A CIA alum plants Chicago clues on ‘The Americans’

Written By By LORI RACKL TV Critic Posted: 02/26/2014, 02:22am
Array Joe Weisberg. | Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The CIA keeps a close eye on Joe Weisberg.

The Chicago native is the creator and co-showrunner of the Cold War spy drama “The Americans,” returning for a second season at 9 p.m. Wednesday on FX.

He’s also a former member of the Central Intelligence Agency, where Weisberg trained in the early ’90s to become a case officer. Job description: travel abroad to recruit spies for the U.S. government.

“I signed a secrecy agreement when I joined, and while I’m able to discuss quite a bit about the CIA, there are some things they’re very sensitive about,” said Weisberg, who lost his passion for the cause and left the agency in 1994 shortly before his first foreign posting. “Anything I write about intelligence for the rest of my life has to be submitted to them — that includes any script of the show.”

The tension-filled series stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, seemingly all-American parents raising two kids in suburban Washington, D.C. Secretly they’re Soviet sleeper agents doing Mother Russia’s bidding.

Elizabeth’s cover story has her hailing from Chicago, a hat tip to Weisberg’s hometown. (He now lives with his wife and daughter in New York City, where “The Americans” is filmed.)

Weisberg grew up in a liberal Jewish home in Lake View, close enough to Wrigley Field to hear from his bedroom window when someone hit a home run. His mother, Lois Weisberg, served as the city’s longtime culture czar under Mayor Richard M. Daley. Her wide-reaching web of influence led author Malcolm Gladwell to famously dub her a “connector” in his 2000 best-selling book “The Tipping Point.” Weisberg’s father, Bernard, worked as a civil rights lawyer before becoming a federal magistrate. He passed away around the time Joe bailed on the CIA.

So what exactly drove the Francis Parker graduate into the arms of the CIA in the first place?

“My brother’s version of this story is that it was pure rebellion,” said Weisberg, one of four children. “I’m sure there’s some truth to that. Part of it was I studied Soviet history in college [at Yale]. I wanted to be actively involved and fight totalitarianism. Part of me just wanted to be a spy.”

Weisberg read a lot of spy novels as a kid. As an adult, he wrote one (“An Ordinary Spy”). He also worked on the first two seasons of TNT’s “Falling Skies.” In 2010, he got a call from DreamWorks. Several Russian sleeper agents living undercover in the United States had recently been arrested and studio executives wanted Weisberg to develop a TV show based on that. Weisberg didn’t see the excitement in it — until he had the idea of setting the series back in the days of the Cold War, when the Soviets seemed like a much bigger threat.

It’s January 1982 when season two of “The Americans” picks up. U.S.-Soviet relations are frosty at best. The Soviets are increasingly nervous about our country’s embrace of stealth technology. Elizabeth and Philip’s arranged marriage is stronger. But their 14-year-old daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), is growing more suspicious about Mom spending so much time in the laundry room. Elizabeth hides out there, cracking code or plotting her next disguise — something Weisberg tried once at the CIA.

“I went to the cafeteria at headquarters and sat down with all my classmates who I’d been training with for eight months,” he said, adding that his rudimentary camouflage wasn’t very good. “None of them had any idea who I was. It was a real lesson how effective disguise is.”

Elizabeth and Philip ostensibly run a travel agency in “The Americans.” A Chicago poster hangs on the wall — another shoutout to Weisberg’s old stomping ground. He wrote a scene that showed Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan playing college basketball on television, but it ended up getting cut.

“I always like to mention Chicago,” Weisberg said. “I miss it all the time. I see stuff that’s filmed there — the lakefront, the buildings, the neighborhoods. I get jealous.”

Email: lrackl@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lorirackl

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