The latest incarnation of Nero Wolfe began in March, 2000, when A&E aired a "one-off" - a version of the Wolfe mystery by Rex Stout called The Golden Spiders. "And then it just took off," reports star Timothy Hutton.
"The popularity confounded practically everybody. It was a case of all elements working from the start."
Hutton says the idea to try one of the books came from executive producer Michael Jaffe. "He was a big fan. He thought the thing could work."
Filming started with Hutton cast as sidekick Archie Goodwin and Toronto-based actor Maury Chaykin neatly cast against type as sedentary sleuth Nero Wolfe. The setting was changed to New York in the 1950s (Rex Stout started writing them in 1934 and finished the last one months before his death in 1975).
Hutton says he "had heard" about an aborted pilot Paramount TV made in 1977 with Thayer David as Wolfe and Tom Mason as Archie. Hutton seems surprised when I tell him I was on the set to interview guest star Anne Baxter.
David was so bloated at this time he was padding around in slippers - he died before the pilot got on the air. It was recast with Orson Welles, who could not learn the reams of dialogue and bowed out only to be replaced by William Conrad. It just didn't work. The series ran a quick 13 weeks.
"There are 72 stories, that's what we use," Hutton reports. "The dialogue is taken directly from Stout. It's witty, very smart stuff, pages of it." And Stout knew how to carefully delineate the differences between Archie and Wolfe.
Hutton not only starred in last year's season - he also directed most of the stories. "It can get very difficult some days. The director must always have the long view, know just where the whole thing's going."
Making it less difficult on set are sumptuous gourmet meals, cooked on location by chef Janice Poon.
This year Hutton directs tonight's first new two-parter, Death of a Doxy, then bows out to merely star as Archie, replaced by some pretty good Canadian directors "such as John L'Ecuyer and George Bloomfield."
The supporting cast is composed of both Canadians and some New York imports. Kari Matchett nails two parts (she's funny as a hippy-dippy girlfriend who just wants to go to college) but you'll also spot the likes of Colin Fox and Julian Richings.
Archie provides the agoraphobic Wolfe with much needed legs, he's the one who visits the murder sites, interviews suspects. Hutton insists he's having a ball with a character who's a lot lighter than many of his best remembered movie parts.
Already A&E is talking about another season, which Hutton says is fine by him. "There are a lot more of these books to go." 8 p.m. on A&E.