Editor's note: This story originally published in 2005.

James Caan is dying to get to his golf game. He's just wrapped his last scene of the day for his hit series, "Las Vegas," and is speedwalking across the community college auditorium, doubling today as a nightclub, when he's stopped in his tracks by something more powerful than a barrage of bullets.

"All right, I'll hold the door," he says as a half-dozen scantily dressed beauties enter the makeshift set, each pausing ever so briefly to flirt with "The Godfather" star. "Maybe I won't play golf."

The guests, members of the burlesque troupe Pussycat Dolls, are soon on stage, lip-synching and hip-swiveling to their sultry single "Sway." Waiting in the wings to make a sexy entrance of his own is former "Superman" star Dean Cain, who's still a superhunk.

Not a bad day to visit the set.

But then, it's hard to imagine a bland day with a regular cast of headturners such as Nikki Cox, Josh Duhamel, Vanessa Marcil and James Lesure, with outlandish premises in which blackjack players arrive with bombs strapped to their chests, Jean-Claude Van Damme perishes in a motorcycle accident, regulars dine at a topless pancake house and Sports Illustrated model Molly Sims chats with mere mortals.

"When you do a show about Vegas, you can do it about almost anything," said Caan, after tearing himself away from the Dolls. "Everyone comes to Vegas — kings, queens, gangsters, pimps — so the boundaries are kind of broad."

Not a sure thing

That anything-goes attitude has helped to make "Vegas" one of the bright spots on NBC's slipping schedule. It was last season's highest-rated new drama for 18-to-49-year-olds (a coveted demographic for advertisers) and continues to perform well against such weighty competition as "Everybody Loves Raymond," "24" and "Monday Night Football."

But when the show debuted, few were betting on it.

Creator Gary Scott Thompson said that the network barely acknowledged his show at the start of the 2003-04 season, focusing instead on its other five rookies, which included the Alicia Silverstone drama "Miss Match" and a highly anticipated sitcom, "Coupling."

Thompson said that when NBC president Jeff Zucker presented the pilots to advertisers, he lauded praise on every one — until it came to Thompson's turn.

"He said, 'And we have "Las Vegas." Well, they like it in Las Vegas,'" Thompson said. "That's all I got. We were the dark sheep in the family. But at the end of the season, we were the only ones left standing."

Thompson says the lack of hype played in the show's favor, a lesson he learned from "The Fast and the Furious," the 2001 movie he wrote that surprised Hollywood by making nearly $150 million at the box office despite lack of star power and promotion.

"They threw us up against'Monday Night Football' and everybody thought, 'We're dead.' But I thought we actually weren't. Here was this little sheltered space where no one was going to pay attention to us and where we may be allowed to grow," Thompson said. "The audience found us, as opposed to us shoving it down their throats."

Playing off a tough-guy image

One might have thought that Caan, a former Michigan State football player and star of the Super Bowl of male tear-jerker movies, "Brian's Song," would be more at home sitting in the booth with John Madden than headlining a lighthearted series that is one Charo appearance away from becoming "The Love Boat in the Desert."

But his performance as Ed Deline, a casino surveillance chief (who mysteriously was promoted to director of operations after a few episodes) is the latest in a string of roles in which Caan pokes fun at his tough-guy image. Sure, he's intimidating when he's trying to roust a cheater or squaring off against one of his old nemeses from his CIA days, but he's just as likely to be flustered by his playgirl daughter (Sims), his angelic wife (Cheryl Ladd) or his protege (Duhamel).

"We all think of him as Sonny Corleone, so when he strays from that, it's terribly funny," Thompson said.

But "Vegas" was not designed as a Caan vehicle, unless, of course, he ended up looking exceptionally hot in a two-piece bikini.

The story lines are spread generously throughout the gorgeous cast, as are the cleavage and butt shots. It's not unusual to see the casino host the world's biggest wet-T-shirt contest or an electronic dragonfly that hovers over women's cleavage, taking pictures. The show's crooks are so cartoonish and slow that Maxwell Smart could drag them down. It seems like every other patron at the fictional casino hits the jackpot, and everyone else gets their hotel room comped. If this were a real business, it'd be broke in three days.

The party atmosphere appears to extend off the set, as well. When Sims walks past Duhamel on the set, they both mention that they may have overdone it on the drinks the previous night.

"There's a fair amount of T&A, but we don't get too gratuitous," said Duhamel, who grew up in Minot, N.D. "We don't take ourselves too seriously."

Time to lighten up a bit

That may be the most valuable card up the show's sleeve.

When it debuted last year, the prime-time schedule was littered with programs from the "Law & Order" and "CSI" school of drama: the grimmer the better.

Thompson said he came up with the concept of lighter fare after watching a particularly graphic episode of "CSI" featuring a child rape and murder.

"I started thinking about stuff I watched as a kid, like 'Charlie's Angels' and 'The A Team.' Even though they were dramas, there was a lot of humor. Wink, wink, nudge nudge," he said. "The idea behind it was to create something I could sit down to, have a beer and tune out."

Cox believes that's exactly what audiences need in these post-9/11 times. "I think we're pushing it the other way," she said. "People want to look at something silly. It's escapism."

Jumping into that world has drawn a lot of big-name stars, including Sylvester Stallone, Paul Anka, Sugar Ray, Wayne Newton, Dennis Hopper, Snoop Dogg and the Black Eyed Peas.

"The characters you get to play are an awful lot of fun," Cain said. "There's a hyper-reality that exists in Las Vegas and that whole attitude is tremendous fodder for stories about people." So even though the show films primarily in Culver City — about as unglamourous a spot as you can get — you can feel the "Vegas" vibe on the set. Of course, it doesn't hurt that you're staring at the Pussycat Dolls running through their musical number one more time.

Now all you need is that comped room.

Vegas or bust

Your dreams may come true in Las Vegas, but the odds are against it if you're trying to create a TV show. Most series set there have come up short:

Crapped out

"Viva Vegas!" (2000): In this Telemundo sitcom, two Argentinian brothers tried to make it big in Sin City. They failed.

"Dr. Vegas" (2004): It's a medical drama! It's a mob drama! It's a gambling drama! It's a Rob Lowe bellyflop!

"Lucky" (2003): Long-shot dramedy about a compulsive gambler (John Corbett) who's lost everything but his good looks.

"Nasty Boys" (1990): Benjamin Bratt and Dennis Franz were among the future stars who play Vegas vice cops who dress in ninja costumes.

Lucky streaks

"Vega$" (1978-81): Robert Urich is a Las Vegas private investigator who is shocked — shocked! — to find that gambling is going on around here.

"CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" (2000- ): Forensic experts investigate those who make a killing at the tables.