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‘Mob Doctor’ star says filming’s better with L trains overhead

Zach Gilford JordanSpiro set Mob Doc being filmed Chicago Chicago Studio City 5660 W.Taylor. Friday August 17 2012 | Brian

Zach Gilford and Jordana Spiro on the set of Mob Doc, being filmed in Chicago at Chicago Studio City, 5660 W.Taylor. Friday, August 17, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Sun Times

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Updated: October 14, 2012 1:37PM

Jordana Spiro played a Sun-Times sportswriter on “My Boys,” a TBS show set in Chicago but shot mainly in L.A.

Spiro’s latest TV role has her back in town. This time, for real. She plays South Side surgeon Dr. Grace Devlin in Fox’s new drama “The Mob Doctor.”

The cavernous Chicago Studio City on the West Side has been transformed into the fictional Roosevelt Medical Center, where long hallways lead to nurses’ stations, operating rooms and an elaborate ICU.

“It just goes on and on,” Spiro said about the massive set during a marathon day spent shooting the third episode. “In between lighting setups or whatever I’ll take a break, and if I can’t find a chair, I’ll just lie down in a hospital bed. It’s surreal. I’m so afraid I’m going to pee in a prop toilet someday.”

Grace Devlin, as her name not-so-subtly suggests, is a character navigating morality’s gray zone. She thinks she has good reason to do bad things. After her brother got into trouble with the Outfit, she bailed him out by agreeing to moonlight for the mob — patching up gangsters in back rooms, fishing incriminating bullets out of corpses and basically thumbing her nose at the Hippocratic oath.

On this day of filming, her mob job calls for raiding the hospital’s drug cabinet to treat an overly stimulated racehorse. More than a dozen extras dressed in green and blue scrubs mingle in the background as Grace fields the unwanted mob-related phone call at work, prompting her to ditch her doctor boyfriend (Zach Gilford, “Friday Night Lights”) and beg her go-to nurse to help swipe the needed pharmaceuticals.

“Let’s keep the energy up, background,” director Adam Arkin reminds the extras before shouting “Action!” for the scene’s umpteenth take. Arkin is no stranger to Chicago-based medical dramas. He spent six seasons as an actor on “Chicago Hope.”

“The hospital set is really the only soundstage set we have,” Spiro said. “Everything else is authentic. Being able to use real locations — having the L trains pass over you — it just adds so much to what you’re doing.”

Filming “Mob Doctor’s” post-pilot episodes started at the end of July. They’ve shot everywhere from Frankfort to Bannockburn.

A house in Lakeview doubles as Grace’s family’s Bridgeport home. McCormick Place and the old wing at Rush Medical Center make up part of the fictional hospital.

Basing production in Chicago meant Gilford, who grew up in Evanston and graduated from Northwestern, had an excuse to move back from L.A., at least for the time being. He got an apartment in the West Loop with his fiancee, Kiele Sanchez (“The Glades,” “Lost”), from Carol Stream.

Asked whether filming the show has exposed him to unfamiliar parts of his home turf, Gilford replied: “Just Cicero.”

William Forsythe (“Boardwalk Empire”) recently shot a scene on the steps of the same downtown building he’d filmed on nearly two decades ago, the last time he played a gangster in Chicago. Forsythe was Al Capone in the TV series “The Untouchables.” Now, he’s Constantine Alexander, a mob boss with a soft spot for Grace.

“My last scene in ‘The Untouchables,’ they put me in prison,” he said. “My first scene in this, I’m getting out of prison.

“It took 18 years for me to end up working in Chicago again,” added Forsythe, who’s glad to be back. “The other night we were doing a shot with the steelworks in the background and I said, ‘That’s the city with the Big Shoulders.’ The city has a personality you can’t get if you shoot in Vancouver.”

Cameras for “Mob Doctor” also have rolled at a restaurant in Melrose Park as well as the recently shuttered Flame steakhouse, a longtime Countryside icon.

“It felt like Sinatra was going to walk out of the kitchen,” said James Carpinello (“The Good Wife,” “The Closer”).

Carpinello plays Franco, Grace’s mobbed-up old flame who grew up with her on the South Side — and ironically has a dog named Wrigley.

(Cubs jokes are all the rage in fall’s new shows. When a rival doctor suggests to Grace that her ailing patient might stabilize, she shoots back, “And the Cubs could win the World Series.” In Matthew Perry’s sitcom “Go On,” a character mistakes a photo of Wrigley Field for Perry’s late wife. And in the original pilot for NBC’s futuristic, post-apocalyptic drama “Revolution,” an abandoned Wrigley Field sported an old sign labeling it the home of the 2012 World Series champions — a reference that was cut for Monday’s on-air version.)

While “Mob Doctor” is set under a hospital’s bright lights and the underworld’s dark recesses, it’s really the story of an increasingly conflicted protagonist.

“It’s a character-driven show that happens to have elements of mob and hospital,” Carpinello said. “It’s about [Grace] and how she straddles these two worlds. That’s what I think will draw in the viewers, not a spectacular mob hit or a particularly gory surgery.”

“Mob Doctor’s” creators, Josh Berman and Rob Wright, had worked together on Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva,” a show about a recently deceased model whose soul resurfaces in the body of a smart, overweight lawyer.

“In a sense, it’s two women living one life,” Berman said about “Drop Dead Diva.” “I thought, ‘What if we reversed it and it’s one woman living two lives?’ ”

“Mob Doctor” is loosely inspired by the book Il Dottore: The Double Life of a Mafia Doctor. Written by Ron Felber, it’s based on the true story of a thoracic surgeon who did medical favors for East Coast mobsters in the ’70s and ’80s.

Grace Devlin seems to be an antihero like Walter White, the nerdy-chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-king in “Breaking Bad.” But so far, “Mob Doctor” isn’t showing signs of being broadcast television’s answer to cable’s award-winning hit.

The pilot has some decent twists and turns, particularly in the last few minutes, but too many elements of the plot are far-fetched and needlessly soapy. The dramatic tension often feels forced, not natural. And the writing tends to be melodramatic, especially within the confines of the hospital. “This isn’t over,” growls Grace’s nemesis after a showdown in the O.R.

Maybe “Mob Doctor” will shed some of its silliness in future episodes. Fox has guaranteed an initial order of 13.

The show has promise if it can stay focused on what matters: a compelling main character and her journey on a slippery moral slope, which happens to be located in Chicago.

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