Ellen Gray: 'Justified' returns

Two bad guys added to the plot


* JUSTIFIED. 10 tonight, FX.


PASADENA, Calif. - You don't replace Mags Bennett with just anyone.

As FX's "Justified" returns tonight for its third season, the backwoods Machiavelli who won Margo Martindale an Emmy is, sadly, gone for good - but far from forgotten - and U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is facing a whole new set of challenges.

Including two bad guys played by actors from executive producer Graham Yost's former critical darling, "Boomtown," Neal McDonough - who suits up to play a dapper Detroit gangster - and Mykelti Williamson, a local operative with his own not entirely clear agenda.

"You know, I was joking that if Donnie [Wahlberg] wasn't doing so well on 'Blue Bloods,' we'd find a spot for him," said Yost Sunday after I asked him how many seasons it would take him to reassemble the "Boomtown" cast. "It's not as though we were sitting in the writers' room and said, 'Boy, we've got to find something for Mykelti,' but it was when we started thinking of these characters, it was they suggested themselves.

"If Graham called me to help paint a bathroom, I would show up," Williamson said.

Plus, it's fun to play a bad guy.

"People don't expect Mykelti Williamson to be the bad guy because they love some of my characters, you know, like the 'Forrest Gump' character, comedic characters from 'Waiting to Exhale,' on and on, so they don't expect the guy to do the nasty things that you'll see him do," he said.

And then there was the chance to be a part of the world of Elmore Leonard. " 'Fire in the Hole,' was on my Kindle," said Williamson, referring to the Leonard story about Olyphant's character that inspired the series. "I knew exactly who the great Elmore Leonard was. So immediately, I started doing my work and my research," watching previous episodes.

"Before, I was just a fan, enjoying the shows. Now I've been launched into that world, and I've got a lot to live up to. So I've been working really hard."

Now 86, Leonard, too, continues to work really hard. His latest book, Raylan, goes on sale today (William Morrow, $26.99) and he's working on another that also features Givens. And then there's "Justified."

"If I'm going to be an executive producer and get paid for it, I feel I should be working," Leonard told reporters at the Television Critics Association's winter meetings.

"I like to write . . . I think it's a terrific show, I love all of the writing, and I'm amazed sometimes that they've got the characters better than I put them on paper."

"I believe it started with Tim [Olyphant] . . . saying to Elmore, 'Hey, why don't you write another Raylan short story?' " Yost said. "And then Elmore started with that, and then it turned into three stories. And Elmore was generous enough to say, 'Just hang this book up, and strip it for parts.' "


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