NEW YORK — Dr. Walter Bishop follows in a long line of mad scientists. An unbalanced genius like Bishop going at it in his lab is a pop-culture staple. Or even, some would say, a cliche.
But in the able hands of John Noble, who stars on Fox’s sci-fi thriller Fringe, Bishop comes to life. He is both comical and tragic, nutty as a fruitcake yet totally relatable. This is a living, breathing portrayal.
Bishop is a scientist of Einsteinian proportions who for decades was deemed insane and, until Fringe started last fall, institutionalized.
Then his long-estranged son, Peter (played by Joshua Jackson), reluctantly agreed to provide the supervision Dad required to re-enter society.
Rounding out the show’s odd threesome is FBI Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv). She needed Bishop and his filial caretaker to help her track down perpetrators of “fringe science” (way-out stuff like mind control, teleportation, astral projection and genetic engineering) who threaten national security and, possibly, the human race.
This calls for Bishop to display his scientific know-how — while wrestling with his demons — in a self-styled jumble of a lab complete with his pet cow, all lodged in a basement at Harvard University.
For Bishop’s character to work, you have to buy into everything he says, no matter how unhinged; feel for the guy, no matter how inappropriate his behaviour; care about him, even when he acts ridiculous.
Noble makes it work.
“I understand Walter,” Noble explains. “I can understand his childish enthusiasm quite well. I understand his loneliness, and his attempts to re-establish contact with his son. There’s not any phase where I don’t kind of understand where Walter is coming from.”
The Australian-born, 61-year-old Noble is a theatre veteran who for a decade was artistic director of the Stage Company of South Australia, which, during his tenure, produced 70 new plays by fellow Aussies. His extensive film work includes two of the Lord of the Rings fantasies, playing Denethor.
Now, he calls his Fringe role “a huge gift. It enables me to use a range of skills developed over so many years, and grow a character over a long period of time.”
Just how long may be to doubt. In this, its sophomore season, “Fringe” has struggled for viewers.
No wonder. Airing Thursday at 9 p.m. EST, it shares one of TV’s most competitive time slots. Its battle to survive against rivals like Grey’s Anatomy, CSI and a duo of The Office paired with 30 Rock is a challenge the heroes of Fringe face weekly in startling, bizarre and sometimes icky ways.
This makes Bishop’s added service as comic relief all the more welcome.
Elbow-deep into an autopsy, he might direct his lab assistant to fire up a Bunsen burner and start preparing some custard.
Then he giggles and, in his Brahmin-seasoned accent, says in wonderment, “It’s funny: I love custard… but I hate flan!”
Meanwhile, it falls to Bishop to voice a lot of complex scientific exposition (plus loopy-sounding theories) to keep the story moving along.
A cinch, insists the actor.
“I certainly have no trouble articulating those concepts when I’m performing a scene,” Noble says. “A lot of the science that we delve into is not new to me — it’s fascinated me for a very long time. So it’s not like ’Oh, my god, what are we talking about?”’
But what he didn’t know so much about was starring in a network TV series — during the first season, anyway.
“Ignorance is bliss,” says Noble. “What I thought was, basically: I love the show, and I love going out and playing my character.
“The technical demands of television are far more subtle than they are on stage, and I love that,” he goes on. “And the pace of television doesn’t worry me. You know that saying: Your first instinct is your best instinct. In television it HAS to be, because that’s the only one you’re gonna get. So you say, ‘Oh, well, here goes!’ But that suits my personality.”
He says he’s not even thrown by getting scripts at the last minute, or by having scant idea what the kaleidoscopic Bishop may disclose about himself in the future.
“I think we established him quite early,” says Noble. “I would be extremely surprised, and disappointed, and possibly a little bit vocal if there was a major character shift. The character won’t change, the circumstances will.”
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