LEVERAGE. 10 p.m. Sunday, TNT, before moving to 10 p.m. Tuesdays.

REVENGE, THAT dish best served cold, seems to be hot this season.

On CBS, "The Mentalist" stars Simon Baker as an ex-charlatan who's working with police while hoping to track - and kill - the man who murdered his family.

On NBC's "Life," Damian Lewis plays a cop who spent 12 years in prison for a triple murder he didn't commit and now spends his off-hours trying to figure out who framed him, and why.

And on ABC's "Desperate Housewives," revenge - of the fiery sort - seems to be the primary motivation of the criminally insane new neighbor on Wisteria Lane portrayed by Neal McDonough.

Starting Sunday, TNT puts Timothy Hutton into the mix with "Leverage," in which the actor - the second Oscar winner, after Holly Hunter, to star in a show on the cable network - plays a former insurance investigator who teams up with the very criminals he used to pursue for a series of "Ocean's Eleven"-like heists and con games.

His motive?

Naturally, it's revenge.

And, OK, to make the world a little better place by providing leverage - get it? - for those who, like Hutton's Nathan Ford, find themselves on the wrong side of a struggle involving money, a struggle that in Ford's case appears to have been in some way responsible for the death of his son.

For Hutton, whose last TV gig involved playing a less-than-squeaky clean billionaire on NBC's short-lived "Kidnapped," "Leverage" was a project with, well, leverage.

"I knew it was a pilot for TNT, and . . . I'd heard great things about working at TNT," said Hutton in a recent phone interview.

"I liked the shows that Kyra Sedgwick ['The Closer'] does, and Holly Hunter ['Amazing Grace'], and I liked [executive producer] Dean Devlin's work. Everything about it really seemed kind of good to me.

"And then I started reading it. And by Page 3, I made a call and said, 'I'd like to go in and talk to Dean Devlin about this. I think it's great,' " he said. "I liked the idea of being thrown together with these four people he's either arrested or been shot at by."

What he liked about Ford:

"I sensed that there had to be something about this guy's past, that he had hit rock-bottom, and he was, you know, prime for plucking, so to speak. And then as I read the script, it got better and better . . . It was a really good ride."

It's also a ride down the path of righteousness.

"He's working with four thieves," Hutton said of Ford. "That's tough to go to the office every day and look them in the eye. But, you know, he begins to sort of understand where

they're coming from. They understand where he's coming from, and their common goal is to help people who've been victimized."

His character's credo, said the actor, is: "We're not going to hurt anybody. We're not going to take anything from anybody. This is about helping people who've had things taken from them."

Will adding the Robin Hood angle attract viewers who might have enjoyed watching George Clooney and Brad Pitt take down a casino but largely avoided grittier heist stories like FX's "Thief" and CBS' "Smith"?

"I hope . . . that an audience comes to 'Leverage,' " Hutton said. "I think it will." *

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