I was standing next to G.W. Bailey, listening to a sidesplitting tale about his early jobs in television, playing bad guys on Charlie's Angels and Starsky and Hutch for legendary TV producer Aaron Spelling.
And I was in heaven.
"I started my morning by being told I was the oldest person here . . . that I invented television," said Bailey, laughing while recalling how the three Angels stars were so competitive that once one of them got attention for bringing her dog on the set, the other two suddenly got dogs, too.
"I did a couple of Starskys and said, 'This is easy. What's all this stuff about Hollywood is so tough?' " he said. "Then, after the second Starsky and Hutch, I didn't work for a year and a half."
Bailey, 67, a veteran of the TV series M*A*S*H and Police Academy movies, was delivering his showbiz lesson two weeks ago on the set of his latest gig, TNT's Major Crimes, a spinoff of The Closer that debuts tonight.
We were, in fact, a few feet from the battered faux-wooden desk he has been riding for years as Detective Lt. Provenza, the world-weary-yet-principled senior officer in the Los Angeles Police Department's Major Crimes unit.
He had already filmed the episodes you will see tonight. It's a delicate, emotional two-step in which Kyra Sedgwick ends her role as Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson on The Closer, just in time for former co-star Mary McDonnell to take over as Capt. Sharon Raydor on a new show also featuring all but three characters from Sedgwick's series.
And, sentimental as tonight's episodes may be for fans, inside the Warner Bros. studio lot the cast was already well into a transition that seemed fated from the moment in 2010 when The Closer star decided she would leave the show after seven seasons.
"I had a little more insight that anybody else. I kinda knew there was always a lifeboat in the works," said actor Phillip P. Keene, who plays video technician-turned-police officer Buzz Watson, and is a longtime romantic partner to creator/executive producer James Duff. "There was always a contingency plan for the rest of the squad to continue."
To refocus the show, Duff spent lots of time transforming McDonnell's Raydor from a formidable, rule-following nemesis for Johnson into a sympathetic supporter. Last week, viewers saw her reveal the fiancee of a trusted aide was leaking sensitive information to a lawyer suing the major crimes unit, proving Raydor's competence and devotion to the squad.
"Evolving her from antagonist to protagonist . . . you do not get to do this very often, to do a grand pivot slowly," McDonnell said, relaxing on a surprisingly realistic set depicting Raydor's home. "It's been almost perfect in not asking the actor to do something that's unrealistic or asking the audience to feel something they're not ready for."
In many ways, Major Crimes is something of a reboot for all involved.
Focused on a justice system starved for money — in June, the Los Angeles court system announced $30 million in budget cuts forced by reduced state funding — Major Crimes closes its cases by pushing criminal defendants to plead guilty, avoiding the expense of trials and appeals.
The structure also gives players like Bailey even more room to perform, as Provenza resists the dealmaking and team members get more involved in solving crimes.
Duff also introduces new characters, including a new female detective and a teen runaway-turned-witness who pushes the squad to find the mother who abandoned him years ago.
"Now you're gonna see how someone who lived their life as a mother takes on this job, because that's who she is," Duff said of McDonnell's Raydor, who has two grown children not yet shown on camera. "She's not just a police officer; she's a mother and the two things inform each other, just like our personal lives inform our professional lives."
The new teen character is also informed by the experiences of Duff, who said he ran away from home himself at age 17, finishing high school on his own, without his parents.
"I was not selling myself on the streets," quipped Duff, referring to the street kid character played by Graham Patrick Martin (who also plays a stoner teen on CBS's hit Two and Half Men). "I'm probably the only person in the history of the world to run away from Dallas-Fort Worth to Lubbock, Texas."
Along with Sedgwick, co-stars J.K. Simmons and Corey Reynolds won't be returning, while Jon Tenney's FBI agent Fritz Howard will make occasional appearances. Tenney is directing the eighth installment in Major Crimes' 10-episode season, a flashback to a case that detectives worked one month before Sedgwick's character came to Los Angeles.
"When we were doing the last couple of days of The Closer, you could really feel the emotion coming to a crescendo . . . and it didn't feel right," said executive producer Michael M. Robin. "It didn't feel like any of us were done. And I'm hopeful the audience is gonna have that feeling, too."