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Jeremy Piven felt ‘connected’ to Marshall Field exec he plays on ‘Mr. Selfridge’

Jeremy Piven as Harry Selfridge 'Mr. Selfridge' PBS.

Jeremy Piven as Harry Selfridge in "Mr. Selfridge" on PBS.

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Two-hour premiere 8 to 10 p.m. Sunday on WTTW-Channel 11

Updated: March 28, 2013 9:10PM

Even though Chicago doesn’t get many shoutouts in the early episodes of “Mr. Selfridge,” the city plays a major role in the story.

Midwestern native Harry Gordon Selfridge spent 25 years learning the retail ropes at Marshall Field & Co., going from stock boy to corporate big-wig.

“Harry kind of really transformed Marshall Field’s and was handsomely compensated for it,” said another Midwestern native, actor Jeremy Piven, who plays the titular role in the upcoming PBS series. “[He] then asked for his name to be a part of it — Marshall Field’s and Selfridges — and they didn’t want to do that. So he wanted to build a competing store in Chicago and take out Marshall Field’s. He decided he couldn’t do that, so he decided to go as far away as he could. Went over to the U.K. and started this store, Selfridges, and the rest is history.”

That history, along with a fair number of fictional characters, makes up the period drama about an upstart Yank who gave the English their first truly modern department store in 1909.

Co-produced by Britain’s ITV Studios and PBS’ “Masterpiece,” the eight-part series is inspired by Lindy Woodhead’s novel Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge.

When a producer suggested Emmy Award-winning writer Andrew Davies adapt the book for the small screen, it was a hard sell.

“It’s all about shopping,” said Davies, whose credits include the original BBC version of “House of Cards,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “Bleak House.” “I’m a guy. I don’t do shopping.”

The producer convinced Davies there was more to the story.

“I read the book and I was just completely gripped,” he said. “It seemed to me like a kind of tale about the American dream lived out in London.”

In many ways “Mr. Selfridge” is a knockoff of “Downton Abbey,” with the sprawling department store subbing for the countryside estate.

Sumptuously shot and full of period detail, “Mr. Selfridge” is stocked with plenty of upstairs/downstairs drama, often with a little too much attention being lavished on the workers’ personal storylines.

The cast includes Frances O’Connor (“Madame Bovary”) as Selfridge’s Chicago-bred wife, Rose Buckingham (of fountain fame), and Zoe Tapper (“Stage Beauty”) as seductive showgirl Ellen Love, an amalgam of some of the many mistresses the risk-taking Selfridge had during his tumultuous life.

Aisling Loftus (“Case Histories”) is down-on-her-luck shop girl Agnes Towler, a sort of Anna Bates that we’re all meant to root for. In the two-hour premiere, Selfridge generously buys Towler a pair of red leather gloves, reportedly sparking a real-life spike in sales after the show debuted in Britain in January. (It’s been renewed for a second season; Davies said he’d like to have four seasons to tell the whole story.)

Piven chews the scenery as the loud, flamboyant, self-made Selfridge, giving the role a theatrical air that sometimes seems out of place.

“He thought of himself as a performer and the store was his theater,” Piven said.

The three-time Emmy winner said he didn’t plan to go back into TV after eight seasons on HBO’s “Entourage,” but he after reading the script “I was willing my beard to grow because I knew that there was no way I could say no.” And “being on ‘Masterpiece’ is like telling a Jewish mother you’re going to be a doctor.”

Like many Chicagoans, Piven’s mother did much of her shopping at Marshall Field’s.

“It was really cool to talk to my mother — and even having her speak about her mother’s experience — in a place that Harry Selfridge created,” he said. “There would be a person in the elevator that would greet you and be so kind to you, and they had places for kids to play and restaurants. She said it was just this cathedral.

“We have a history with that place,” he added, “so I kind of felt connected to him.”

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