DAVID ABRAMOWITZ IS STILL THE KING OF THE BLADE WITH HIS LATEST TV SERIES QUEEN OF SWORDS

http://www.mothership.com/eon/articles.asp?id=3657

By ABBIE BERNSTEIN
October 12, 2000

PART 1

Tessie Santiago stars as Tessa Alvarado, the lady with the sharp sword.

(PHOTO COURTESY PARAMOUNT PICTURES.)

For a man who's made his living with a sword for the past eight years, it has to be said that David Abramowitz doesn't look all that lethal. Okay, he hasn't been actually wielding a weapon himself, but he was one of the creative guiding lights from Episode Seven through the final Episode 119 of HIGHLANDER: THE SERIES and the entirety of HIGHLANDER: THE RAVEN. After spending a year away from the steel while working on the first season of THE LOST WORLD, Abramowitz is back at it -- with a vengeance, one might say -- as executive producer of the new syndicated series QUEEN OF SWORDS.

QUEEN OF SWORDS stars Tessie Santiago as 19th-century Spanish noblewoman Tessa Alvarado. When her father is murdered, Tessa returns to her California birthplace to find the town in the grip of the ruthless and ambitious Col. Montoya (Valentine Pelka). Well-brought-up highborn young ladies don't demand justice for all at the end of a blade - but Tessa's new masked alter-ego, the Queen of Swords, does just that on a weekly basis.

"Last year, Jay Firestone, who's the chairman of the board of Fireworks [QUEEN production company Fireworks, which was also involved with RAVEN], came to me and asked if I'd be interested in developing an action/adventure series with a strong Latina lead," says Abramowitz, explaining how he got the job. "[Firestone] was excited about the marketplace and the possibility of doing a period action/adventure show, filled with swords, a little mysticism, a little magic, lots of horses, shot in Spain, with great locations."

Leading lady Santiago had studied acting at the University of Miami, but she'd never acted professionally, much less carried a television series, before she was chosen as QUEEN. Abramowitz concedes that using a newcomer was a matter of some concern to the show's financiers.

Tessie Santiago conducts her sword slicing in a lacy disguise that would make Zorro envious.

(PHOTO COURTESY PARAMOUNT PICTURES.)

"They were pretty nervous," he admits. "But I have a long track record, Jay Firestone and [fellow executive producer] Adam Haight at Fireworks have a long track record. People decided to trust us. We cast in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. We saw hundreds and hundreds of actresses. [Santiago] had a quality that wouldn't let us say, 'Let's go to somebody else.' She's beautiful, she looks Castilian Spanish, she speaks Spanish fluently and English fluently, she's the right age - we wanted someone young. There was a freshness there, a newness, a brightness. And when she did her test, she gave off light. We trained Tessie for months in L.A. before she went to Spain with sword and whip and taught her how to throw a punch."

Santiago also had a touch of the modern that appealed to the producers. "She's supposed to be a little contemporary," Abramowitz says of heroine Tessa. "Certainly Xena [as a character] is contemporary. The hope was to do this as BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER meets ZORRO. It can't feel too old-fashioned."

The parameters provided for Abramowitz and head writer/supervising producer James Thorpe (another HIGHLANDER/RAVEN alumnus) were fairly broad in terms of developing the series' premise. "It wasn't very much," he reports. "A female, kind of Xena, kind of Zorro character. But these are basic archetypes. You look at Batman - he loses his parents and comes from a family of wealth. You look at Robin Hood - he lost his father and comes from a family of wealth. The character of Montoya is the Sheriff of Nottingham. There are certain character archetypes that play out through the Lone Ranger, the Scarlet Pimpernel, through Robin Hood, through Batman, through Green Hornet. They're classic archetypes of the orphan going to right justice and [pretending to be in society] a character somewhat different from who he or she is."

While he hasn't adopted a secret identity to go about his own work, Abramowitz has been through some major professional changes over the years.

Sandra Bullock look-alike Tessie Santiago plays sweet Tessa Alvarado, a girl who doesn't look capable of lifting a sword.

(PHOTO COURTESY PARAMOUNT PICTURES.)

"The segue from nightclub and saloon singer to storyteller in the schools for the National Endowment for the Arts to documentary and educational filmmaker to winning a bunch of money on a game show [TIC TAC DOUGH] to starting to write to a job as a writer took a long time," he laughs. "I didn't start out as an executive producer. I was doing a show for PBS and they brought in a professional grant proposal writer. She asked me to write something. When I finished writing it, she said, 'Gee, I wish I could write as well as you did.' A light bulb came on and I said, 'Maybe I can write!' Because I thought that everyone could write. It took me years to understand that not everyone can write, and I was lucky enough to have a small gift."

Abramowitz's gift carried him through writing gigs on MacGUYVER, CAGNEY AND LACEY, MURDER, SHE WROTE and the alien-invasion quasi-soap V before moving on to producing with JAKE AND THE FATMAN. "It's a natural progression," he explains. "In this business, either you keep moving up, or you drift away. I've always had a fairly strong work ethic, so I just kept working and working and working, and eventually people recognized that and I got more and more responsibility. You move up slowly. I think my biggest break came with HIGHLANDER."

Swords suddenly became a big part of Abramowitz's life he admits. "I'd always liked sword and sorcery things," he says. "There's a certain mystery and romance and a great sense of adventure in sword-fighting and swash-bucklers." Away from work, Abramowitz also served as cantor at his synagogue. The producer cites a surprising but logical connection between HIGHLANDER's action and his religious background: "HIGHLANDER was a natural for me. There's a guy named Steve Geaghan, who was the [HIGHLANDER] production designer/art director and he said, 'HIGHLANDER is a Talmudic discussion with ass-kicking.' And he was exactly right."

"There are some similarities," Abramowitz says of QUEEN. "It's a lighter show. Occasionally there are flashbacks, but it's a different genre. It's a romantic, sexy action/adventure show with humor and some substance. [Violence] is not as graphic as it was on HIGHLANDER - although people get stabbed and cut and shot, they're not being decapitated. [QUEEN] doesn't play with that depth of despair and pain and adult themes."

The cast of QUEEN OF SWORDS features Valentine Pelka, Paulina Galvez, Tessie Santiago, Anthony Lemke, Peter Wingfield, Elsa Pataky and Tacho Gonzalez.

(PHOTO COURTESY PARAMOUNT PICTURES.)

However, the new series will still have the kinds of moral quandaries that appealed to regular viewers of his other sword shows, Abramowitz promises. "For example, in one of the [QUEEN] episodes, our doctor character Helm, [played by] Peter Wingfield, treats the villain and there's a murder, and because he's a doctor, he's honor-bound to save his life and then refuses, because of doctor/patient confidentiality, to divulge where the bad guy is. He sets his honor and his oath above the rule of law and what is best for all the people. Now that is a really interesting philosophical dilemma."

It's no accident that Wingfield, who played the usually helpful but morally ambiguous 5,000-year-old Methos in 20 episodes of HIGHLANDER, and Pelka, who was a recurring guest in six episodes of that series as the predatory Immortal Kronos and guest-starred in a double episode of RAVEN as a different villain, are both regulars in QUEEN. Abramowitz had never met either of the British actors prior to their involvement with HIGHLANDER. "That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship," he recalls. "When I was developing [the Dr. Helm and Col. Montoya] parts, Peter and Valentine were who I was creating them for. I wanted to [cast] people who I knew not only as actors, but as human beings."

There are a number of other HIGHLANDER veterans involved with QUEEN as well. RAVEN star Elizabeth Gracen will be guest-starring in "The Counterfeit Queen," an episode written by HIGHLANDER staffer Gillian Horvath. HIGHLANDER guest Anthony de Longis appears in two QUEEN segments and sword-choreographed six. Directors Dennis Berry, Paolo Barzman, George Mendeluk, Jorge Montesi and Richard Martin are all helming episodes of QUEEN, and HIGHLANDER's line producer Ken Gord is serving in his old capacity here as well. "You hire the people who worked for you in the past and did good jobs," Abramowitz explains simply.

The executive producer is excited about some of his new co-workers as well, especially a number of regular actors cast from both Canada and Spain. "We were lucky to get Anthony Lemke, who plays the bad guy Grisham. He has this wonderful sense of humor. Vera [Elsa Pataky, as a scheming social climber] is beautiful and she has great comic timing. Paulina Galvez [as Tessa's confidante Marta] looks like a gypsy, moves like a gypsy - she's lovely."

Stay Tuned Next Week for Part 2


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