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'The Philanthropist': New Millennium's 'Indiana Bond'?

June 25, 2009 By:
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James Purefoy as Teddy Rist offers a smile and a small fortune to make the world a better place.

NBC ... charity case?

No, not the network -- but its spectacular new series whose theme of giving back may provide great payback in ratings for the fourth-place somewhat plucked Peacock.

"The Philanthropist" -- must-pledge TV? The new Wednesday night series makes the case for giving from the wallet as its billionaire belies stereotypes, trumping notions that wealth always wields happiness, especially notable in times of the current fiscal flu that leaves Wall Street weak.

Will doing good do well for NBC?

It is possible that "Philanthropist" -- in which Teddy Rist risks it all to help salve the world -- may actually make people feel more charitable to what has been an across-the-board lackluster TV season.

The board a bored Rist rules at Maidston-Rist is that of a major conglomerate acquiring natural resources. With having it all being not half as interesting as it once was, Rist, naturally, turns to whatever comes his way to fill any threadbare threat to his powerful pocketful of miracles.

Philandering philanthropist? At first, but Rist resists his more one-sided, selfish impulses that charity begins at home and soon begins to spread it worldwide, with Third World countries being his No. 1 priority.

"Philanthropist" is a world away from what is on the air these days. There is that diehard dichotomy; rich and roguish, Rist is irresistible, complete with Errol Flynnish fireworks. But then, the series -- and title character -- upon whom it's based is a man of universal gifts and gilded treasures.

Rist, played by James Purefoy, is a pure play on philanthropist Bobby Sager, the Boston bastion of beneficence whose Sager Family Traveling Foundation and Roadshow plows plenty back into the earth, seeding it with good deeds.

Helping those on the dole need not be dull: Purefoy shows that Rome can't be saved in a day. But then, Rist/Sager is, as series co-star Jesse L. Martin has called him, an "Indiana Bond," a monied mix of two mythical heroes offering law and new world order to the globally impoverished.

"Indiana Bond" with maybe some Israel Bonds thrown in: Sager, prominent in the Massachusetts Jewish community, has also dedicated much money and manpower toward Arab-Israeli reconciliation, in the belief that an understanding of their financial interdependence can provide a mutual fund of frankness, not firepower, for the region.

Is it true that the initial title for this most compelling -- and visually arresting -- series was ... "Tikkun Olam"? Teri Weinberg, an exec producer of "Philanthropist," laughs but is taken with the suggestion. "As an American Jew, I think part of the series' inspiration taps into that very notion."

Taps? Explodes with it. Sure, NBC is hoping the series can repair the network, but repairing the world is a serious series concept that has not gotten much credence on TV.

Going to the Source
Until now. Sourced out? Sourced in: "Philanthropist" uses its source -- Sager is also a consulting producer -- wisely and richly. "Bobby is one of the most fascinating people I have met in life," says Weinberg.

Selfless savant? "He calls himself one of the most selfish people in the world" because of all the benefits he spiritually and viscerally receives from helping others.

And he's "involved his whole family in this; he teaches his children that you really can change the world."

With some change left over for a challenging TV series. Sure, concedes Rist on the show, money makes the world go round -- and he's using it on a whole different supersonic plane, making the most of the minted mileage-plus he's earned over the years.

"When we first started talking about this show about a year ago," says Weinberg of a group that included network president Ben Silverman and exec producers Tom Fontana, Barry Levinson, Peter Horton -- who's also directing the pilot -- Charlie Corwin and Gareth Neame, the name of the game was ... change the game.

"We all wanted to do something that could possibly change the world, try to make it a better place."

Place your bets; the odds aren't that long when so much talent is aligned with the project. "What inspires the characters in 'Philanthropist' is the sense that you can serve by example, be better," and others will follow.

Follow this leader; she has a successful track record, now serving as head of Yellow Brick Road, her production company operating out of NBC studios, after having served as an executive at the network under Silverman.

And while "The Philanthropist" faces his flaws and a family tragedy of his young son's death -- "This happens to the character; it is not something that happened to Bobby Sager" -- no one will accuse him of contributory negligence: Rist's contributions to build a better world take him to Nigeria, Myanmar (Burma), Kashmir, Kosovo ... Israel?

"We hope so," says Weinberg, "although we haven't talked about it in a pointed way."

Scripts point to a topic that seared points off many a charitable foundations' bottom line. An upcoming episode will double-dip -- dealing with a Benjamin Madoff-type Ponzi scheme that could topple the Maidstone-Rist charitable foundation and identity theft.

Forging a new prime-time identity identifies these producers as risk-takers -- with not that many takers on the broadcast network horizon. "It is an important story to tell, and incredibly satisfying to use this platform for serious reflections" on philanthropy, reasons Weinberg.

But it's not all bored meetings and tax-deduction talk. With Rist as ardent adventurer with a big money belt holding up his swashbuckle, there are fun and games as well.

Oh, sure, pledges the producer. It's all in the give and take of ... giving.

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