So You Want To Play a CFO on TV?

How does an actor prepare to play a CFO on TV? Michael Boatman of "Arliss" explains it all for you.

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Ask Michael Boatman about the unexpected termination of his last CFO gig, and he’ll issue some familiar reflections: “I was surprised… I was disappointed,” he admits. Then he quickly adds that he’s proud of the work he did, and that it was a great learning experience.

Likely story: A former finance chief issues a bit of saccharin spin after getting canned.

Only Boatman is no CFO; he just played one on TV. As Stanley Babson on the HBO comedy “Arliss,” Boatman played the finance chief of Arliss Michaels Management, a sports agency owned by the show’s eponymous wheeler-dealer agent.

Incidentally, Boatman is no stranger to spin, and not just because he works in Hollywood, the ultimate spin city. At the same time that he was working on “Arliss,” he was also starring in ABC’s “Spin City” as Carter, the New York City mayor’s assistant in charge of minority affairs.

“Arliss” was cancelled last fall after seven seasons. Arliss’s CFO — like the real-life versions — immediately began pursuing other opportunities. In January, he appeared on ABC’s “Celebrity Mole Hawaii,” a reality-based show in which players compete in events as they attempt to identify the “mole” among them who is sabotaging the games. In case you were out that month, he wasn’t the mole.

Currently, Boatman is rehearsing “Master Harold…and the boys,” Athol Fugard’s play about apartheid-era South Africa, opening to the public in May in New York City. After a day of rehearsal with co-star Danny Glover, Boatman talked to CFO.com about playing TV’s only sitcom chief financial officer. In between takes, he also offered up his views on the disturbing parallels between Hollywood and corporate America, and the secret to happiness.

How did you first approach the role of Stanley Babson? What did you bring to the audition?

Stanley wasn’t very fleshed out [as a character] at the time. His job as finance chief was in place, but his role in the show wasn’t set at the time. So I just went in and thought it would be fun. It was certainly the most conservative character I’d ever played. He was described in the pilot as an “arch Republican,” which I found funny, an interesting diversion from my artsy-fartsy, bohemian beliefs. I just remember thinking, “Oh, this would be fun.”

Were there any real-life models?

He’s in part based on my godfather, who was a CPA in Illinois. I remember thinking, “Oh, he’s like my Uncle Melvin!” He’s very straight-laced. Everything that I interpreted for Stanley Babson is pulled from years of knowing my godfather. His posture was always very erect, every word he said was particularly chosen. Not a man of many words, but he could certainly wax philosophical — about money, always.

He had these great gold-rimmed granny glasses that I thought about using at one point. Just the carriage –he was the CPA, in almost a stereotypical fashion, the type that people expect when they go into an accountant’s office. I know quite a few CPAs who of course don’t fit that bill, but my godfather did.

How did you develop the character as the show went on?

As I got more comfortable playing the role I also got more comfortable experimenting and finding ways to avoid stereotypes. I always thought there must be something strange and freaky underneath the Brooks Brothers exterior. Every once in a while when we’d see Stanley in his apartment, they’d give me a leopard-print robe. And I always loved that idea, because I think that must be close to the truth about people who are so incredibly rigid and particular about everything, as Stanley was. Underneath there’s a real yen for chaos. I always tried to play him as a seething morass of emotions just barely contained by this placid, avuncular exterior.

The show was on during the late-1990s new Economy boom, when executives started getting more charismatic, more casual, a little hipper. But through it all, Stanley always remained the buttoned-down finance type.

That’s how I always played him. I found all that other stuff that was happening in the world — I imagined Stanley having contempt for that stuff. He’s old school, and he didn’t have respect for these new young guys with the wind-swept hair and all that stuff.

What about scandals? In the right situation, could you picture Stanley engaging in illegal business practices?

Stanley was described in the pilot as “He’s not a crook but he’s slightly larcenous.” And I loved that. It’s like, yeah, he’s not a bad guy, but he can be the master of his own little fictions as well. Stanley pushed the envelope a lot, but he never punctured it.

Did the big corporate scandals like Enron influence the writing of the show at all?

That happened so close to the end of the series that it didn’t really filter in, but I think the mentality filtered in. This isn’t the first time corporate scandals have happened, so there was always an awareness of the idea of corruption, but it didn’t directly affect the scripts.

Describe Stanley’s relationship with his boss, Arliss Michaels.

Part of the tension between Stanley and Arliss is that Stanley believes that he should be the CEO of his own company. There were episodes where Stanley threatened to quit; he was always looking for ways he could move on from AMM. There was lots of eye-rolling in his character; he really believed he was the smartest guy in the room.

At the same time, he was committed, because of his old-school values, to his boss and serving the company — purely through arrogance and his own ego. Since he’s involved with it, he’s got to be the best at it.

But at the same time, there were many episodes where he tried to screw Arliss. But because everyone in the show was sort of a loser in their personal lives, they all came back together at the end of the episode, because they were the only people who could tolerate each other.

How does Arliss see Stanley?

Arliss always thought of Stanley as merely a functionary, someone to forward the financial goals, but not much more than that. He did see him as a team player, but Arliss himself is so self-centered that he dare not actually call him a friend. The characters were all friends but they could never really admit it to each other. In that spirit, I think Arliss saw Stanley as another Arliss Michaels drone, someone to go out and bring back information — or cash.

Your role in “Spin City” is not totally unrelated to CFOs, either. CFOs regularly have to face investors, analysts, and the press and talk about the business in a positive light.

It’s true. I heard great news about the economy last night — it wasn’t great news but they spun it so it sounded like great news. They talked about the unemployment figures, and how all these people lost their jobs. But guess what? Consumer confidence is up! And I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, you just said 420,000 people lost their jobs last month.”

Was there a “spin” aspect to Stanley’s job as well?

We were constantly selling, I was constantly trying to convince some guy to come into the firm — you know, if you come here I can make sure you make so many thousand dollars a year, we’ll get you some good investments. But you have to sign first. Which I don’t think a real CFO would ever do.

Well, real CFOs might not be selling on the front lines like that, but there is a certain amount of salesmanship involved.

I think that’s the larcenous quality that I mentioned earlier. There was always a pitch, always an aspect of the sell. We were always razzle-dazzling some prospective client with names and figures, the whole dog-and-pony show.

HBO is playing reruns of “Arliss” on Friday nights now. In corporate-speak, that would be “staying on in an advisory capacity.”

“Advisory capacity” — please. We have the same thing in Hollywood. “Oh, there were creative differences.” Come on, someone got fired, who are we kidding? And they “vow to work together again” – that’s another one I love. God!

It’s reflective of the fact that Hollywood has become another corporate entity. I tell people all the time, I feel like I work in a corporate environment, just like any CFO. It’s just the entertainment arm.

Did you learn anything about finance or numbers from doing the show?

I learned how powerful numbers are. I learned how — no matter what anyone says — how emotionally bound up we are in them. In some ways, it’s all about numbers, really. It’s like, we all think that numbers, if they’re arranged in the right fashion, equal happiness.

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