FX Is the Edgiest and Most Prolific Drama Producer on Ad-Supported TV

Network has 13 pilots in various stages of development

Not so long ago, the prospect of an established actor accepting a role on a television series was as remote as the moons of Saturn. Backsliding from film to the boob tube was a tacit admission of defeat, one that could only lead to the purgatory that was a seat inside a garishly lit 6-foot-square window, flanked by your newfound friends and peers Dixie Carter and ALF.

Billy Bob Thornton remembers it well. “When I was coming up, we all did television initially, and that was OK,” he says, speaking from the Calgary set of Fargo, an adaptation of Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 theatrical. “I’d get a bit part on Hunter or Matlock or Evening Shade, but if you were already established and you did TV, it meant the next stop was Hollywood Squares.”

While certainly in no danger of fading into the long twilight of syndicated game-show obscurity, Thornton says the changing face of the independent film marketplace has made it increasingly difficult to tell the stories he’d like to pursue as a writer and an actor. “The $20-30 million adult drama, the medium-budget independent film, is a vanishing breed,” Thornton says. “Especially an adult drama with humor, which is my wheelhouse. Television has taken the place of those films. And there’s nothing wrong with that.” 

Photo: Kevin Scanlon

The indie financing squeeze and a riveting script by novelist Noah Hawley were more than enough to get the 58-year-old Academy Award winner on board with Fargo. “When I was offered this, I jumped on it right away,” Thornton recalls. “I mean, the Coen brothers are involved, it’s based on a great movie, Noah is such a great writer … and you know, all my friends are doing [TV] now. Dennis [Quaid], Woody [Harrelson], McConaughey. The stuff they’re doing has every guy out there scrambling around looking for a great TV thing.”

If the pilot is anything to go by, the word “great” when applied to Fargo may be a matter of damning the series with faint praise. In his role as the drifting sociopath Lorne Malvo, Thornton is positively revelatory. An agent of flinty-eyed chaos, there’s a stillness about him that’s mesmerizing, and the character uses his cobra stare to effectively scuttle the best-laid plans of mice, men and every size mammal in between. He’s a malevolent Obi-Wan Kenobi, playing Jedi mind tricks on the likes of Martin Freeman and Colin Hanks.

“I have to pinch myself sometimes,” says Hawley. “My hope, when we set out to make this show, was to make a 10-hour movie, and I wanted to cast it like a movie. Billy Bob became the critical first piece because once we signed him, we sent a signal to everyone in town. Then we signed Martin, and our phones never stopped ringing.” 

FX Network president, John Landgraf | 

Photo: Karl J. Kaul/Wonderful Machine

Indeed, the roster of character actors assembled for the first flight of episodes is uncanny. Among the rogues’ gallery that will appear in at least one of the 10 episodes are Bob Odenkirk, Oliver Platt, Adam Goldberg, Keith Carradine and Glenn Howerton. Joining the cast just last week, Comedy Central’s Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele will portray FBI partners looking to settle the score with Malvo after having a violent run-in with the contract killer.

Of course, because this has been the year the Snow Miser chose to reassert his dominion over the upper two-thirds of North America, the long winter shoot hasn’t exactly been an enchanted sleigh ride. “It was 15 below this morning when I left the house,” Hawley says. “It’s up to a balmy 2 degrees right now, so things are looking up.”

With shooting set to continue through April 5 and winter seemingly having decided to stay on the job until Calgary’s Bow and Elbow rivers fuse into some kind of moraine-dammed hellscape, Hawley says the actors have learned to run their lines quickly lest they attain some sort of half-assed cryogenic state.

And still, nothing can prepare an actor for the iron chill in the marrow that is an Alberta winter—especially when it’s been a while since he’s ventured north of the 49th parallel. “It was even colder on some of the days when we shot A Simple Plan 17 years ago; sometimes it went down as low as 60 below,” Thornton says. “So I thought, I can do this, I can handle it. Then I get up here and I’m, like, shit, man, I’m in my 50s. I’m cold as hell.”

Rounding Out the Slate