Veteran CBS newsman Robert Pierpoint offered no encouragement when his son Eric first revealed his desire to be an actor. "We had a big discussion, where he said it was a ridiculous business and the chances of making it are extraordinarily slim," Eric recalled recently.
Despite his father's admonitions, and after paying some dues in New York and Washington, Eris Pierpoint has beaten the odds: He has landed a starring role in NBC's new action series "Hot Pursuit" (Saturdays at 10). Pierpoint also has a role in the new film "Windy City," starring Kate Capshaw, in which he plays -- of all parts -- a journalist.
Pierpoint, who was born in California and grew up in Washington and Bethesda, did the two-hour pilot for "Hot Pursuit" last winter. He said the producers were pleased, but considered replacing Pierpoint and his co-star, Canadian actress Kerrie Keane, with established stars.
"Hollywood calls and says they've got some good news and some bad news," Pierpoint said, ""The good news is the the show has been picked up. The bad new is that you might not be going with it." I was numb. I had been waiting weeks to find out of the show had been picked up."
Finally, with a strong boost from writer-producer Ken Johnson for the two unknowns, Pierpoint and Keane were cast. Pierpoint plays Jim Wyler, a veterinarian, whose wife Kate (Keane) is an automotive engineer who is wrongly convicted for the murder of her boss -- the murder was really committed by a Kate look-alike hired by the boss' widow, Esteel Modrian (Dina Merrill).Jim rescues Kate as she's being taken to prison and they take out on the lam. At the same time Jim and Kate are trying to find the real killer.
"The relationship between the two is most important," Pierpoint said. "Jim and Kate are still hot for each other. The way they handle their problems offers more interesting possibilities thatn "The Fugitive," where there was just one man on the run. . . . What's interesting is that constantly one character is supporting the other if they are down. Both characters take turns in being strong or emotional. It is about as equal as a relationship can be."
(Editor's note: "Hot Pursuit" is struggling against its Saturday night competition. Nielsen ratings of two weeks ending Oct. 7 ranked it 58th of 60 programs measured.)
Pierpoint attended the Landon School and Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, excelling at soccer and tennis. But by the end of his college days at the University of Redlands in California, he knew an athletic career wasn't in his future. So he "shifted to theater as a means of expression."
When Pierpoint returned to Washington, he had trouble finding acting jobs andinstead worked as an evening tour guide at the Lincoln Memorial and later taught drama, dance and pottery to children at a Glen Echo Park workshop. Eventually he enrolled in the graduate acting progam at Catholic Univeristy, going to school days and working as a dishwasher or a bar manager at night. For a year, he toured with the school's National Players, then began to find roles in local theaters, industrial films and local commercials.
One night while playing the role of Levi in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" at the Olney Theater, Pierpoint was singing his big number -- "One More Angel in Heaven," in which Levi tells his father Jacob that his favorite son, Joseph, has been killed -- when a man in the audience suffered a heart attack. When the show resumed, director James D. Waring cut Pierpoint's number, saying that the song's message struck a little too close to home.
In 1979 Pierpoint moved to New York with his wife, Linda, and began making the rounds. "I kept a file card system of every audition I had and everyone I met," he recalled. "It ran into the hundreds. It's really so much of a business -- you have to know how to market yourself. I can remember walking into a waiting room full of 50 people who looked just like me."
After six months and 80 auditions he landed a part in a commercial for a bank, then got a lead in an off-Broadway play, "Dangerous Corner." Curing the next four years Pierpoint did more than 50 commercials, as well as some industrial films, then came back to Washington to do theater.
"My first big break came when I was doing "Hasty Heart" at Olney and commuting to New York for the auditions of "Windy City,"" Pierpoint said. "I had five call-backs. Just as I was forgetting about it, they called.We shot for two-and-half months on location in Chicago. The timing was incredible."
(Later, said Pierpoint, when the director discovered that the actor he had cast as a journalist was the son of the CBS News correspondent, he exulted, "What a genius I am!").
After "Windy City," Pierpoint "came in second for every project" he tried for. He moved to Los Angeles last year for the pilot season. "I had five or six auditions for "Riptide" . . . Originally I was their first choice. In my last audition they felt I tried too hard. After that they spent $75,000 on a screen test and still couldn't make up their mind."
Pierpoint says he turned down a sit-com that he thought had no potential before he landed his part in "Hot Pursuit." Though he realizes the producers and the network may be taking a chance with two unknowns in the leads, he thinks the show has "an excellent shot of making it . . . but if it doesn't go, it's not the end of the world." He also noted that the show may move to a different day or timeslot.
"Hot Pursuit" has already filmed nine episodes in several cities, but Pierpoint would be happy if the show's storylines brought the cast to Washington:
"You don't know how irritating it is to listen to these Raider fans," he said. "If the "Skins could beat the Raiders in the next Super Bowl, that would make me a complete man. Having a movie and a TV series gives me almost as much satisfaction as seeing the Redskins beating the Cowboys."