled to the ground by six cops, of gangs recruiting the nations youth from our very schools to be the frontline soldiers in the street-level response to the administrations declared War On Drugs. U.S. American parents needed an alternative caretaker for their wayward sons and daughters, someone who would be able to do the job while the parents toiled away at theirs. Luckily for this young generation of loners and latchkeys, television was (as always) ready to come to the rescue of children and parents everywhere.
AROUND the country, anti-drug programs like D.A.R.E. were going gangbusters on youth-oriented programming. What television-reared child of the ’80s could forget Pee-Wee Herman exhorting youngsters to avoid crack, or a young Rachel Leigh Cook using eggs to demonstrate what our brains would be like on drugs? Taking note of this trend, television producers Steven J. Cannell and Patrick Hasburgh came up with a novel concept for a new show; rather than replicate the adult-oriented, often campy action of the duo’s recently canceled “Hardcastle & McCormick”, or Mr. Cannell and Frank Lugo’s also just-ended “The A-Team” (maybe you’ve heard of it?), the new show would be a police drama with a twist – it would revolve around a squad of officers young enough to pass as high-school students for undercover operations involving kids. Thus was born “21 Jump Street”.
AT the time, it was a fairly original take on the “Mod Squad” concept: there hadn’t been many hour-long dramas on television oriented specifically at mid- to older teens, and definitely none that made such an effort to balance an ethnically diverse cast, topical storylines, enough action and moments of broad humor for the younger viewers, and (sometimes) delivering lessons without being so pat as to insult its target audience. An emphasis was placed on the interactions between the ensemble cast and their relationships to each other, and many episodes would cover ethically tricky issues such as abortion, pregnancy, and illegal immigration with occasionally surprising amounts of sensitivity and respect for the gravitas of more somber situations.
AND, lest we not forget, it spent a significant percentage of story lines decrying drugs, practically becoming a mullet-ridden PSA in later seasons (in fact, the show would occasionally end with a classic Eighties PSA bumper featuring cast members from the show). With enough positive life lessons for parents to approve of the show, and a succesful formula to attract teen interest, viewership in the Vancouver-filmed “21 Jump Street” quickly grew. The show would soon become a spawning ground for young actors to get noticed, whether it was early guest turns from future stars like Brad Pitt or Jason Priestley as young students, or the main cast, which, in addition to Dom Deluise’s kid and the dude from “Jason Goes To Hell”, contained one especially bright rising star – a young Johnny Depp, up until then known only for smaller roles in “A Nightmare On Elm Street” and “Platoon”. Boyishly handsome, his natural sensitivity gave his role as Officer Tom Hanson a deeply effective, brooding charisma, his quirky, haunted character bringing a young Depp to nation-wide hearththrob status. This was obviously a boon for the fledgeling FOX Network, at that point more of a collection of affiliate stations airing FOX part-time as opposed to a traditional television network. By carefully broadcasting fewer than the minimum number of hours required for the FCC to consider the network a full-time station, FOX was able to circumvent rigid market-sharing regulations and rapidly parlay the interest in the show into new areas. While still unable to compete with the Big Three stations thus far, the FOX Network was able to start expanding in earnest with “21 Jump Street” anchoring a popular Sunday night lineup of shows.
AS Depp’s popularity grew with the show over the first two seasons, his increased discomfort with the teen heart-throb role in which he’d found himself led to a growing sense of unhappiness. A last minute replacement for the second episode, Depp had initially refused the job before later acquiescing, and now he began to feel stifled by the show and feared it would limit his ability to branch out dramatically. Meanwhile, the positive effects of Depp’s ubiquitous popularity among female demographics on the shows ratings had not gone unnoticed, and there were doubtless many behind-the-scenes talks at FOX Networks regarding how to properly capitalize on this trend. With Depp’s increased frustration with the show and desire to finish his contract possibly factoring in, a slight change in format occured for the third season of “21 Jump Street” and a new face was added to the cast.
ATTEMPTING to strike lightning twice, a character named “Dennis Booker” was written in, and was in many ways engineered to be a mirrored reflection of Depp’s Officer Hanson. By giving the nation not one, but two dreamboats to fantasize over, each at different ends of the personality spectrum, the show hoped to repeat Depp’s breakout success and perhaps hedge its bets on retaining a leading man. Whereas Hanson was known for his understanding approach towards the teenagers involved in his assignments, sometimes bending the law to help them, Detective Booker would have a more forceful approach. While Hanson had an emotional connection to his job, Booker would have a more physical, adrenaline-fueled relationship with his job.
AS soon as former Armani model and erstwhile television actor Richard Grieco was unveiled in the Season 3 premiere, it was immediately apparent that they had also found a physical counterpoint to Depp’s willowy, almost fragile allure. Setting the standard that all male Jersey Shore cast members would later abide by, Grieco’s swarthy Italian looks and Bret Michaels-inspired sense of fashion made it easy to believe Detective Booker’s meat-headed, tough-guy-in-leather characterization as being natural for Grieco, resulting in a much more volatile recurring character than had previously been in the show (despite the fact that Karl Malden could more feasibly pass for a teenager). Perhaps as a message to the openly frustrated Depp regarding his status on the show, Detective Booker was immediately established as a rival to Officer Hanson, with the two constantly at odds with each other and trading punches several times (both figuratively and literally) throughout their first shared episode. Booker, at first intended as a temporary ‘filler’ character written to be killed off during the end of the season (all of his initial appearances are credited as “Guest Star”), proved to be such a hit with the intended demographics that the role was greatly expanded, continuing through the entirety of Season 3, often clashing heads with Officer Hanson. Off-screen, rumors began to circle about rising tensions between Depp and Grieco as the show progressed to a fourth season, with teen magazines stoking the fire by whispering of an on-set feud between the two actors (though both Depp and Grieco firmly deny the veracity of any such rumors).
UNFORTUNATELY, over the course of the alleged feud, the quality of the show’s writing had started to noticeably deteriorate, as actors began growing too old to continue realistically passing for high-school students and storylines increasingly stretched credibility. Season 4 would be the last broadcast on FOX, as well as being the last for several departing main cast members, Johnny Depp (now free from his contract) included. Meanwhile, FOX Networks decided that reception of the Grieco’s Dennis Booker character (as well as the previously highlighted Grieco’s pecs) was strong enough to warrant a financial investment in a spinoff show, simply entitled “Booker”, in which Grieco has left the police force and is now a private investigator who’s ostensibly hired to investigate insurance claims, but mostly just goofs around and gets into mischief.
ALAS, “Booker” was to air for but one poorly-received season before vanishing into obscurity with all the other half-baked television spinoffs (see: “Baywatch Nights”, “The Tortellis”). Not to be dissuaded, Grieco immediately set out to conquer the film world; an understandable desire, as former co-star Depp had immediately re-entered the cinematic world in stunning manner with a dazzling turn as the eponymous character in Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands”. If Grieco could find the right project for his feature film debut, perhaps he could salvage and maintain the waning momentum left over from his days in the Jump Street crew. Unfortunately, the project he found turned out to be “If Looks Could Kill”, and his career would never recover.
ARGUABLY doomed from the start of production, the 1991 release of Grieco’s action/comedy (hastily penned by “Monster Squad” mastermind Fred Dekker) never really had a chance in theaters. Released in March in between “New Jack City” and “TMNT II: The Secret of the Ooze”, 1991 had a furious release schedule of insanely profitable movies like “The Addams Family” ($110 million) “City Slickers” ($124 million), “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” ($165 million), and the king of the summer, “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” (over $200 million domestic!). Now, to be fair, “If Looks Could Kill” garnered a not-the-worst-ever $7 million, more than likely recouping costs plus a profit for the studio after tape sales are accounted for. It outgrossed “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man” by over $100,000 (although the Jeff Fahey vehicle “Body Parts” beat “Looks…” by over $1 million, so go figure). Sure, “If Looks Could Kill” was critically panned, but tons of films have bombed among critics without tainting livelihoods; Bruce Willis’ career is a proverbial minefield of examples. So what was the problem?
THE problem, such as it was, could be summed up by a recurring theme in “If Looks…”: criticism of main character Michael Corben’s lack of followthrough. Here was a character who made absolutely no attempt to accomodate his surroundings, getting by solely on ego and an assumption that a wink-and-a-smile can get you just about anywhere in life. Unfortunately,while this worked in the film, it did not work so well on audiences. it was a performance representative of his approach towards acting in general; no, in fact, that was an entire subgenre of Eighties comedies, populated with slacker protaganists like C. Thomas Howell’s “Soul Man” and Anthony Michael Hall’s “Hail Caeser!”. It was a case of too little, too late – the legacy of the Eighties action/comedy was coming to a close, with the presidential torch soon to be passed from Bush Sr. to Bill Clinton, a changing of the guard that would result in films emphasizing self-awareness and irony over suave cool.
IN the end, it was just a matter of poor timing. Grieco’s pronounced guido-style of cool just couldn’t compete with the mercurial charms of Depp once the Grunge Era beset U.S. America. It’s an unfortunately short ride from the cover of “Tiger Beat” magazine to the secondary cast of a direct to DVD horror film starring Jenna Jameson. Ironic now, where “Jersey Shore”, a show seemingly populated by a generation that was raised by reruns of “Booker” (remember the beginning of the article where I was talking about kids being raised by tv?!), has reached a level of saturation in the popular discourse that it is almost impossible to escape without knowing at least tangentially what the show is about. What is unfortunate for us as a country, however, can prove fortunate for the man himself. Following an uncredited cameo in 2005′s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, Grieco managed to secure a short recurring role on TV’s “Veronica Mars”. It’s become common knowledge that, outside of starring in a Quentin Tarantino or Rob Zombie film, your best bet at reviving a flailing career is television. The list of other actors who have made the transition from film to television is far too long to list in this short space, and in any case is growing all the time. The relevant question here is the viability of a former TELEVISION actor reviving their career on television. This is far less common, outside of the realms of documentary-style shows that often devolve into pure buffoonery (see: EVERY DOCUMENTARY-STYLE REALITY SHOW). After “Lost” raised the bar on the level of viral saturation, and “Battlestar Galactica” the bar on genre appeal crossing demographics, companies have been struggling to produce serious television “mini-event” shows, any one of which could break out to be a hit (the first episode of “Flashforward”) or a dud (the rest of “Flashforward”). So what does the future hold for Mr. Grieco? Who knows?! It’s not implausible that a 21 Jump Street reunion, or “New Generation” situation might occur, or he might simply luck into the next big television show that captivates the public attention. Either way, Detective Booker, we at Video Droid salute you!