Tabloid Hunter

For months, Oliver Platt moved like a weather system through New York’s media world as he prepared for his starring role as a newspaper columnist in NBC’s Deadline, which premieres October 2. He lurked – to whatever extent this towering actor can successfully lurk – at media parties. He took journalists to lunch. And he spent endless hours hanging around tabloid newsrooms, soaking up the information he needed to portray “Wallace Benton,” who (like most newspaper people we know) solves murder mysteries on the side. The city’s journalists seemed to be hurling themselves into his path, flashing their wisdom like Rolexes.

Platt was seen rubbing shoulders with Tom Brokaw and Walter Isaacson at the launch party and lunching with the Times’ Alex Kuczynski. There was a hall-of-mirrors quality to it all: an actor talking to journalists about playing a journalist on a TV show whose success or failure would depend, to a certain extent, on what journalists thought of it.

As the only journalist in New York who hadn’t been consulted by Platt, I decided to take matters into my own hands and visit him on the Deadline set in the old New York Post building on South Street. Who knew what character-defining trait he might yet pick up from me – an archly raised eyebrow, for instance – and use, and make his own, and thank me for come Emmy time? So, after Platt films a brief scene with Bebe Neuwirth and Hope Davis in the newsroom of the fictional New York Ledger, the two of us withdraw to his makeshift dressing room to discuss the results of his research.

“There was a hall-of-mirrors quality to it,” Platt observes, settling into a chair. “You know: ‘Here I am, talking to a journalist about playing a journalist in a show whose success or failure is gonna be determined to a certain extent by journalists.’ ” (Uncanny: The guy really has done his homework.) So what, in the end, has he learned about the profession?

“It’s never as glamorous as you think it’s gonna be,” he says. “The newsroom is a petri dish of adolescent behavior. Most journalists have above-average intelligence and below-average salaries, and they’re constantly interviewing people who make a lot more money than they do. So they have good reasons to be pissed off in an amusing way.”

Platt really did take his research seriously, schooling himself to the point where he can now discuss the relative merits of Breslin and Royko. “You just never know when you’re gonna need it,” he says. “Something will happen on the show, and I’ll go, ‘No, no, no, no, that’s not the way it happens.’ In one script, there was some name for photographers, and I said, ‘That’s not what they call them in the newspaper trade – they call them ‘shooters.’ “

While growing up abroad as the son of a diplomat, Platt spent a lot of time around journalists. (His brother Adam became one and is now a food writer for this magazine.) Some of his key New York sources give him high marks as a student and – should the acting thing not work out – as a potential summer intern. “Very enthusiastic,” says Leonard Levitt, Newsday’s “One Police Plaza” columnist. “Unassuming and self-deprecating,” says New York Post reporter Philip Messing, who let Platt join him for a shift at police headquarters one evening.

“He started to take an interest in specific stories and headlines and in how we play things,” says Richard T. Pienciak, metro editor of the Daily News, where Platt spent a couple of weeks. “I found myself discussing with him how we were approaching a particular story. He became one of us. When he left, I felt like we lost somebody off the team – ‘Where’s Oliver?’ I’d love to have him around here.”

And does Platt himself think he’d make a good journalist? Grimace. Then, more hopefully: “I’m nosy – “

There’s a knock at the door: Platt is being called to the set. As he rises, he smiles sideways and says, “Hey, if you need to make up some snappy quote for me, that’s okay.” The boy has learned something. Or maybe he was just slipping, effortlessly, back into character.

Tabloid Hunter