The BBC's Life on Mars starred John Simm as a Manchester cop who wakes up from a car accident in 1973. The American version has a New York cop wake up in the '70s. In the tradition of many American TV hits, they still crossed the pond to find their star.
Dublin born Jason O'Mara (Sam Tyler) began acting in the U.K. before coming stateside for stints on The Agency and Men in Trees. He remained a fan of the BBC series and always imagined it would be ripe for translation.
"I wasn't living in England but I was already a fan of the show," said O'Mara. "Actually, I did think it could be translated to America when I was watching it. I didn't actually think in a million years that I would be the guy playing the role, but I was already a fan of it. I loved the chemistry between John Simm and Phil Glenister. I love the way they told their stories in an edgy, and it seemed like a very fresh, new way."
The title suggests science fiction, which technically it is because it's time travel. However, once he appears in the past, the show is a fish-out-of-water period piece, not a sci-fi paradox. So why the alien name? "Because he feels like he's landed on a different planet," O'Mara explained. "It's 1973."
The '70s in Manchester were far different than the '70s in New York. While the BBC series was inspired by the '70s British cop show The Sweeney, ABC's Life on Mars may take more influence from New York based films of the '70s.
"What's great about this version is we have such a fantastic wealth of reference points from the early '70s," said O'Mara. "You have that school of film emerging in the '70s, [directors Martin] Scorsese and [Sidney] Lumet, The French Connection, Mean Streets, Serpico. There's a huge list of stuff. So while they had their template, it's important to have ours so that we can make similar but different cultural reference points."
Shooting in New York, O'Mara feels the significance of shooting '70s scenes in the very locations where Martin Scorsese shot his crime movies. Perhaps new audiences will discover those locales for the first time.
"I think that's going to be fun for the audience as well, to see those kind of parallels. Obviously, Sam is seeing it from the audience's point of view, from the 2008 point of view."
O'Mara may still be a new face to American viewers, even though he has worked steadily on television. ABC has attempted to make him more well known, giving him guest spots on their shows Men in Trees and Grey's Anatomy, as well as casting him as the lead in several unsold pilots. Life on Mars will be his biggest break.
"I've had a longstanding relationship with ABC for the last four years and a lot of the pilot work I've done hasn't made it on the air. We've had a good relationship. They know what I'm capable of and they know I'm ready for this so it's a fantastic opportunity."
Audiences will recognize the faces surrounding O'Mara. Harvey Keitel, Lisa Bonet and Gretchen Mol have been cast in supporting roles, and Michael Imperioli is the second lead of the show. For his follow-up series to The Sopranos, Imperioli had to be sure Life on Mars measured up.
"You see what comes your way," said Imperioli. "I did a couple of movies between, just kept going on and I saw a couple of things I didn't think were right. When this finally came, I think it had enough ingredients to jump in."
Imperioli plays Det. Ray Carling, a New York cop at home in the '70s. "He's kind of a hard boiled detective. He's got a competitive nature. He's a bit suspicious of this new guy. Jason's character is, to us, a transfer from upstate New York or something. So automatically, we're a close knit group of guys, we're a little bit suspicious of this guy and what's his deal going to be. Then he says these odd things because he's trying to figure out what the hell his deal is. So he kind of seems a little bit of a flake and then he's trying to introduce these new ways. He thinks he knows how to do everything because he knows what modern technology has brought to policing. He tries to introduce some of this stuff so I think it even gives me more of a problem with him because I think my character was kind of the next in line to move up the ladder. Now there's a little bit of competition."
And you can be sure this will not just be Christopher Moltisanti (his character on The Sopranos) with a badge. "I'm trying to just take [Ray Carling] for who he is and really talk to people who actually did it at the time and find out what were the ingredients that went into being a detective at that time. I think [the goal is to] just be true to the job and true to the time and try to find something specific to him and then leave it up to the writers."
Should he be held up to such comparisons, Imperioli can live with that. "I'm very proud of that show and I'm proud of what I did on the show. If that's the thing I'll be most known for, I'd be fine with that."
A New York native, Imperioli is also excited to see the show's take on his home town in the days before he was old enough to enjoy it.
"I didn't spend much time in the city. I lived in Mount Vernon as a kid. When I first got to Manhattan it was like 1983. It was just a lot more diverse than it is now. It was a lot more artistic than it is now. Young artists can't really afford to live in Manhattan and stuff like that. I guess it's a safer place now. I just think artistically, it was a very interesting time. The '70s, the punk scene in New York, the music that came out of New York in the '70s, that was really cool. The art scene that eventually happened in the '80s I think was very cool and it's all stuff that I kind of respond to."