Television: The Goof Is Out There

The comic-relief sidekicks on The X-Files become not-so-funny leading men in a slapstick comedy

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As TV assistant directors' tasks go--riding herd on crew, wrangling stray actors--it was a pretty easy one. Tom Braidwood was an AD on The X-Files' first season when his bosses were casting a trio of conspiracy-theorizing underground journalists. They had already tapped Dean Haglund and Bruce Harwood, actors from Vancouver, where the show was shot, but for the third character, Frohike--a scruffy older guy with the hots for Gillian Anderson's FBI agent Dana Scully--they were stymied. The episode's director, says Braidwood, "turned to [X-Files creator] Chris Carter and said, 'We need somebody slimy. Somebody like Braidwood." So they asked Braidwood. "It was one line of dialogue," recalls the actor, 52, who had done some theater in the 1970s. "I said, 'Sure.'" He stretched the line--"She's hot!"--into two by saying it twice.

Today the three actors are in a trailer on the set of The Lone Gunmen (Fox, 9 p.m. E.T. Sundays for three weeks starting March 4, and 9 p.m. E.T. Fridays starting March 16), the spin-off that is about to make them TV's unlikeliest leading men this side of Jeff Probst. Seven seasons ago, they assumed the comic-relief parts would be, at best, an occasional paycheck. "The first three years," says Haglund, 34, who plays snide computer hacker Langly, "I'd have a different set of glasses on each time, because I'd just throw them back into the prop bag." None of the trio have much recognition, or extensive resumes, outside the sci-fi series. "And then," Braidwood gamely offers, "there's the ugly factor." ("The unconventionally good-looking factor," volunteers Harwood, 37, who plays the earnest Gunman John Fitzgerald Byers.)

But what the Gunmen lacked in David Duchovnian sex appeal, they made up for in popularity with vocal X-philes. They served as Mulder and Scully's nerd consiglieri, lending their computer geekspertise to the alien-hunting agents. And their deadpan delivery and off-the-wall conspiracy postulates (for instance, about the magnetic strip the government plants in dollar bills to track you) made a hilarious foil to Mulder and Scully's G-man gravitas. In 1997 producer Vince Gilligan conceived an episode around the three; another followed the next season. Eventually Carter, Gilligan and two other X-Files producers sold a series to Fox, which was eager to extend the bloodline of what remains the network's top drama.

It was a strange mutation, spinning off a flat-out comedy from a serious drama. (Lou Grant and Trapper John, M.D., for instance, spun the opposite way.) The creators decided to make The Lone Gunmen a sort of spoof of the '60s spy genre. "All of us grew up around the same time," says Carter. "We loved Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, The Man from U.N.C.L.E." The Gunmen are a good bit closer to Maxwell Smart than Napoleon Solo as they drive a beat-up VW microbus and stumble onto government cover-ups and corporate conspiracies.

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