For most people, the day they find out they’re going to die is the worst day of their life. But David Conrad’s reaction was one of bemusement.
After three seasons playing Jim Clancy on Ghost Whisperer, the CBS supernatural series about a woman who talks to ghosts, the writers sat down with Conrad and told him that his character was going to die in Season 4. In a shocking episode, Jim is fatally shot, leaving his psychic wife Melinda (Jennifer Love Hewitt) to help his spirit cross over to the other side.
“The head writer said, ‘Hey, we really need to have a meeting.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, boy. Here it comes,'” Conrad remembers. “It was funny, actually – he was like, ‘We’re going to kill you off, but… you’re still on the show.'”
One of the perks of starring on a supernatural-themed show is that a character’s death doesn’t necessarily mean the actor should start looking for work. In this case, Jim refuses to go into the light; instead, he enters the body of another recently-deceased man, who wakes up with no memory of his past life. While other characters can only see the other man, when Melinda looks at him, she – and the viewers – see Jim, meaning Conrad gets to keep his day job.
But not everyone reacted to Jim’s death and rebirth as well as Conrad did. When news of the storyline first leaked last September, fans immediately took to the Internet to voice their intense displeasure, with most threatening to stop watching the show altogether. Even as the plot unfolded throughout the season, viewers continued to express anger towards.
“The new story line is a flop. I think Melinda and Jim need to be together to make the show work, not with this crazy thing of Jim’s spirit in someone else,” one viewer posted on a Dose.ca forum. “I always looked forward to watching on Fridays, if they don’t bring Jim back (in the flesh), I will find another show to watch.”
Added another: “The writers of this plot twist should be FIRED! …This all better be a dream or something! If this plot isn’t done and over by the first epi of the next season, I am done with the show!”
Yet, surprisingly, Ghost Whisperer’s ratings have gone up. So far, the fourth season is averaging 10.5 million US viewers, up from 9.3 million last year; its Feb. 28 episode earned 11.54 million viewers, putting it in the No. 15 spot in the Nielsen ratings and beating out hit shows like Lost and The Amazing Race. Not bad for a Friday-night show whose fans keep threatening to revolt.
“I think they’re angry in the sense of, ‘This chicken’s terrible! And it comes in such small portions!'” says Conrad. “They’re pissed about something but only while they’re watching it. I think the writers irked people just right – and they did it in few enough episodes that viewers followed it to get what they wanted.”
The 40-year-old actor isn’t phased by any of the negative fan reaction, focusing instead on the new challenges brought on by the story line.
“The thing that was most interesting about it, to me, was what it gave us the opportunity to do. If I lost my memory completely about Melinda, there was the idea that they could start flirting again and courting each other,” he explains. “It was weird – when you’ve worked with someone day in and day out for a few years, it’s neat to suddenly play a scene where we don’t know each other. Playing a supportive husband and wife translates into Jennifer and I watching each others’ backs on the set. To be in a scenario where you’re not supposed to be doing that is a little awkward; a little strange. It felt sort of alien, but kind of cool.”
That attitude is exactly how Conrad approached acting in the first place. The Pittsburgh native never intended to become an actor but fell into the industry almost by accident.
“In college, I just auditioned for something out of the blue and I got the role, so I ended up falling into doing theatre in college even though I didn’t major in it,” he recalls. “It was literally, like, I walked in the door, ‘Hey, I’ve never done this before; let’s try this.’ They gave me the part and the rest was just staying in a place where somebody wanted you. That was really it. It wasn’t like, ‘I want to be an actor!’ It was just, ‘Hey, they like me.'”
Conrad continued his stage career, starring in several Shakespeare productions and various Tom Stoppard plays, before landing a lead role on the ABC drama Relativity. The show only lasted one season, but the exposure helped Conrad secure appearances on shows like Boston Public and Miss Match before finally landing his most well-known role as Jim on Ghost Whisperer in 2005. But despite his fame on the small screen, Conrad returns to the stage whenever he can.
“Almost all filmmaking is so controlled by economic forces or just the simple nature of the media. All the machines, lights, all of the cameras, have to be lugged around; it breaks up the process by which you make a performance. The scripts are rewritten by 20 people – after a while, by the nature of the way the economics are set up, I think it kind of dumbs it down,” he says. “In theatre, you walk out on the stage and it’s just you. A couple of people tell you what to do, they put lights on you, and you just do it for two or three hours. There’s something great about that. It’s simple, liberating. I have to say that I prefer that kind of freedom.”
Unsurprisingly, however, Conrad is most frequently recognized for Ghost Whisperer – now more than ever.
“I get stopped in airports all the time. People had said things to me before, but this was a little funny,” he says, laughing. “Most of them are like, ‘Whee! We like this!’ or ‘You’ve gotta get back to her!'”
But for Conrad, whatever the fan response, he’s just happy to see Ghost Whisperer doing so well after four years on the air.
“It’s been a good season for us. Not too many series have a jump in their fourth year. It’s rare,” he says. “After four years, you’re tired; the crew’s tired. And then, to say, ‘Wow, we’re No. 15 for the week,’ that’s a great thing. It’s like, OK, cool. We can keep doing this.