When Billy Campbell wanted to take a year off from his role as the power-tripping tycoon Jordan Collier on “The 4400” so he could sail the globe on a tall ship, the writers simply had Jordan shot to death.
Now Campbell has returned from his philanthropic voyage delivering educational supplies to remote locations, and Jordan’s back, too.
You see, one can do that on a sci-fi series about a diverse group of people who vanished at various times during the last 50 years, then returned to Earth en masse.
What exactly happened to Jordan when he was killed in the middle of last season will start unraveling with his reappearance on the Aug. 6 episode of the USA Network series, which airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.
But we do know he’s back possessed of new powers, full of strange tales and “ever manipulative,” says Campbell.
Jordan also will look a bit different because the 47-year-old actor, previously best known as Rick Sammler on the romantic drama “Once and Again,” has “less body fat, more muscle” and his hair and beard have developed a “shaggy” look from the voyage.
Campbell returned to “The 4400” set in June — “straight off the boat ... About 24 hours earlier I had been scrubbing a toilet on the ship.”
His sailing duties also included time as a rigger, “up in the masts, fixing things,” not to mention “keeping alive the last embers of the great age of sail.”
The crew of about 50 visited such isolated spots as Pitcairn Island, where a few descendants of The Bounty mutineers still live, and the Galapagos Islands, famous for their unique wildlife.
“Glorious stuff was, for instance, running under reduced sail in the teeth of a gale for two days off the coast of Africa; glorious stuff was being converged on by hundreds of dolphins at one time; glorious stuff was climbing mountains, meeting local people and children, finding active volcanos,” says Campbell, still imbued with the thrill of the journey.
“Billy’s like the guy, who, as they say, has seen the elephant. He can pretty much stand up in front of a group of people and make them believe whatever he wants them to believe,” says executive producer Ira Steven Behr, impressed with Campbell’s storytelling talent on screen and off.
Joel Gretsch, who plays Tom Baldwin, the National Threat Assessment Command agent responsible for trying to figure out the good and the bad of the 4,400 returnees, is delighted Campbell’s back and impressed by the way the writers have made the return “like art and life imitating each other.”
“Billy’s telling you a story about the tall ship and then all of a sudden you put the camera on him and he’s talking about what Collier saw. It’s so lovely and he does both with such wonderful excitement,” Gretsch says.
While Gretsch stresses the show’s character-driven strengths, Campbell views it more objectively. He feels it shouldn’t take itself all that seriously and spend too much time showing people hashing out their problems.
“The key to the show’s success is that it’s a really great, fun concept, and I think as long as they remember that, they will have success,” he says.
It’s not yet known whether there’ll be a fourth season for “The 4400,” but if so, Collier will probably be sticking around. Certainly for the conclusion of this season, Behr says, “All eyes are on him. He will have great impact.”
Taking time out to sail the seas has not changed Campbell’s mind about his career choice. “What other career do you suppose I could have that would allow me to leave and pay me well when I come back.”
Of course, it helps to have a sci-fi gig.