Life After Death

by J. J. O'Neil

Sci-Fi Universe #4
June 1998

On a dark, industrial stage lit only by a cold strobe cycling in through a fan, a character known as Rembrandt (Cleavant Derricks) climbs onto a parapet to help his friend and compatriot Quinn Mallory (Jerry O’Connell) operate a device that could save dozens of lives. But instead of helping, Rembrandt pulls out a knife. Quinn turns just in time to see it plunge… and both actors bust up laughing. It’s just another day on the set of the cult hit Sliders.

Since its 1995 debut on the Fox network, this unique adventure series has charted a path full of as many twists and turns as one of its episodes. The core story is about a group of scientists who “slide” from one alternate world to another by way of an artificially created tunnel called a wormhole.

Despite naysayers, musical time slots, cancellations and network-jumping, Sliders the series slides into its fourth season on the Sci-Fi Channel, which announced last summer the acquisition of the popular series’ three previous seasons along with an order for 22 additional episodes.

“The history of the show is that it gets canceled every season and then it gets picked up somehow or some way,” says Jerry O’Connell, who in addition to starring as the Sliders‘ brave and brilliant leader produces and directs the show. “Since we don’t have to cater to as broad an audience as a major national network requires, we’re getting pretty kooky this season. We have a lot of good, quality science fiction stories, a lot like early Twilight Zone stuff. The great thing about science fiction is that you can make a politically aware show without actually commenting on specific political problems. Rod Serling was always commenting on the Red Scare without actually mentioning anything about communism or anti-Red movements. We’re a much smarter show this year. I think it has a lot to do with our new writers. We’ve got [co-executive producer] Bill Dial, [executive story editor] Chris Black, and [writer/producer] Mark Zicree, all under the watchful eye of our boss, [executive producer] David Peckinpah; we have a really great team.”

O’Connell attributes the show’s thriving fourth life to Sliders‘ dedicated legion of fans: ‘It’s nice to have a strong fan base that keeps bringing the show back. Last season we were on Fox and they would cancel us and pick us up. So, this year we got picked up by Sci-Fi. It is a sci-fi show and when you’re on a network that caters specifically to a sci-fi audience, you can get a little wackier and crazier. So, I’m having a lot more fun this season. [When] I got on this show I had just graduated college, it was really all about, ‘hey, I’ve got a TV show and it was pretty much about picking up chicks. Now its sort of a real job. I’m 23 now. I’ve got to hang up the party hat sometime.”

This season, O’Connell represents a triple threat — directing, producing, and starring in the show he likens to
“boot camp of the entertainment industry.” (O’Connell relishes the challenge, comparing it to “having a grownup job. I can’t goof around as much any more. My social life is hurting. I’m not going out as much as I used to, but at the same time it’s nice. It’s a lot more work than I ever expected. My experience with producers has been pretty much expense accounts and cell phones and when you try and reach ’em they’re usually at the gym, so I thought it was going to be much easier. But I’m up to the challenge. You’re here every day at six. You’re here for every shot and you’re faced with every obstacle a film program faces you with. So, it’s been a great experience. I’ve learned a lot and it’s fun. I went to NYU film school, so I’ve been hoping for this for a while. Four seasons have gone by, cast members have changed. Our producers have changed. Our channels have changed. It’s nice that since I’ve been here since the inception they’ve thrown me a bone.”

The network is not the only thing about the show that has changed. While O’Connell’s cast mates Cleavant Derricks and Kari Wuhrer, as Rembrandt and Maggie, will be returning to interdimensional adventures this season, Sabrina Lloyd and John Rhys-Davies will not. “When we lost the professor, Rhys-Davies, who was the mature voice in the show, I sort of became that voice,” O’Connell says. “And those are pretty big shoes to fill. I think he’s a size 14. But it’s good. We got Kari Wuhrer back, which is great. She’s so great to work with. Cleavant Derricks, Tony winner 1984, very good actor and funny guy, and the best being my brother, Charlie.”

Fans of O’Connell get a surprise bonus this season. Charlie O’Connell, Jerry’s younger brother, plays Quinn’s
older brother, Colin. Confused? “Since I was not supposed to know about him he had to be my older brother,” Jerry O’Connell explains. “And he does look a little older than me. He’s got a few more miles on him.”

In the show’s fourth season premiere, Quinn discovers that the mother that he lived with all his life was not his mother and that he was really born to some sliding scientist parents on another world. These parents had two sons, Quinn and Colin. When a race of alien thugs called the Kromaggs invaded the parents’ world, the scientists put both sons in different foster homes on different worlds to protect them from war. So, once Quinn meets his real mother and finds out the truth, the search is on for Colin. “We’re actually brothers but we were separated at birth, kind of like Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, and now I’m on my fourth world, which is crazy,” says Charlie O’Connell, who describes Colin Mallory as “a peaceful Quinn. Colin is a nice, easy-going guy. He comes from an Amish world for the’90s where he is as much of a scientist as you can be in an Amish community. He loves science but doesn’t have the technology like his brother did. For instance, he’s inventing a port-o-potty when they find him. I just saw my first big fight yesterday with the Kromaggs. They’re crazy.”

“It’s a lot of fun acting with your brother because we’re best friends and when you get a chance to work with your sibling, it’s once in a lifetime,” Jerry O’Connell muses. “We have such a blast. We’re goofing around all the time. We really take nothing that seriously. No fights yet, but if we do get into a fistfight, look out. Everybody had better steer clear because we’ve had some pretty wild ones.”

“He’s a slave driver. I don’t know how it happened but in the call sheet he’s got something in there about laundry and picking up some milk,” Charlie O’Connell jokes, adding, “It’s great to be working with my brother, and Cleavant and Kari are fantastic. I love working with all of them. It’s nonstop laughs, nonstop fun, and if I ever have a question about anything, they’ve all got it down so much that they can just throw it right in.”

Another development in season four is that the Kromaggs — who try to enslave the worlds they invade — have imprisoned both Rembrandt and Wade, but only Rembrandt is found. “This is the best season,” says Cleavant Derricks, who stars as Rembrandt “Cryin’ Man” Brown, “the absolute best season. The writing is much better, it’s a smaller group, a tighter group, we have one captain at the helm — David Peckinpah, who is doing a fantastic job — and we’re able to play. We’re able to play and we have fun. We’ve always had fun, but this time it’s just been a lot easier I think because we know all the characters very well now. Especially my character. I know who this guy is now. If I get a script and there’s something there that doesn’t gibe, I can say, ‘That’s not Rembrandt.’ And it took me two maybe two-and-a-half seasons to find that out, to figure out who this guy really was, and I think all in all we’ve finally found him and it’s good to see what he looks like.”

Jerry O’Connell agrees. “This show has become a lot more personal in the fourth season, when you really get to know your characters,” says the actor, who rose to national attention starring as the pudgy Vern Tessio in the coming-of-age movie drama Stand By Me, then emerged from adolescence a strapping young leading man in such films as Joe’s Apartment and the recent hit Scream 2. “It doesn’t so much become about explosions and chase scenes. It’s more about the characters and stories which justify those big stunts, which makes it a lot more fun. It’s a much more cerebral show. Quinn has just become a lot more mature. He’s got a lot more on his shoulders.”

The scene in which Rembrandt turns on his friend and fellow Slider takes place on a world in which both humans and Kromaggs are trapped. Quinn and Colin have discovered a machine that they can program to slide everyone off this world, so for the first time they’re asking the enemies to put aside their differences for the sake of all their safety. “At the beginning of this new season you’re gonna find out that we’re going back to two seasons ago when we first ran into the Kromaggs, and when we finally escape, one of us has been implanted with information,” Cleavant Derricks explains. “That information will not materialize until this particular episode. The diehard fans who are with us will know what I’m talking about when I say that we’re going back to the beginning. Everyone left thinking it may have been the professor and it may have been Quinn, but we’re going to find out that it was Rembrandt.”

Other developments the show’s fans will see this season is that the group will only slide to San Francisco.
San Francisco will be different, but they will always be going to the Chandler Hotel, so that’s a stationary set
the production will use for all the episodes.

Although Charlie O’Connell has not campaigned to follow his brother’s lead and direct an episode of his own, he has some ideas of where he’d like to take the show. “The thing that’s great about the show is that it’s like a different movie every week,” says the young graduate of New York University’s drama program. “We slide into a completely different place and you get to play a different character each time. In the first one, I was Amish, and now this one is total science fiction. I’d like to do everything from a Western to a Kung Fu one. It’s so much fun. It’s a blast. I think I gotta get the Sliding and the Kromaggs down first and we’ll work on directing next year.”

O’Connell also needs to bone up on his fighting skills. “It’s tough being the biggest guy in the show,” he says. “I’m bigger than my brother, but so far, in the last four weeks, he’s throwin’ punches, Rembrandt’s throwing punches, Kari’s throwing kicks and punches, and I’m still the guy in the back scared of it all. Colin’s ready to throw a blow here or there, and I’ll see when that happens.”

Cleavant Derricks, a Tony-winning actor for his work in the hit Broadway show Dreamgirls, sees his character as the eye-piece through which the audience views the weird and disorienting leaps the show takes each week. Rembrandt is a musician and the only one of the group who was initially unwilling to slide. “He’s still asking questions about what’s going on, but at the same time I think we know now who Rembrandt really is, what his likes are and his beliefs. I think he’s the only one in the entire group who makes reference from time to time to God and the spiritual aspect of everybody’s well being and so forth. This season he’s realized that there’s a possibility that his Earth has been taken over by Kromaggs, so his goal is to defeat them, but at the same time to try to find peace and understand that there may not be a chance to go back to his music. This time he enjoys sliding.”

Derricks also sees his role in the team as being ‘the heart where Quinn is the brain. Kari is the strength. Charlie we don’t know yet, but Charlie is probably gonna be a bit of all of us. He’s a scientist, but he also has something that Rembrandt recognizes as kind of innocent and pure, which reminds him maybe of himself, the giving, the kindness of him, and also you will see later on that there is strength there.”

The new Sliders will debut on the Sci-Fi Channel this June.

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