One of the most memorable elements of Billy Zane's performance as PT Barnum in tonight's episode of DC's Legends of Tomorrow was the way he effectively captured the "used car salesman" aspect of the worlds' pre-eminent carnival barker without having it seem like he had descended completely into parody.
Besides referring to Citizen Steel as a "Man of Steel...oh, that's good, make a note," Barnum frequently tiptoed up to -- but never spoke -- his famous claim that his circus was "the greatest show on Earth." According to Zane, that was because legal affairs at Warner Bros. Television said the catchphrase couldn't make it into the show -- and he worked with the writers to make the best of it.
“We pushed that on the day. I always find, if you can turn deficits into assets then you’re onto something, because that’s the space of the beautiful accident,” Zane told ComicBook.com. “Limitation can be your best friend, and due to whatever legal constraints around using the term Greatest Show on Earth, we said ‘Who says he cracked it right away?’ We’re looking at the man in the process, who seemingly owes much of his early success to the intervention of the Legends, so why not have him spitballing and formulating versions of it two or three times? And then that became just a great schtick that we played with. We just wrote near-misses and gave really fun asides to his co-workers and supporting actors, to give them nice laughs and bits.”
Each time he got fairly close, but never quite found the right trademark phrase, and in each case one of the carnies present gave him an unimpressed expression.
“I think every performer owes something to PT Barnum,” Zane said in an interview. “His methods, while at times questionable, produced entertainment as we know it and continue to, certainly in the live space....It seemed an honor to take a swing, and I discovered through performing that it was just immensely fun.”
DC's Legends of Tomorrow airs on Thursday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT following new episodes of The Flash on The CW.