There's one good thing about paranoia: It never gets old. A&E's four-hour miniseries Coma, based on the 1977 best-selling novel by Robin Cook and the hit 1978 movie, stars Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) as a medical intern who joins a legendary Atlanta hospital and discovers something very sinister going on. It seems an abnormally high number of patients at Peachtree Memorial are falling into comas during routine procedures like cyst removal and knee surgery. Creepier still, their bodies are being sent to a futuristic, ultra-private rest home known as the Jefferson Institute, where they are stored in pristine dignity. What the hell?
"We're retelling Coma in a way that's more chilling and relevant than it was 35 years ago," says Mikael Salomon (Band of Brothers), who directed the miniseries and exec produced it with Ridley Scott and the late Tony Scott. "We're now in a world of stem-cell research and black-market organs, things that weren't imaginable back when the novel and the movie were all the rage. Now people feel a great sense of alienation and isolation when they go to the hospital, as if they're on some sort of assembly line in a factory. And Coma is their most hellish nightmare."
For Ambrose, though, it was pure heaven. "Getting into the horror-thriller genre is a real departure for me," says the actress, best known for playing neurotic, sensitive types with emotional baggage. "I'm finally getting my chance to be Denzel Washington. I'm the chick on a mission!"
Her character, Susan Wheeler, comes from wealth and privilege. In fact, her late grandfather was a groundbreaking surgeon at Peachtree — but she's certainly no snob. "Susan is compassionate, down-to-earth, the real deal," says Ambrose. "She quickly senses there's a conspiracy afoot and has the tenacity to investigate. She's determined to get into the Jefferson Institute. Nothing will stop her."
But the villains sure try. Coma boasts a starry supporting cast, including Emmy winner James Woods and Oscar winners Geena Davis, Ellen Burstyn and Richard Dreyfuss, who play various doctors and administrators associated with Peachtree and Jefferson. Half the fun is trying to figure out who's good, who's bad and who's worse. We're even suspicious of Susan's supervisor and romantic interest, Dr. Mark Bellows (Rescue Me's Steven Pasquale), who appears to be on the up-and-up until it's discovered he's trying to get on the ethics committee by bedding Davis' character, Dr. Lindquist, the cutthroat head of psychiatry.
"After seven seasons playing the dumbass fireman, I was so ready to play the smart surgeon guy," says Pasquale, who grew up with a crush on Davis. "I was born and bred on A League of Their Own, Beetlejuice and other Geena classics, and then suddenly here I am making love to her in Coma! How the hell did this happen? Working with her was dreamy."
Likewise, Ambrose got the chance to go toe-to-toe with her idol Burstyn, who plays Mrs. Emerson, the big-haired biddy who runs the Jefferson Institute. "Ellen is such a hero of mine," gushes Ambrose. "I was in awe of the whole crazy cast. Steven and I are New York theater actors. We're like, 'How did you and I ever get hired for this? Did someone make a mistake?'"
Even the vets were wowed by each other. Dreyfuss, seen as Professor Hillside, an old crony of Susan's grandfather, jumped at the chance to costar with Woods, who plays hospital chief of staff Theodore Clark, only to find out their characters never meet in the script.
"Jimmy and I have been friends for centuries, yet we've never acted together," says Dreyfuss, who threw his weight around, pronto. "I spoke with Mikael Salomon and said, 'You've got me and Woods together in the same project and you're not going to give us a scene together? Whaddya, nuts?'" Coma's screenwriter, John J. McLaughlin (Black Swan), quickly complied. "And it turned out to be one of the best scenes in the movie," admits Salomon.
Though not as spooky-gothic and special-effects-heavy as the 2012 edition, the original Coma, starring Genevieve Bujold and Michael Douglas, still packed a wallop with moviegoers in the post-Nixon '70s, as did a slew of other high-profile conspiracy flicks (The Conversation, Chinatown, All the President's Men). "Paranoia was big back then, but we still had faith — or tried really hard to have faith — in our political and social institutions," Dreyfuss says. "That's no longer the case. People will sit down to watch this Coma half-believing it already."
It's hard not to. "Just last month there was a New York Times front-page story on the [Bain Capital co-owned] hospital chain HCA that's accused of conducting unnecessary procedures to make a profit," notes Pasquale. "We no longer need monsters and ax murderers to scare the hell out of us. Just go to the hospital!"
Coma airs Monday at 9/8c on A&E.