Jennifer Love Hewitt returns to TV in Fall '05. New CBS tearjerker casts ''Party of Five'' vet as a woman offering wayward spirits an alley-oop into the great beyond

By Josh Wolk
Updated September 02, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

Jennifer Love Hewitt thought she’d be doing a different show this season. She’d come up with the idea of playing a TV sports reporter, and had been developing the sitcom In the Game at ABC for nearly a year. The pilot was shot, retooled and recast, shot again…and then killed by the suits at ABC. ”Within four days of that show not going, I got the Ghost Whisperer script,” says Hewitt, who was last seen on series TV in 1999’s short-lived Party of Five spin-off, Time of Your Life. ”My agents saw me start to cry [when Game was canceled], and they said, ‘Oh my God, we have to find something great,’ and this happened to be there. It was meant to be.”

What a mystical turn of events: The death of her sitcom brought Hewitt to a drama about communicating with…the dead! (All together now: Ooooohhhhh!) The 26-year-old actress plays the titular whisperer, Melinda Gordon, a small-town, newly married medium who helps stagnated spirits complete their unfinished earthbound business so they can be alley-ooped into the proverbial light. But is crediting the show’s appearance in her life to a spiritual force an eerie coincidence — other-worldly powers lead actress to a supernatural role! — or a practical decision? ”I’ve read horoscopes and watched ghost movies and heard stories of people being haunted, but I had never really put too much thought into [ghosts] before,” she says. ”My mind is much more open to it now, but it kind of has to be…to convince other people and tons of skeptics to believe in it every Friday night.” (All together now: Oh.)

The idea for Ghost Whisperer came from a man who knows from spirits, famed medium James Van Praagh. His 2002 autobiographical CBS miniseries, Living With the Dead, haunted 17 million viewers, and he based the story of Melinda on the talents of ”ghostbuster” Mary Ann Winkowski, whom he met on his short-lived syndicated show Beyond. (Winkowski serves as a consultant on Whisperer.) CBS paired Van Praagh with writer and executive producer John Gray (Martin and Lewis), and the two fleshed out the pilot, making Hewitt’s character an antiques shop owner, and giving her a best friend with a secretive past (24‘s Aisha Tyler) and a husband (Miss Match‘s David Conrad) who, ironically, works as a paramedic. ”He’s committed to keeping people on this side of the lifeline, her gift is keeping them on the other side,” says Conrad. ”He has a weird fascination with what she does, but there’s also a [feeling of] ‘Nuh-huh, not this one.”’

A suburban married woman who helps dead people sounds a bit Medium, but Gray says his show was in development before the NBC hit came on in January. ”It was disappointing,” admits Gray, who claims he first heard of Medium after he delivered CBS his pilot script. ”When we looked at their pilot, we knew we’d inevitably be compared, but we were relieved because it felt different.” CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler, who scheduled the show in the network’s de facto supernatural time slot (after all, this is where Joan of Arcadia lived for two years), says discerning viewers will be able to differentiate between the two series. ”There’s a strong audience appeal for this kind of show. And with our story, she does not solve crimes. This is much more of an emotional journey.” Hewitt isn’t worried either: ”I like Medium. But it’s very different…. [Patricia Arquette’s character] is very removed from the ghosts. In our show, I’m really these people’s last best friend.”