'Doubt' co-creator Tony Phelan left Cleveland certain of an acting career

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Tony Phelan left Cleveland with no doubt about his career path. He was going to be an actor. Not the slightest bit of doubt. PREVIEW Doubt What: The premiere of a legal drama starring Katherine Heigl. When: 10 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15. Where:...

'Doubt' co-creator Tony Phelan left Cleveland certain of an acting career

CLEVELAND, Ohio - Tony Phelan left Cleveland with no doubt about his career path. He was going to be an actor. Not the slightest bit of doubt.

PREVIEW Doubt

What: The premiere of a legal drama starring Katherine Heigl.

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15.

Where: CBS (WOIO Channel 19).

At the age of 12, he had been a member of the Cleveland Play House's youth troupe, the Curtain Pullers. He had done plays at Dobama Theatre and Cain Park. He was going to be an actor.

"My first play was William Inge's 'Dark at the Top of the Stairs' in 1976, and I just fell in love with doing theater," said Phelan, who grew up in Cleveland Heights. "I really felt I found a community where I belonged in the theater. It was wonderful."

But something happened that put him on the path to being the co-creator, executive producer and director of "Doubt," the CBS legal drama premiering at 10 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 15, on WOIO Channel 19. What happened is, in 1982, he headed for Yale University.

And while at Yale, a professor sat him down and calmly blew up his career path.

"He was my acting teacher, and he looked me in the eye and told me, 'I really don't think you have it in you to be an actor,' " Phelan said during a telephone interview. "And I was, of course, devastated. My whole life was falling apart in front of my eyes."

Emmy winner Katherine Heigl , left, and Laverne Cox star in the CBS legal drama "Doubt." JoJo Whilden/CBS 

But this professor had more to say. "Your instincts are more what a director should have," he told the undergraduate from Northeast Ohio. "Look, I'm going to direct a production of 'The Glass Menagerie' with Joanne Woodward and Karen Allen at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. Come and be my assistant and see if you kind of take to this.

"I did, and I discovered that he was absolutely right," Phelan said. "From that point onward, I shifted my focus toward being a theater director. That was the goal after Yale, and that's what I was doing for 12 years in New York."

So that's how the career path changed from acting to directing. How did he get from New York to Los Angeles?

Phelan was working as a freelance director when he met actress Joan Rater. They were married and started working together on stage adaptations of published works.

"So Joan was writing as well as acting," Phelan said. "And then a friend of a friend saw one of these shows and asked if we ever considered writing for television. At the time, Joan and I were living in New York in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. It was a fifth-floor walk-up, and our son Tom was about 3. It was a struggle, so we decided to pack up everything in a U-Haul and head west."

They soon went out on their first job interview and, to their shock, landed the writing gig. After piling up some credits, they were hired as writers during the second season of the ABC hit "Grey's Anatomy."

By the fifth season of the medical drama, Phelan was drafted to direct episodes. He and Rater also were promoted to supervising producers.

"I think all of that theater training - acting, directing, writing -- prepared us perfectly for working on a television show," Phelan said. "We knew how to talk to actors and work with actors, and write things in a particular character's voice."

They left "Grey's Anatomy" for the opportunity to create and run their own show: "Doubt."

"The goal is to have as much control of the product as possible." Phelan said. "So if you can conceive a show, write it, produce it and direct it, you fully shape what you want it to be. 'Doubt' is that great melding of all those experiences we've had into a show that is, I think, incredibly entertaining, thought-provoking and suspenseful."

The show reunites them with Emmy-winning "Grey's Anatomy" star Katherine Heigl, who plays Sadie Ellis, a brilliant lawyer at a boutique firm led by "lefty legend" Isaiah Roth (Elliott Gould). Sadie is thrown into, yes, doubt, as she begins to fall for a charismatic client, Billy Brennan (Steven Pasquale), a pediatric surgeon accused of murdering his girlfriend about 25 years ago.

Heigl missed badly with the short-lived NBC series "State of Affairs," but its failure led the way to "Doubt."

"When she became available, it was no-brainer for us," Phelan said. "She's one of those actresses who has an incredible ability with both language and emotion. You can ask her to shade something a certain way, and she can give you that immediately."

Also in the "Doubt" cast are Dule Hill, playing Sadie's close friend and colleague, Albert Cobb; and Laverne Cox as Cameron Wirth, a transgender Ivy League graduate.

"We don't make a big deal of the fact that she's transgender," Phelan said. "It's just accepted. It's just one facet of who this character is."

Why embrace everything that is "Doubt"? Why this series at this time?

"When you get the chance to do your own network show, you look around and see what hasn't been on the air for a while," Phelan said. "Since 9/11, there have been a lot of shows about tracking down criminals and putting them in jail. But what do you do if you find yourself accused of a crime and the full array of the government is arrayed against you?

"Who is that person who is going to stand at your side and provide you with a vigorous defense? And what are the real-world consequences for lawyers handling high-stakes, life-and-death cases, especially when there are gray areas? This is what we're going to explore in 'Doubt.' "

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.

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