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Jill Hennessy – Crossing Jill

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

CROSSING JORDAN -- NBC Series -- Pictured: Jill Hennessy as Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh -- NBC Photo: Chris Haston

CROSSING JORDAN — NBC Series — Pictured: Jill Hennessy as Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh — NBC Photo: Chris Haston

Jill Hennessy

crossing Jill

by Jay S. Jacobs

When the 2003 television season started, fans of the popular forensic drama Crossing Jordan were surprised to find the show was not on NBC’s schedule.  Many asked if the show been canceled.  How could that be?  The show had strong ratings and a passionate following.  Where was Crossing Jordan?

They needn’t have worried.  NBC hadn’t given up on the series, which stars Jill Hennessy as Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh, a beautiful-but-neurotic Boston Medical Examiner.  (Picture Quincy M.E. if Jack Klugman were a young, attractive, but totally screwed-up woman.)  In fact, the network gave the show an extraordinary vote of confidence.  Hennessy had been playing the role for two seasons; it was her return to series television after spending four seasons on Law & Order as Assistant District Attorney Claire Kincaid.  Towards the end of the last season, the actress became pregnant.  During the time the show would normally be filming the new season’s episodes, Hennessy would be getting ready to give birth.  NBC and the series’ producers went out of their way to make sure that the star and the show were accommodated.

“I discussed it with them, and they were wonderful about it,” Hennessy explains. “But, you know, there’s always the concern.  I know I’m putting a wrench in the machinery here.  Being the lead of a one-hour drama is probably the most rigorous schedule you can have in the entertainment business.  You’re working consistent twelve to eighteen hour days.  Five days a week, plus doing publicity on the weekends.  So, number one, how do you balance having a child with that kind of schedule?  For yourself, but also for the people working on the show.  They immediately came up with a great plan.  They decided right up front to finish our season.  We shot our regular season last year, season two.  What was great was [NBC President] Jeff Zucker decided, hey, let’s shoot the first six episodes of season three right after season two.  Jeff announced at that point that we’d be back by January because of my pregnancy.  It was wonderful to be where I could have that leeway and where people had that kind of generosity of spirit and respect for the whole process of motherhood.  But, it’s really nice to be back, I have to say.  You get away from these people for a while and you realize how much of a family you really are.”

So the show returned to the air a little late, in March of 2004.  When it did, the always popular series overcame a deadly timeslot (Sunday at 10:00 p.m., which had already killed Rob Lowe’s The Lyon’s Den and the critical favorite Boomtown that season.) to become even more of a breakout success in its third season.  New episodes were shown twice a week (bonus episodes ran on Friday night) and the condensed season was an unqualified success.

Well, in this CSI-obsessed world where crime is put under the microscope (figuratively and literally) and scrutinized to the tiniest nano-particle, the world has become DNA-mad.  However, unlike the cold and somewhat sterile investigators of the CSI franchise, the doctors, cops and scientists of Crossing Jordan are messy, passionate and often rather funny.  This is a real plan that the writers and producers came up with.  They recognized that the show had gotten a little too serious in the first two seasons as well.

The cast of Crossing Jordan

The cast of Crossing Jordan

“You’re going to be seeing a lot more of that, which is so nice to do.  It’s always good to balance the heavy drama with some levity.  That’s one thing I missed, too, as an actor, is playing the comedic aspects of this character.  That’s one of the things I love about Jordan, that you’ve got this really intense side which is juxtaposed with this kind of zany, a little over-the-edge type personality.  She takes herself seriously, and then she can flip and not take herself seriously at all.  You’re going to be seeing a lot of that.  I think we’ll be dwelling a lot less on her personal trauma with her relationship with her father and mother, and getting a little more involved in, you know, some very recognizable cases.”

After all, Hennessy has never been one to take herself too seriously, why should her character?  Well over a decade into her acting career, she still considers herself a frustrated musician.  In her early New York days, she’d open her guitar case and stand on a corner, playing for tips and tourists.

“I loved playing guitar on the streets,” Hennessy laughs.  “That was one of the best jobs I ever had.  Would I be content to do that…?  Well, it would be hard to support a child.  Let’s put it that way.  I tell you, I loved doing it.  Even when I was on this break, I ended up finding a little open-mike club, and singing there once a week.  It was one of my favorite things to do.  It’s always been a toss-up between acting and singing.  I really miss singing.  Doing this job, too, it sort of takes you away from being able to find any kind of open-mike setting at all.”

Her first major acting gig was a role on an Off-Broadway musical version of The Buddy Holly Story.  “I ran with it for nine months.  That was great for me.  But I ended up getting a film after nine months, so I left the show… What’s funny is, I love musical theater.  I wish I could sing musical theater a lot better than I do.  I’m much more comfortable with a guitar protecting me.  Believe me, I hear these musical theater singers and actors, who are just so talented.   Triple threats; they dance, they act, they sing beautifully.  I don’t know whether I just don’t have the confidence in myself to belt out a Broadway tune.  But, I tell you, give me a Bob Dylan or a Tracy Chapman song and I will do that with gusto and love.  It’s just such a different style of singing.”

The movie that she left the show for was David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.  After that, she made movies like Robocop III and The Paper and also guested several times on the syndicated series Friday the 13th, The War of the Worlds and The Hitchhiker.  Everything really exploded though, when she was cast as Assistant District Attorney Claire Kincaid on the long-running crime drama Law & Order.  She spent four seasons on the show,as  arguably the most popular ADA in a series that has also hired Angie Harmon, Carey Lowell, Richard Brooks and Elisabeth Rohm in the same position.

When she decided to leave the show, the producers made it very final.  The program, which has a long history of having characters retire or be transferred or just fade into the background, reserved a particularly grisly fate for Kincaid.  She was killed when a drunk driver plowed into the car she was riding in with Det. Lenny Briscoe (Jerry Orbach).  She did several movies after leaving the series, including I Shot Andy Warhol, A Smile Like Yours and Autumn in New York.  Then TV came calling again.

There was a new series being developed about the complicated life of a female coroner in Boston.  However, Hennessy was not worried that she’d have to carry the series.  In fact, she always has seen Crossing Jordan as an ensemble effort.

“When I first joined the project, it wasn’t even called Crossing Jordan.  It was called The Tim Kring Project.  There was such a strong ensemble with this show.  All of the other actors were so wonderful.  Kathryn Hahn, Steve Valentine, Ravi Kapoor, Miguel Ferrer and Ken Howard.  When you’re surrounded by such great actors, I could fade into the woodwork and things would go beautifully, because these people are so great to watch.  So I wasn’t really worried about that.  If anything, I’m surprised that I ended up doing so well that they ended up calling it Crossing Jordan.  Which was great, I was like, hey, thank you so much.  I get to play with people that I really respect everyday, and have a good time.   And people are liking this.”

So as the show gets ready to return for a fourth season, to what does Hennessy attribute its surprising popularity?  “I guess I can only speak for myself and what I like about it,” Hennessy says.  “I’d have to say that crime drama is always fascinating, but when you combine that with characters who are very colorful, and yet easy to relate to, who don’t take themselves too seriously and who are very distinctive, you get a very compelling finished product.  I think that’s what I have to credit our writers with here.  They’re doing even more this year, the cases that we’re working on are much more recognizable.  I think the audience will come to the table with very strong feelings at the forefront, as soon as they recognize what these cases are.  It’ll make for much more compelling drama.  Having that coupled with characters that they know so well and who are so specific and distinctive, I know that for me it’s so much fun to work on a show that has all those elements.  Because, I’m moved by what I’m doing, and I also love the people that I work with.

“I know it was something that NBC was really interested in doing for a while.  So were we, actually.  I know the producers were playing with how much leeway we have with really dealing with the characters and the quirkiness of the characters?  And balancing that with the hardcore procedural plotlines.  I like to think that one of the things that makes our show stand out is the fact that we do have such involving, easy-to-relate-to cases, as well as characters that are always interesting.  That always have such distinctive voices.  [They] really aren’t cookie cutter.  Each actor contributes so much that is so particular to themselves.  As opposed to having a whole bunch of actors who basically could interchange their dialogue and nobody would even notice.  So I was very happy to see that we were becoming more procedural and that the added police element to it sort of legitimizes what’s happening.  It legitimizes the efforts to investigate a case.  There are certain arenas where medical examiners cannot go.  It wouldn’t be too realistic to have Jordan jumping into all kinds of situations where she wouldn’t be allowed to enter.  So, the cop element really brings a lot of validity to the investigation aspect.”

The cast of Crossing Jordan

The cast of Crossing Jordan

One nice thing for Hennessy is that in Crossing Jordan, she can also tap into her musical talents.  The producers have in the past set up a few opportunities for Jordan to sing in her father’s club.  This led to a respected soundtrack album, which Hennessy was excited to be a part of.  On it, she sang versions of Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and Tom Waits’ “Innocent When You Dream.”

“They submitted a few songs to me to look at,” Hennessy says.  “The ones that just hit me the most were Tom Waits and the Bob Dylan, because, that’s sort of what I was raised with.  Living in New York for so long, too, I’m a huge fan of Tom Waits.  I just think Dylan is one of the Gods of our time, to be honest.  So that’s the issue of how it comes about.  We all try to work together and come up with something that moves us the most.

“That was thrilling.  That was just great to work with people like T-Bone Burnett and Craig Street, who worked with Norah Jones.  The end product was phenomenal.  I don’t know if you heard about it, but Alison Krauss was on it, Lucinda Williams, oh gosh, Cassandra Wilson…  It was just a brilliantly done album.  We were really well reviewed, which was the biggest thrill for me.  So, I’d love to see us delve more into the music side of things, especially with, as you said, different storylines where Jordan has to go undercover in an open-mike club.  To find out what really happened…”

Now that she had to spend some time away from the show for maternity leave (she had a boy, whom she and her restaurateur husband named Marco), she just relishes the opportunity to work even more.  “I guess I really appreciate that I can have a job and have a child at the same time,” she says.  “Everything just feels a lot richer now.  Let’s put it that way.  I can go to work with people I love, be a creative individual, and see this beautiful human being who smiles every time they see me.  It’s so wonderful to be able to incorporate both into my life.”

It was very gratifying to know that people missed the show while it was off the air.  “What’s funny is, especially when I was pregnant, walking the streets of New York, I got very interesting comments,” Hennessy recalls.  “I kept saying, we’re coming back, we’re coming back.  And then there were a lot of people who would say… I guess they hadn’t realized that Catherine Zeta-Jones had had her baby, they would just stop me and say ‘Catherine Zeta-Jones!  Oh, say hi to Michael for me!’  I said, oh thank you very much, but actually I’m not Catherine Zeta-Jones.  I think the whole pregnancy issue confused a lot of people on the streets.  Long dark hair and pregnant?  You know, it gets confusing.

“Actually, there were a lot of people who did seem a little bit upset.  I kept trying to reassure them, telling them the show will be back soon.  It was very flattering to meet so many people on the street.  It was also the first time I had a chance to really talk to people on the street.  When you’re working on a series, you don’t get out that much.  So during this maternity break, I was able to meet all kinds of people.  It was really nice to see how many people are so involved in the show and couldn’t wait for it to come back.  I would get about I’d say on average eight people stopping me a day, asking when the show was coming back, where the plot lines are going, what’s Jordan going to be doing?  It really gave me a lot of inspiration.  It made me feel pretty darned good.”

Copyright ©2004  All rights reserved.  Posted: February 27, 2004.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2004 Chris Haston.  Courtesy of NBC Broadcasting, Inc.  All rights reserved.

#2 © 2004 Paul Drinkwater.  Courtesy of NBC Broadcasting, Inc.  All rights reserved.

#3 © 2004 Chris Haston.  Courtesy of NBC Broadcasting, Inc.  All rights reserved.

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