It may be filmed mostly in Georgia, but there are reasons the lighthearted drama series "Necessary Roughness," premiering Wednesday at 10 p.m. on USA, takes place on Long Island -- and not just because its real-life inspiration, sports hypnotherapist Donna Dannenfelser, made her career here, working with the New York Jets. As star Callie Thorne puts it, the psychotherapist is "definitely Long Island. She has that incredible, gorgeous energy of Long Island, that tough but gorgeous energy, and that's got to be in the show as well."
Which begs the question: Why not shoot on Long Island? "Fortunately or unfortunately, Georgia is giving tax credits," says the real-life Dannenfelser, whom Thorne portrays as Dr. Danielle "Dani" Santino. Most of the aerial shots were filmed here, says Kevin Dowling, an executive producer and director of the pilot episode, who assures that he'd have filmed here if he could have. Aside from anything else, the suburban-Philadelphia native spent youthful summers in Sea Cliff and had a weekend home in Amagansett during the 20 years he lived in New York City. "But it became clear that for financial and other reasons," he says, "that we were to shoot in Atlanta," at the EUE / Screen Gems Studio Complex.
"Necessary Roughness," no relation to the 1991 college football film, follows a fictionalized Dannenfelser as in-house therapist for the New York Hawks football team. It takes place in an alternate-world pro league since, as Dannenfelser notes, "You can't use the word 'NFL' " without paying dearly for the rights and obtaining a host of approvals. Nor, she says, does the show take directly from her life. Unlike the character, she's not divorced (through she was separated for two years before reconciling with her husband of now 34 years), and she has three kids instead of two. She also stresses she in no way slept with anyone to get the real-life job.
The show also doesn't say where on Long Island the character lives. Dannenfelser, who is "in my 50s," was born in New Jersey but reared in Commack, then lived in Dix Hills and East Northport before moving to Los Angeles five years ago. She attended Dowling College and got her master's degree and EdD in psychology from Hofstra University. She later became the mental-health clinician for the Jets, she says, declining to give specifics for confidentiality reasons, and went on to treat pro athletes in a variety of fields.
The seed of "Necessary Roughness" sprouted on a trip Dannenfelser made to L.A. to visit her brother, Joe Sabatino, an actor who's played a million cops on TV, including Officer Mackey on several episodes of "NYPD Blue." "I went with him to the set of a show," Dannenfelser says, "and the director, making conversation, asked what I did for a living." When she told him, "He said, 'Wow, there's a TV show!' And I told my brother this and he said, 'Donna, everybody thinks their life is a TV show.' "
A long trip to a show
Regardless, the siblings spent seven years pitching the idea. "It started out as a half-hour comedy," she says, "then a one-hour drama, and then a roller-coaster ride until we ran into Kevin Dowling."
Or, more precisely, Dowling's wife, former "60 Minutes" associate producer Marley Klaus. She was hunting for an apartment for her parents, and Sabatino, in his other job as a real-estate agent, was helping her. As director-producer Dowling recalls, "I had directed him several times, and he said to her, 'Wait, I know your husband. Do you think he'd be interested in a movie about my sister's life?' "
Dowling was. Another husband and wife, Liz Kruger and Craig Shapiro, created the show.
Thorne, who's simultaneously starring in the final season of FX's "Rescue Me," premiering July 13, spent a long lunch with Dannenfelser after being cast. "I was nervous," says the actress, "since that's no joke, going to meet the woman you're quote-unquote playing. She was waiting for me on the corner and . . . her aura just immediately relaxed me. She came to shake my hand and I threw my arms around her. . . . We got along like a house afire immediately."
Whether the show and viewers will do likewise is up in the air. But just as with football, where it's said that any team can beat any other team on any given Sunday, all involved are hoping for a win on any given Wednesday.
Shooting on home turf
Atlanta's Georgia Dome stands in for the New York Hawks' Empire Dome. Otherwise, "when it came time for the aerial shots," says Kevin Dowling, an executive producer for "Necessary Roughness," "I knew we'd have to shoot on Long Island. It's unique -- the relationship between land and water, the look of autumn there."
He hired the renowned Al Cerullo, whose Syosset-based company, Hover-Views Unlimited, has shot New York City and environs for movies from "Saturday Night Fever" to "Superman Returns." Last fall, Dowling says, "We shot over Sea Cliff and Manhasset and the Five Towns, along Long Beach on the South Shore, and mid-island near Hempstead. I asked him to stay west of Hicksville."
The prize shots, Dowling says, are those of stadiums. "Since he was flying on a Saturday, there were college football games," allowing for aerial crowd scenes, "and he also found a bunch that were empty," for practice-day establishing shots. "A few were college stadiums, but a few were very substantial high school fields." Look close, and you may see your town's.