CTP Episode of the Day - 08.21.06

Today's Cherished Episode: Unusual Suspects (5x01)
Original Air Date: November 16, 1997
Written By: Vince Gilligan
Directed By: Kim Manners

In an important chunk of X-Files pre-history, up-and-coming FBI agent Mulder crosses paths with an unlikely trio of eccentrics; pursues a beautiful alleged terrorist; and gets a searing glimpse into his own future.

"No matter how paranoid you are, you aren't paranoid enough."

Some "Unusual Suspects" Tidbits & Musings:

-- The episode title is a play on the phrase "The Usual Suspects," which was also the title of a movie containing unreliable narratives. The episode referenced the movie a few times, with a questionable character making up a story from objects he/she sees around the room, jail scenes, and the hard-to-explain opening that is revisited later when it is much more easily understood.

-- The Lone Gunmen were introduced in the first season episode "E.B.E." The idea first arose when producer Glen Morgan and writer Marilyn Osborn ("Shapes") went to a UFO convention in Los Angeles in June 1993, shortly before Morgan and James Wong began to write any material for the series. Morgan recalled seeing a trio of guys at the airport -- "three guys sitting behind a table, one in a suit and tie, one in a really crummy tee shirt with long hair. They didn't seem to connect, and then they started telling people about the magnetic strips in $20 bills, and in no time there were a half-dozen people tearing up $10 and $20 bills. They were the scariest guys."

-- A snide joke and a fortuitously timed trip to the men's room reactivated Tom Braidwood's acting career, though he was and continued to be happily ensconced on the other side of the camera. Braidwood, the first assistant director on The X-Files, happened to be walking by while the producers considered actors to play Melvin Frohike. At that moment, director William Graham, a long-time acquaintance, noticed him as observed, "We need somebody slimy ... someone like Braidwood." He emerged from the bathroom to be greeted with a chorus of, "Ah, Frohike," and a star was born. Braidwood conceded that he didn't have much choice in the matter but enjoyed his return to acting. "I always missed it," he said. Braidwood acted in theater before finding steady employment behind the scenes on shows like Danger Bay and 21 Jump Street -- the latter a credit he shared with Glen Morgan and James Wong. Despite his duties as an A.D., Braidwood knew his periodic appearances were fun for the crew (who labeled a bicycle he rode around the studio the "Frohike Mobile." He noted that Lone Gunmen scenes were "usually done pretty quick and dirty. We get all our words out okay and move along." Braidwood added that his two partners usually got all the hard work, actually telling the story, and he just said things like "she's hot" or "she's tasty" as he lusted after Agent Scully. Given Frohike's lecherous nature, Braidwood was fond of telling people that it was "pretty tough being the only romantic interest on a major TV hit."

-- Dean Haglund was well known on the Vancouver stand-up comedy and improvisation circuit and won the role of Langly, the Lone Gunmen's most flamboyant member, from more than 30 aspirants who auditioned. He had done lots of improvisational theater and also appeared in various movies and TV shows that filmed in the Vancouver area, including The Commish, Sliders, and Street Justice, but since he spent most Friday nights on stage, he was completely unfamiliar with The X-Files when he auditioned. "I spent half the audition on the phone," he confessed, so was surprised when he won the role. He didn't meet the other two-thirds of the Lone Gunmen team until shooting on "E.B.E." began, having read for his role with various other actors.

-- Bruce Harwood also had zero familiarity with the show before being cast as the nattily attired Byers. A native of British Columbia, Harwood had appeared in such locally produced TV shows as 21 Jump Street, MacGyver, and Wiseguy as well as a TV movie remake of the musical Bye, Bye Birdie. He even played a computer technician in the ill-fated sequel The Fly II, but admitted it was "pretty bad. It's only funny if you know the people, because they all get slaughtered at the end." After his initial appearance on The X-Files, Harwood had no idea the trio would ever appear again until being called back for a second episode. "When I came on set I started hearing weird stories about how popular we were," he said. Harwood felt the Gunmen's wardrobe attributed to their appeal, because they look "so incongruous together."

-- The Lone Gunmen were initially thrown into "E.B.E." just for a laugh, but Morgan wasn't happy with the result, feeling he and his partner had botched things a bit in terms of execution. "We had kind of written them off," he noted, until the producers started to hear about the response to the Gunmen along the Internet. That prompted a return appearance in Season 1's "Blood" and eventually a recurring role on the series.

-- The Lone Gunmen were extremely popular, which was not to say, however, that under normal circumstances they would have been chosen as the mainstay of an entire episode. But circumstances at the start of the fifth season were far from normal. In order to have a fighting chance to complete the show's network episode order, production in Vancouver *had* to start by the final week of August 1997. Unfortunately, series stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, still filming the X-Files movie, were tied up in Southern California until the beginning of September.

-- So a "Lone Gunmen" episode -- begun on August 20, completed with the few scenes including Special Agent Fox Mulder several weeks later, then aired as the third show of the new season -- it was. Whether attainable or not, the producers' obvious intention was to alleviate the absence of the show's two stars with the cult appeal of the three auxiliary characters. Supervising producer Vince Gilligan was asked to write the episode.

-- "We talked about it quite a bit at the end of Season Four," said Gilligan. "I felt flattered that they offered it to me, and I also thought 'How the hell am I going to do this?' Then I came up with an entire story. And ended up throwing the whole thing out."

-- Gilligan's first Lone Gunmen plotline, set in the present, revolved around nanotechnology, the emerging science of creating very small, very clever machines. "I pitched it to Chris," he said, "and as I was pitching it to him he got more nervous. I think the story had a lot of interesting, cool moments in it. But at the end Chris said, and rightly so, 'This may be our one and only chance for an episode with just the Lone Gunmen, and I don't think you're making the most of it.'"

-- "I was sort of bummed out, yet in my heart I knew he was right," Gilligan said. "And then Chris said to me, 'Why don't you show us how those guys met?' And that sort of sparked something. And then it came together fairly quickly after that, I recall."

-- Back at the drawing board, Gilligan proceeded to "reverse engineer" the Gunmen's backgrounds, and when these were set, he extrapolated their first meeting with Mulder. "What came to me early on was these guys had to live not too far from D.C. With that in mind, I figured that Baltimore was only thirty or forty-five minutes up the road."

-- "Then came the interesting Homicide crossover," Gilligan explained. "When I was ten or fifteen pages into the script I realized that the whole episode was framed around Byers telling his story to a Baltimore homicide detective. So I figured what the heck? Homicide was a great show, so why not try to get Richard Belzer to play his Detective Munch character?"

-- Gilligan's first movie, Wilder Napalm, was produced by Mark Johnson, a former partner of Homicide co-creator Barry Levinson. Levinson put Gilligan in touch with Tom Fontana, the NBC show's executive producer. "Tom Fantana was a great guy," said Gilligan, "and he couldn't have been more helpful. NBC was great about it and Fox was really happy, too. Only the lawyers were a little nervous. For a while, they kept calling me up and saying, 'Uh, are you sure you have permission from NBC?' And I kept saying to them, 'Uh, that's what the guy said.'" (For the record, according to L.A. casting director Rick Millikan, the trans-network crossover went off without a hitch.)

-- Richard Belzer played the role of Detective John Munch on Homicide from September 1993 to November 1998. He set a TV record by becoming the first person to play the same character on three different prime time series during the same week. Detective John Munch appeared on the Law & Order/Homicide crossover "Baby It's You" on November 12 and November 14 and then in "Unusual Suspects" on The X-Files on the 16th. Belzer took the role to Law and Order: SVU in September 1999; and that show begins its eighth season this fall. He has also played Detective Munch on Law & Order: Trial by Jury and The Beat.

-- The Season 5 episode guide indicates that the three actors who played the Lone Gunmen were told about their promotion to "leading men" status while filming their small parts in the XF movie. Although on the Season 5 DVDs, Dean Haglund remembers it a little differently: "I think I was on the road doing stand-up and got the word that we were doing another X-Files episode. I told them to just fax me the two or three pages, which is generally the length of the one scene we're in. I was at a hotel, and they charge like $14 a page for faxes, so I thought -- $28; I can pay that. Then in comes 69 pages at $14 a page, and I'm like, 'What the hell have I done?' I think that episode cost me money."

-- The three actors learned quite a bit about their characters, and themselves, during the production of "Unusual Suspects." "What we read in the script wasn't really our origins as we'd imagined it," said Dean Haglund. "I'd thought we were all in a university garage band together or something. Bruce thought he was a photocopier repairman."

-- The Season 1 & 2 Episode Guide indicated that Byers was the group's information systems expert; Langly's specialty was communication; and Frohike served as the photographic and special operations guru of the bunch.

-- The Lone Gunmen did a background check on Agent Fox Mulder during the course of this episode which showed his marital status as "single." However, while filming his scenes in "Unusual Suspects," newlywed David Duchovny insisted on wearing his wedding ring, thus adding a tantalizing clue to Mulder's background that prompted much fan discussion and debate (not to mention fanfic). In true XF fashion, the meaning of the ring in Mulder's background (if any) would never be explained, though Duchovny did wear it again in another Season 5 flashback episode, "Travelers."

-- "Unusual Suspects" established the full names of Frohike (Melvin) and Byers (John Fitzgerald). Langly's first name was established as "Ringo" in an early version of the script for "Unusual Suspects," but it was never used on the air until it appeared in the opening credits of The Lone Gunmen TV series. The XF episode "Via Negativa" gave Langly's first name as "Richard."

-- Kim Manners recalled that Tom Braidwood hated the name "Melvin" as Frohike's first name. "When it came time for him to say, 'Hi, I'm Melvin Frohike,'" Manners said, "in rehearsal he went, 'I'm Mel Frohike' and he put this little macho thing on it. I said, 'Tommy, come here a minute. You're Melvin Frohike. Learn to live with it.' He hated it."

-- The flashback nature of "Unusual Suspects" also allowed for the return of actor Steven Williams as "X," Mulder's informant during Seasons 2 and 3 who was killed in the Season 4 opener, "Herrenvolk." John Shiban recalled that he was working with Vince Gillian on the story idea for "Unusual Suspects": "We were working on it at my house," Shiban said, "And we had this storyboard set up in the backyard. There was a piece missing and we just couldn't come up with how to get out of this situation -- why doesn't this assassin just kill the Lone Gunmen? We were pacing around the backyard, and it was kind of like a moment at the end of Casablanca -- a 'round up the usual suspects' kind of moment. I said, 'X! The assassin is X! X has another agenda! It's perfect -- our X! We don't know what his allegiances are. He wouldn't kill the Gunmen because he's trying to help Mulder!' And that's how we got out of it." It was Steven Williams' last appearance as "X" until the series finale, "The Truth."

-- About "Unusual Suspects," Kim Manners said, "That was a fun one to shoot. I had a really good time shepherding them through the episode because they were so nervous that they had to carry the whole hour. One image in that show that I remember was a shot I did after the guys get some information on Susanne and they think she is a villainess. Signy Coleman (Susanne) comes into the room and I lined the three of them up, one behind the other. The image I had was from The Wizard of Oz, with the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion all lined up shaking behind Dorothy. I shot it that way and I think the sequence really worked out well."

-- It's interesting to note that Mulder's regression therapy tape, the one Scully listened to in "Conduit," was made on June 16, 1989, which would have been just a few weeks after this episode took place. Whether this was a conscious decision on the part of Vince and the producers or just a coincidence isn't known, but it does raise the question whether those "weird ideas" about his sister's disappearance could have come from being sprayed by the substance that generated anxiety paranoia.

-- Coincidence or no, that plot point was obviously not lost on Dean Haglund. On the plot of "Unusual Suspects," he said, "I think it fits pretty comfortably into the mythology. The only question I had in my mind was that when Mulder meets these guys, we might have had a little too much [to do] with him becoming involved in the X-Files. It's always been in my mindset up till then that he had this interest a long time before he ever got into the FBI because of what happened to his sister. That was a small question mark in my mind, but David Duchovny obviously read the script, and he knows the character much better than I do. He obviously had no problem with it because as far as I know the scenes were not changed and none of the lines were changed, so it must be ok."

-- The Season 5 XF DVDs were the first released in wide-screen. Therefore, in DVD viewing, when the Lone Gunmen catch up with Susanne at the end of the episode, when she is talking to them and the camera is on the three, you can see not one, but TWO boom microphones at the top of the screen.

-- Props master Ken Hawryliw scoured the pharmaceutical supply warehouses of North America to obtain what he firmly believed was the world's largest collection of empty asthma inhalers; special effects coordinator David Gauthier then rigged a fair number of them to explode and spew gas during the climatic gun battle.

-- In order to roll back the clock to 1989, makeup artist Laverne Basham did a more thorough job covering over the Gunmen's wrinkles and under-eye circles than usual; hair stylist Anji Bemben removed some of the gray in their hair and beards as well as temporarily restored Fox Mulder's Season One hairstyle. On David's look in "Unusual Suspects," Dean Haglund said: "His hair was the big indication that the episode took place eight years ago. They combed it to the side. And it was flatter, like mousse wasn't invented. And his cellular phone was way bigger."

-- Continuity Kudo: Mulder gets a call on his gigantic cell phone from his former ASAC at VCU Reggie Purdue (established in Season 1's "Young at Heart").

-- In Los Angeles, producer Paul Rabwin tracked down the Japanese copyright owners of the "classic" video game Dig Dug and obtained their delighted permission to use it on The X-Files.

-- Dean Haglund recalled that normally while working on location he and Bruce Harwood shared a small trailer. "So we sat and chatted and stuff," he said, "and Tom would come in and hang out. There was never any question of saying, 'Damnit! We want our own trailer!' But the funny thing was, during this episode my agent called me up and said, 'Do you want me to fight it out for you?' I thought a minute, then told him 'Nah, it's cool here with just one for the three of us.'"

-- When Suzanne first meets Byers, she tells him her name is Holly. Although she supposedly borrowed the name from the packet of Holly Sugar that was on the table, she also borrowed it from writer Vince Gilligan's significant other, Holly Rice. "I try to get Holly in every episode," Gilligan said.

-- Suzanne's dentist, Dr. Michael Kilbourne, was named for writer Vince Gilligan's own, real-life dentist.

-- Prop Master Ken Hawryliw, a former acting student, made his XF debut playing "himself" in "Unusual Suspects." He wore his own clothes on camera -- and in real life was known to say "Whatever!" quite frequently.

-- Eric Knight, who played Eric the Hacker Dude, was David Duchovny's personal assistant. He also served as DD's personal assistant on the films Playing God, Return to Me, and Connie and Carla.

-- Munch's line, "Don't lie to me like I'm Geraldo Rivera. I am not Geraldo Rivera," was nearly identical to a line Munch used while interrogating a suspect in the Homicide: Life on the Street episode "Gone for Goode." The only difference was that Munch used Montel Williams' name instead of Rivera's.

-- The line "Your kung fu is the best" is a reference to famed computer hacker Kevin Mitnick, who left the voice mail message "My kung fu is best" to tease investigators who were attempting to apprehend him.

-- Once & Future Retreads: In addition to Steven Williams (X), Signy Coleman reprised her role as Susanne Modeski in Season 6's "Three of a Kind." Chris Nelson Norris (SWAT Lieutenant) was a retread that you probably wouldn't recognize -- he played Edmund Peacock in "Home." Stuart O'Connell who played a police officer also played a police officer in "Kitsunegari." Harrison Coe appeared in an uncredited role as the "First Suit"; he also appeared in "Apocrypha" as a Government Man (also uncredited), in "Kaddish" as Isaac Luria, and in "Chinga" as Dave the Butcher. Brad Loree also appeared in an uncredited role as the "Second Suit"; he also appeared in "3" as a fireman and in "Leonard Betts" as a security guard.

-- In spite of its shaky beginnings, Vince Gillian counts "Unusual Suspects" as "one of the one's I'm most proud of."

(Thanks to chrisnu for today's episode pics.)

Please share your first impressions, favorite (or cringe-worthy) moments, classic lines, favorite fanfic, nagging questions, repeated viewing observations, etc., as today we celebrate "Unusual Suspects"!