News Column

HBO uses star power to light up press tour

July 27, 2013

YellowBrix

July 27--BEVERLY HILLS -- The Discovery Channel had Patrick Dempsey and some Australian guy who believes in UFOs, BBC America had Matt Smith and several great British character actors, but it took HBO to bring real star power to the Television Critics Association's summer press tour Thursday at the Beverly Hilton.

From Mike Tyson to Alec Baldwin, Larry David to Stephen Frears, Christopher Plummer to Spike Jones, the premium cable giant threw its weight around with abandon, even going so far as to dismiss out of hand the presumed challenge to its dominance by the headline-grabbing content parries of Netflix.

CEO Richard Plepler and Programming President Michael Lombardo made a point of reminding the gathered TV critics that HBO has always released its viewer numbers, even though, as a pay cable site, it doesn't really have to. They didn't have to tell the critics that Netflix is not as forthcoming about its actual viewership.

Academy Award winner Plummer was on hand with actor Benjamin Walker ("Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter") to talk about "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight," premiering in October. The film, directed by Frears from a script by Shawn Slovo, is not about Ali's boxing career but about the Supreme Court's consideration of whether Ali was within his rights to claim religious reasons for insisting on conscientious objector status in the draft during the Vietnam conflict. The all-star cast includes Frank Langella, Bob Balaban, Judith Ivey, Fritz Weaver, Kathleen Chalfant, Pablo Schreiber and Ed Begley Jr.

Tyson's boxing career does figure into his HBO project, a Spike Lee film of Tyson's one-man show, "Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth." The film is in the editing stage now and will premiere later this year.

Stephen Merchant is known as the much, much taller half of a comic writing and acting partnership with Ricky Gervais. On his own, the 6-foot-7 Merchant has been doing a standup routine about his social awkwardness when dealing with the opposite sex. His standard greeting, "Hello Ladies," is also the title of his new half-hour sitcom, launching Sept. 29.

Baldwin appeared on a direct-video hookup from Long Island as director James Toback talked about their very funny and very smart film "Seduced and Abandoned," which follows the two as they try to work the Cannes Film Festival seeking money for a film to be called "Last Tango in Tikrit." The film includes Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci, Roman Polanski, Jessica Chastain, Ryan Gosling, Diane Kruger and Francis Ford Coppola, among others. It is a documentary but has such a thrilling "Waiting for Guffman" vibe, it feels like a mockumentary. In the process of being funny and fascinating, it also says a lot about where theatrical filmmaking is in the 21st century.

In two words: Don't flush.

The film airs on Oct. 28 and thereafter.

'Curb' hiatus

David has taken a hiatus from his hit sitcom "Curb Your Enthusiasm" to make and star in "Clear History," a very funny film with Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton and Kate Hudson, among others, premiering Aug. 10.

Between making comic mincemeat out of every question coming from the critics, David wouldn't say whether "Curb" will return or not. His answer -- "Ask me in six months" -- didn't spread waves of optimism through the International Ballroom at the Hilton.

It wasn't all about "Doctor Who" as BBC America launched the second day of the tour, but since this is the 50th anniversary of that insanely addictive show, who could blame the Brits for bringing the current Doctor, Smith, for a victory lap before he leaves the series, and David Bradley, who will portray the very first Doctor in the new film "An Adventure in Space and Time."

Smith has played the time- and space-traveling Doctor for four years. He has a new companion now, Clara Oswald, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman. He showed up at the Beverly Hilton Hotel stage with short hair, but an understandable mix of emotions as he exits the series.

BBC America was mum about who will be the next "Who," of course.

BBC America will air "Adventure" in November, detailing the story of the very first season of "Doctor Who," played by William Hartnell. Bradley plays Hartnell in the film, whose cast also includes Brian Cox and Sacha Dhawan.

Busy morning

Bradley was a very busy guy Thursday morning, participating not only in the panel for "An Adventure in Space and Time" but in the panel for the upcoming eight-episode "Broadchurch," starring David Tennant, the "Doctor Who" before Smith.

Tennant wasn't on hand, but co-stars Olivia Colman and Jodie Whittaker were, and everyone was on edge hoping it would be a spoiler-free session. It was, thank goodness. In fact, Colman made a point of saying that during the auditions, "even the person that did it" didn't know who killed a young boy in Broadchurch. It is a murder mystery, but it's much more than that.

The panel did reveal that there will be a second season. You'll want to know after the eighth episode. The show begins Aug. 7.

We also got a look at footage from the forthcoming action adventure series "Atlantis," coming in November. Mark Addy (Robert Baretheon in "Game of Thrones") plays Hercules in the series and joked about his less than herculean physique: Hercules is "strong because his father's a god, not because he goes to the gym every day."

David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: dwiegand@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV

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(c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle

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