NEW YORK (AP) — The president, impeccable in his blue suit, strides into the Oval Office in fine spirits. He’s got a paper cup of coffee, a bit unpresidential but in keeping with his casual style.
He takes his seat at his impressive desk, facing a camera where he will deliver an address about a foreign-affairs flare-up.
Now looking grave, he is about to begin speaking when he glances at his desktop and sees his coffee cup still sitting there.
“You don’t want THIS,” he chuckles to the man behind the camera, and sets the cup out of camera range.
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Welcome to the Oval Office of Keith Carradine, who plays President Conrad Dalton on the CBS political drama “Madam Secretary,” which returns for its third season Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT, as they film a scene for a future episode not at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but on Stage F at Silvercup Studios East in Queens, New York.
It’s one of many Oval Offices for TV presidents: They are sprinkled from just beyond the Beltway in Baltimore (where Kevin Spacey holds office on Netflix’s “House of Cards” as conniving Francis Underwood) and just beyond the border in Toronto (where Kiefer Sutherland presides on ABC’s new “Designated Survivor”) all the way to Hollywood’s Sunset Gower Studios (where Tony Goldwyn is bad boy President Fitzgerald Grant on ABC’s “Scandal”) and, just a few blocks away, the Paramount lot (home to HBO’s zany “Veep,” with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as addled President Selina Meyer).
Thus does television offer viewers something real-life democracy could never provide: a president for every taste.
Carradine is proud of his Oval Office. No wonder. Since the first Oval Office was installed a century ago for President William Howard Taft, it has reigned as a symbol of the president’s business.
But President Dalton didn’t have an Oval Office the first season of “Madam Secretary.” As a recurring cast member, Carradine performed his presidential duties in scenes located elsewhere (including White House corridors that actually belonged to Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria hotel).
His Oval Office set, introduced for Season 2, is appropriately elegant.
“The desk is a replica of the one that JFK used,” Carradine tells a reporter between shots, “made from the timbers of a famous frigate in the 1850s.”
The 67-year-old Carradine is no stranger to playing real-life American heroes. In the HBO series “Deadwood,” he was Wild Bill Hickok. On Broadway, he portrayed the rope-twirling, wisecracking title character in “Will Rogers Follies.”
But, plopping himself in a wing chair near the Situation Room once the scene is finished, he says he has no president in mind in his depiction of Dalton.
“I’m just looking at the elements that I’m given,” he explains, “and then imagining myself in each situation to find the truth of how this character would behave.
“One of the essentials of good drama is conflict,” he adds, “and on this show you have to understand that our Madam Secretary is the driving force. What makes the show compelling is the obstacles that she has to face and overcome — and one of those obstacles is me!”
But even if President Dalton is a supporting character to Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni), he’s a leader with presidential gravitas thanks to Carradine.
“On the set, I don’t necessarily put that on, as much as I have it put on me,” he insists. “This is a really fun work place for the actors and the crew, with Tea setting the tone and everybody playing make-believe.”
That includes giving their proxy president a show of hail-to-the-chief respect.
“It adds immeasurably to my sense of who I am as this character,” Carradine says.
Meanwhile, he keeps his distance from his fellow pseudo presidents.
“There are a lot of us out there, and I don’t seem to have the time to catch what everybody else is doing,” he says. “But I do think it would be fun to have all of us engaging in a presidential debate.”
He grins at the thought.
“But maybe it’s best to leave well enough alone and stay in my own universe. My own Oval Office.”
A previous version of this story made an erroneous reference to “Madam Secretary” as “Madam President.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore