In Memoriam Great TV Actors
Part 1: Gregory Itzin
The first time I saw Gregory Itzin, I didn’t know who he was. Indeed, it wasn’t until years later I realized his importance. When I was sixteen, I had just begun to regularly watch Chicago Hope, the Chicago medical drama best known for debuting the same day and time as ER did but a fairly well-done series in its own right.
It’s a hectic night as the episode opens. A man walks into the ER with a knife sticking out of his back, who manages to say: “Could you please help me? I can’t quite reach this?” before finally passing out in a front of a stunned Roxanne Hart. The ER gathers around the new patient before a young blonde woman walks in saying she’s been raped. (The actress would be significant to Peak TV even more than Itzin was; she was played by a then-unknown Anna Gunn.) There is significantly less attention paid to her until she looks across the room at Itzin and tells the staff: “He’s the man who raped me.” In the OR we learn that Itzin’s character is a fairly well known surgeon and a close friend of lead Kate Austen (Christine Lahti). The case, as was so often for accused rape so much in the 1990s a he-said, she said with the powerful man being believed over the scared woman. His character remains steadfast to his conviction, even when things increasingly become fatal, but the episode ends with no charges being pressed and Itzin insisting to Kate that he is innocent.
Gregory Itzin, who passed away last month, was the quintessential character actors for much of the 1990s and 2000s, a man whose face you know but you can’t place the name. When one of the best documentaries about acting in television premiered in the 2010s That Guy Who Was In That Thing, Itzin was one of the focuses of this documentary along with other character actors who weren’t quite famous. Like two of the most prominent ones, he was all over TV and Hollywood over the years — the same year I became aware of him in Chicago Hope, he played another doctor in ER. He was a semi-regular in so many series over the years — Murder One during Season 2, Profiler in its final year; Big Love in its last year; The Mentalist throughout much of its run as one of the chief suspects for Red John. David E. Kelley, the creator of Chicago Hope, used him five separate times as five different characters on The Practice. He just had that kind of face.
But like several of the actors in that documentary — Stanley Kamel and Zach Grenier were the most obvious — Itzin had one role that showed his true greatness as an actor and demonstrated how brilliant he was. Over four separate seasons on 24, he portrayed one of their greatest characters, President Charles Logan. To truly explain his versatility, you have to have context. (Warning: major spoilers for Days 4–6 follow.)
Day 4 wasn’t 24’s greatest day (though I did hold that thought years after the fact) but it by far had its most clever villain. To give you a certain level of the convolutions of the plot, shooting down Air Force One was not his end game. When this happens, President Keeler is found unconscious but alive. (His ultimate fate is never revealed on 24¸though given how the series progresses the assumption is he later succumbs to his injuries.) The 25th Amendment is invoked and Logan becomes Acting President.
Days 2 and 3 and much of the fourth of 24 fundamentally shows the President as a force of strength capable of doing what needs to be done. Logan is the first president in the series history (and for all I know, maybe portrayed on television to that time) who is weak, easily manipulated and not up to the task. He becomes the first President on the series to facilitate when it comes to the idea of CTU torturing a suspect — he calls an emergency meeting with the AG. When Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) tortures the suspect and obtains information, rather then accept this Logan is angered and insists that Jack be taken into custody — even though he is in the middle of trying to capture the mastermind of the day’s events. The results are disastrous and Logan is so shaken, he agrees to let David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) act as his proxy going forward. This does not mean he comes across as any less weak or pliable — when the Speaker comes in, he questions Logan’s authority and when it becomes time to blame Jack as a scapegoat, he lets his aid call in an assassin to have him killed. Jack only manages to escape to the warnings of Palmer at the last minute, and only by faking his own death.
Day 5 is one of the great seasons any television series in the history of the medium has ever had; the one that would give 24 its only Emmy for Best Drama in its entire run (one of the handful of occasions in the last twenty years I have been in complete agreement with the Emmys decision for Best Drama). There are many reasons the day was extraordinary, but I’ll focus on Itzin’s work.
It has been nearly eighteen months since Day 4 ended, but even though Logan has been president for this long, he does not seem to have grown into his job. All of the flaws that were present the previous season are, if anything exacerbated and he is now more stubborn in them. When he learns of David Palmer’s assassination at the start of the day, he refuses to cancel the signing of a peace treaty with the Russian President. As a new crisis unfolds, he remains utterly inflexible towards changing his goals and still pliable to certain aides, including his chief of staff Walt Cummings. When it becomes clear that the assassination of Palmer was done to facilitate oil interests in Russia, he seems genuinely floored and we don’t question it for a second, because Logan does not seem the kind of person capable of masterminding anything. Indeed, he becomes increasingly indecisive as the day progresses — when a Russian terrorist orders to give him the coordinates of the Russian leader’s motorcade in order to assassinate him or an attack using nerve gas will follow, he folds, and does not change his mind even when his own wife joins the motorcade. (I’ll get to her in a minute). In one of Itzin’s greatest moment, intended to invoke the memory of Kissinger and Nixon praying near the end of his presidency, Logan begs Mike to pray with him. That the threat is averted happens despite Logan’s inaction.
Even greater scenes come between the relationship of Logan with his wife Martha, superbly played by Jean Smart in one of her greatest roles. (Itzin and Smart had actually acted together in a play years earlier; sharp eyed viewers can find a photo of that play in one of the scenes.) Martha is recovering from a nervous breakdown and clearly is unstable mentally, but she still has savvy instincts and she knows something deeper is going on. There is a history between the Logans that works better than almost any relationship we see in the entire history of the series. Both Itzin and Smart were deservedly nominated for Emmys for their work this season, and I’m still incredibly pissed more than fifteen years later, that neither won.
Halfway through the day, the biggest revelation in the history of the series is revealed. The major manipulator of events is acting under the orders of Logan himself. In other hands, this could have been the moment the series jumped the shark. What makes it work is that while the series shows that Logan is villainous, the series doesn’t try to make him a master manipulator. Indeed, he spends much of the remainder of the day trying to deny the manipulations coming to him from below — and in a bigger shock, above. When vital evidence proving his link to the conspiracy is found in the pockets of a pilot, he is more or less ordered by a backer to have the plane shot down — something he blanches at because of his own reputation.
By the end of the day (I won’t say how) Logan is brought to justice. But rather than a feeling of triumph, the attitude around CTU is one of melancholy. They have brought down the bad guy, but there’s no joy in what their country is going to have to go through. At one point, discussing his fate, one character says he will no doubt get clemency for what’s he done in exchange for resigning. Saying he doesn’t deserve it, the character asks if we really want to put a President through a trial for treason.
Day 6 was by far 24’s worst season, and one of the few highpoints of that garbled mess was when we learned that indeed Logan has been put under house arrest rather than have to pay for his crimes. Jack Bauer is angered beyond words when he learns this, but swallows his rage and agrees to work with Logan to deal with the crisis. In one of the few highpoints of the series, Logan ends up in the same room with Martha, who he has not seen since the end of Day 5. Martha has more or less become completely detached from reality by the events of that day, and almost in a daze she stabs her husband in the chest. The last image we have of Logan on Day 6 is his weakly crying out ‘Martha’ before he flatlines.
In all honesty, I still wish that had been Itzin’s last scene on the series. It’s not that his work on Day 8 wasn’t good (he did deserve the Emmy nomination he got); it’s just that, like so much of the final season, it was part of such a gigantic muddle of events (particularly regarding Logan’s return) that I truly think that if we’d seen Logan die there and then, the fans would have been happier. (There is an indication in some material that may have been the writer’s original intent). It would have shown Logan as a weak man, still looking for forgiveness from the one person who he loves, even after everything.
Itzin was one of the greatest character actors of the new Golden Age and was a vital part in one of the greatest shows ever made. I was deeply saddened when he passed away earlier. Television has lost one of his greatest lights, particular for this show. It is often far harder to play a weak man than it is a forceful one, and in his greatest role, Itzin showed how well you can do it even when that same man was the most powerful one in the world.