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‘The Librarians’ Star Noah Wyle: What’s Driving Him to Save Family Friendly TV

"The Librarians" is facing a network rebranding to darker dramas. So why is Noah Wyle waging a war to keep his fun, family-friendly TV show alive? It's personal.

Allyson Ward Riggs/Turner

Noah Wyle knows “The Librarians” is one of television’s most unique shows— especially on TNT.

The show, which airs its season finale this Sunday, isn’t a dark drama like the network’s latest original series, “Animal Kingdom” and “Good Behavior.” But Wyle, who executive produces the show, appeared in seven episodes this season, directed two and even wrote one, believes “The Librarians” serves a purpose, as one of the few shows on TV crafted to serve as true family programming.

“There’s certain shows that have a big audience but don’t necessarily fit the edgier brand that I think TNT is trying to be. Yet, they bring an audience that’s a pretty good demographic,” he said to IndieWire. “They have been supportive, they have been marketing the show well this year, and the numbers speak to that. I’m hoping that they figure out that it’s not an either/or. There’s a section of population that really enjoy these types of shows, and it doesn’t diminish the sexiness or edginess of the brand to keep them on.”

READ MORE: What Is the Best New TV Family — IndieWire Critics Survey

Dean Devlin, who owns the show through his Electric Entertainment, noted that “being family friendly means that we’re really the only show like this on television right now. The days of family entertainment seem to have left us.”

It was this time last year that Turner Entertainment chief creative officer Kevin Reilly outlined his three-year plan to overhaul TNT and TBS, with a focus on edgier comedies and dramas. Still, Devlin noted that Reilly isn’t aggressively against “The Librarians.”

“Since the beginning, it’s not the kind of show he set out to be doing,” Devlin said. “But I think he saw the reaction to the show and I think he got seduced by the show. It’s kind of an irresistible show. There are a lot of people who arrived at the show cynically and they end up getting seduced by it.”

Another big reason why Wyle loves the show: His kids do, too. “To do something that gives you cred with an eighth-grade class is really rewarding,” he said.

The Librarians - 308 - And the Eternal Question

Wyle sat down with IndieWire for an hour-long conversation that spanned Wyle’s childhood, his roots in Los Angeles theater, and why he left “E.R.” for the first time. All of it adds up to why he’s become so invested in portraying brilliant bookworm Flynn Carsen, a role he first portrayed in TNT’s 2004 TV movie “The Librarian: Quest for the Spear.”

There are a lot of twists and turns to the story of Wyle’s career. But his primary motivation isn’t hard to figure out. It can be found on the two tattoos, on his wrist.

“The first is an O that I got for Owen, my son who was born 14 years ago,” said the actor, sitting at a Los Angeles coffee shop. “And the other one I got 11 years ago when my daughter Auden was born — it’s Sanskrit. They have a lot of different words for love, this one’s specific to parental. I have to figure out what to do for Francis Harper, my 17-month-old, but she’ll be commemorated somewhere on my body.”

Wyle laughed. “I figured, I always wanted a tattoo and I never trusted that I would like the right band enough forever or the right girl enough forever,” said the actor who spent 15 years as “E.R.’s” Dr. John Carter. “What can I commit to that’s forever? Children.”

“A Product of the City”

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Robert Trachtenberg/Warner B/REX/Shutterstock (5885629m) Noah Wyle Er Emergency Room - 1994 Warner Bros TV/Amblin TV USA Television

Noah Wyle in “E.R.”

Robert Trachtenberg/Warner B/REX/Shutterstock

Wyle’s lineage stretches back to Eastern European Jews who immigrated to the West Coast during the 1910s (something he discovered while doing an upcoming episode of the TLC genealogy reality series, “Who Do You Think You Are?”), but he’s a Hollywood native. Born in Los Angeles, he grew up “right in the middle of Hollywood,” where he and his brothers and sisters would go straight from school to the run-down movie theaters that peppered the neighborhood. “That was sort of the babysitter for my brothers and sisters and I. That was church, that was sports, that was all our sort of entertainment — going to the movies.”

His stepfather was embedded in the industry, moving from being Frank Sinatra’s coffee boy on “The Manchurian Candidate” to becoming a vice president at Universal. “I’m a product of the city for sure,” he said.

After high school, Wyle considered college but “I just thought my chances of getting my toe in the door would be better at 17 than at 22, a theater major like every other person,” he said. So he turned to Theatre Row, the stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard where there’s a dozen or so “little warehouse theaters” (Wyle’s words). “That’s where you go to put up a showcase, that’s where you go to get seen in something by a casting director,” he said.

READ MORE: Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry: Breakthrough Stars’ Friendship Began Over a Pair of Beard Clippers

It’s also what led Wyle to meeting one of his closest friends, The Blank Theatre founding artistic director Daniel Henning. They first met when the actor auditioned for the fledgling company’s 1991 production of David Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”

“The character was like 25 to 29 years old, and in walked this 19-year-old young man — who lied and said he was 20, because he didn’t want to be a teenager,” Henning recalled. “But it didn’t matter that he was five to 10 years too young for the role. He was obviously phenomenal, and so we cast him. That was the beginning of our now very long relationship.”

Wyle remains committed to the Blank, which continues to offer new challenges, such as in 2006, when Henning convinced him to play Salvador Dali in a production of Kira Obolensky’s play “Lobster Alice.” “It’s phenomenal work,” Henning said. “You won’t believe it’s Noah Wyle in that character because he just morphed, just transformed.” (You can check out a clip below.)

Wyle is now the Blank’s Artistic Producer, a role he accepted 17 years ago. “I was on ‘E.R.’ and making decent enough money that I could write a good check to keep us operating,” he said, “And I was more interested in changing and founding the company with a specific mission statement. The notion of The Blank was a blank canvas, where we could have no company, nobody would pay dues, we wouldn’t have a fixed space, we wouldn’t be dogmatic about material. We would literally be a blank canvas that would reinvent itself with the appropriate theater, the appropriate cast.”

For Henning, it’s not a shock that Wyle’s commitment to the Blank has continued for so long. “To be frank, I’ve had a lot of people who I knew before they were famous who then became famous — that does happen a lot,” said Henning. “But I would have been stunned beyond belief if that’s who he became, at least with me, because our artistic connection was so strong and so specific. The day they put me in the box, he will be one of my greatest collaborators in my life.”

Two Blank initiatives well known within the LA theater world emerged from that approach. One is The Living Room Series, which serves as a new play development program, and the other is the Young Playwrights Festival. Wyle describes it as “a real feather in our cap,” having produced over 300 plays by teenage authors. Alumni include Tony-winning playwright Stephen Karam (“The Humans”); thanks to that relationship, The Blank has West Coast rights to some of Karam’s works.

The Young Playwrights Festival has particular resonance for Wyle. “When I was in high school, I wrote a play that I sent off to a competition that took second place,” he said. “I got a check for a hundred dollars. I never cashed it, because obviously it was worth way more than a hundred dollars. It was this approbation and validation from somebody that was outside my parents’ circle of friends or my associations saying, ‘Yeah, you have a voice. Yeah, that was valid.'”

“If Indiana Jones Was Played by Don Knotts”

The Librarians Ep 301"And the Rise of Chaos" Allyson Ward Riggs 5/11/16 _DSC1117

Dean Devlin originally intended “The Librarian: Quest for the Spear” to be a major feature. Then he got an offer from TNT that proved too tempting: If they made “The Librarian” for TNT (on a much smaller budget), TNT would license it from Electric Entertainment, but Electric would own it.

In 2004, TNT’s demographic skewed toward older women; the network thought an adventure film featuring a comedic sensibility, plenty of action, and some pretty direct “Indiana Jones” homages would grow its young male audience. “But when we did our testing,” Devlin said, “what we were really surprised to see was that our testing was through all four quadrants. And once the show aired, we got tons of letters and emails saying, ‘This is a perfect Christmas movie for us to watch with our families.'”

Thus, “The Librarian” became a TNT Christmas tradition, with Wyle returning in 2006’s “Return to King Solomon’s Mines” and 2008’s “The Curse of the Judas Chalice.” A few years later (following some WGA arbitration issues), it was spun off into a series.

Initially, Wyle had personal commitments — a honeymoon during Season 1, the birth of his third child during Season 2 — that kept him from fully committing to “The Librarians.” He was also working on another TNT series, “Falling Skies,” through 2015. So the fantasy drama, which spotlights a new crew of inexperienced Librarians, along with their Guardian Eve (Rebecca Romijn), doesn’t officially star Wyle; instead, he serves as an executive producer and has a Special Guest Star credit.

But his attention to the series has increased dramatically over the years — both in front of the camera and behind it. “The first year, the whole point of it was to see how much money I could make without having to show up at all,” Wyle joked. “That didn’t work out the way I wanted to.”

“A Seat at the Creative Table”

The Librarians Ep 302"And the Fangs of Death" Allyson Ward Riggs 5/11/16 _DSC1363Wyle’s first directorial credit was in 2015, on a fifth season episode of “Falling Skies.” “I find directing so incredibly rewarding and challenging and humbling and exciting and engaging,” he said. “Scenes become challenging, actors bring out the best of you, circumstances demand you dig deep.”

It’s a familiar rite of passage for many successful actors, who start to feel as if their work specifically demands that they don’t have an excess of opinion. “Waking up in the morning and sitting in the chair, going through another day just hitting your marks and saying your lines and having very little say about the direction of the show or the direction of your character’s narrative, the aesthetics of a scene,” he said. “After a while, I find that frustrating. I want to have more of a seat at the creative table.”

Hence, his now-expanded role with “The Librarians.” Wyle not only appears in seven episodes of Season 3, but after directing his first episode for the show in Season 2 (“And the Hollow Men”), he directed two of them this year (“And the Reunion of Evil” and “And the Eternal Question”). He also wrote Episode 6, “And the Trial of the Triangle,” his first on-screen writing credit. (Though he has other projects as a writer in development, including a collaboration with Graham Yost for a miniseries based on the Lynne Olson trilogy “The Great Debate.”)

While Wyle has more than a quarter century of television experience, it was unclear how that would translate to the page. Said Devlin, “It’s always a little scary when an actor on the show is going to write an episode, because we had no idea how strong a writer he was.”

Even Wyle approached the opportunity with some reservations. “Initially, I asked [Devlin] to co-author a script. I said, ‘Why don’t you and I work on one together?’ He was sort of lukewarm on the idea, but didn’t say no to it. Then I pushed a little harder, and it just happened to be at the right time when I think [showrunner] John Rogers had made the decision not to come back, and Dean made the decision to step up as showrunner, and that meant finding a whole new writing staff, pretty much, with the exception of Kate Rorick.”

Thus, Wyle became an essential part of the creative process. He was no longer just an actor; he was serving as a “voice of continuity” for the writer’s room. “I would be able to bring everybody up to speed on what the franchise was. Whether or not I could write a script or not was…” he trailed off. “They could rewrite it.”

Fortunately, that turned out to be unnecessary, according to Devlin: “His script was one of the best scripts we’ve ever had on the show,” he said. “Everyone in the writer’s room was just sighing with relief that yes, this was fantastic.”

You Know, For Kids

One reason Wyle wanted to increase his commitment to “The Librarians” was his belief that “Three gets you five, traditionally.” Which is to say, a strong third season for the show would go a long way toward ensuring its renewal for Season 4 and beyond.

“I wanted to leave it all on the floor, and at least say, right or wrong, I think this is what the best ‘Librarians’ show looks like,” he said.

Because “The Librarians” shoots in the summer, Wyle’s older children Owen and Auden have been able to be on set — in fact, Owen was Wyle’s “right-hand man” while Wyle directed, and Auden spent hours on set watching the action. “My daughter likes acting a lot. She does some musicals and things with her children’s theater group in Santa Barbara,” he said. “And my son just wrote this short story that was so good, I was like, ‘You wrote this? It’s like Raymond Chandler. You’re good. It’s hard-boiled, man.’ But I don’t want them to think it’s a fast track to fame or money, or that fame or money is a result unto itself, which I think makes so many people miserable.”

Toward that end, he works to ensure that their perspective isn’t entirely skewed by his success. “I would tell them everything I was going up for and everything I didn’t get,” he said. “I’d tell them when I was disappointed. I’d tell them if I thought I stood a shot or if I was out of my comfort zone, and they got to see what the law of averages is between opportunity and, you know, auditions. That helps, a lot, I think. They get that when you’re working it’s special, that there’s a union I belong to that has a 99 percent unemployment rate.”

Wyle also wants his kids to understand the value of family, something that led him to do what few actors dare: leave a hit show, as he left “E.R.” The moment he realized that was something he wanted to do came right after the birth of his first son — after being there for the birth, he went back to work the following day. However, a few days into new fatherhood came the instant on set when, in his words, “I did something I’d never done in 11 years. I looked at my watch and I said, ‘Hey, come on everybody, what are we doing? Let’s go, let’s go.’ I realized there was some place I wanted to be other than the set, for the first time. That was literally the moment I went, ‘Game over. I think I’m gonna quit.'”

Of course, he also returned to the show for its final season. “It felt great to be around and be there and enjoy fatherhood… And then I got the itch to go back to work,” he said. “I have a lot of drive and yet at the same time I love being a father so intensely that my ambition is always mitigated,” he said. “It’s a real push-pull for me. If I didn’t have a family, I don’t know that I would never not be in a hotel room working.”

“The Librarians” Season 3 finale airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on TNT. 

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