Lethal Weapon broke the buddy-movie mould – so why bring it to TV 30 years on?
Clayne Crawford, co-star of the new Lethal Weapon: "I felt it was disrespectful to try and capture lightning in a bottle twice – that movie was so special, you couldn’t duplicate it"
Lethal Weapon broke all the rules. Back in 1987 it was the first hit to feature black and white buddy cops, thanks to Hollywood casting legend Marion Dougherty, who thought Danny Glover would be perfect as veteran cop Roger Murtaugh and saw no reference to “white” in the script. It gave Mel Gibson an action lead after he’d become stuck in period drama roles. It took $127 million on a budget of $15 million – and actually grew its audience through two subsequent sequels.
So why re-create it as a TV show? Is it even possible to remake Gibson’s career-making crazy cop Martin Riggs and redefine the sparkling on-screen chemistry between him and Glover? The co-star of the new Lethal Weapon, Clayne Crawford, was not initially convinced.
“Frankly, I wasn’t interested in doing a show like this,” he admits. He had just finished filming another show and wanted to be back on his farm in Alabama. “Without even reading [the script], I said I wasn’t interested. I felt it was disrespectful to try and capture lightning in a bottle twice – that movie was so special, you couldn’t duplicate it. I wished them well, said no… but, man, they were persistent…”
Persistent is underplaying it. Producers saw almost every 30-something actor in Hollywood before they went back to Crawford and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Speaking as a die-hard fan of the original, I watched the first episode through splayed fingers – for the first five minutes. After that, Crawford and Damon Wayans – the new Murtaugh – had me wondering if, maybe, Mel Gibson hadn’t been hamming it up a little?
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Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the original Lethal Weapon
Something certainly clicked with American audiences. The first episode last September drew the highest autumn ratings for a Fox series premiere since 2014, and ratings have held up since, which makes it almost certain that it will be renewed. Lethal Weapon’s warm human drama and big action have worked so well, it’s become ITV’s first primetime US show in 15 years.
“When I saw it, I thought, ‘This is exactly right for ITV,’” says Kevin Lygo, ITV’s director of television. “British cop shows are strong on human drama but light on stunts. This has the big American spectacle, but also the kind of personal story that works on the channel. Plus, I think I almost like it better than the movie…”
Before Lethal Weapon came along, Crawford had had “probably 100 guest roles” and spent three years on a drama called Rectify. I haven’t yet seen it, I tell him. He laughs. “No one watched it. My whole career I’ve never really been successful. But since Lethal Weapon was a hit…” He pauses. “I’m still terrified. For 20 years no one had a clue who I was. I have my family and my farm. I could go to the grocery store and no one cared. That’s changed, but here’s what’s nice – when I go home I end up talking to so many fathers with sons, women with husbands, families, generations saying it’s the only thing they watch together.”
Lethal Weapon reboot on ITV
He says he’s put “a ton of effort” into the stunts and action sequences. “I grew up in a very rural part of the country, so I grew up with weapons and I wasn’t afraid of anything – racing, jumping, crashing through stuff… that 12-year-old boy aspect of Riggs is pretty much me, anyway”. But he thinks the stunts are important. “Entertainment recently, it’s been quite heavy, don’t you think? It got to the point where if we as an audience didn’t leave the TV miserable with some terrible images ingrained in our brains – the Red Wedding [in Game of Thrones], Breaking Bad, Dexter – the producers thought they’d failed. These days, we want to escape more than ever. Our lives are miserable enough – whatever political side you’re on in my bitterly divided country you feel like you’re losing the battle. This isn’t heart surgery – this is television. We’re making people forget their lives.”
Key to the success of the original film was the perfect on-screen comic chemistry between Gibson and Glover. Crawford and Wayans, who cut his teeth as a stand-up, have picked that up and run with it. “The comedy [of the show],” he explains, “is in Damon and I being the old couple bickering about everything. Damon has got the best comic timing I’ve ever seen, which matches my heavy drama background perfectly. That bickering lends us so much freedom. Two human beings spend time together, wind each other up but have totally got each other’s back.”
Is he worried about Mel Gibson’s reaction to the show? “Of course,” he says. “I feel kinda guilty doing this. I feel like it should have been left alone. I’m not vain enough to think Mel Gibson knows who I am or cares what we’re doing, but if he does come across us I hope I make him proud.”
Lethal Weapon is on tonight at 9pm on ITV