STAGE TO SCREENS: A Look at the New TV Season and Its Actors from Theatre

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: A Look at the New TV Season and Its Actors from Theatre This month we take a look at the 2003-04 television season and some of the theatrical talents who will be working in the medium.

As actors who won fame on TV come east to Broadway—such as John Stamos and Jenna Elfman, mentioned for taking over roles in Nine—several others have headed West in hopes of good ratings and even better residuals.

While there are those for whom the trip to the left coast has proved very rewarding (among them, Kelsey Grammer in "Frasier"), some of Broadway's best, including Nathan Lane and Audra McDonald, have yet to find the proper vehicles. Of course, had Lane's second (starring) sitcom succeeded, audiences wouldn't be looking forward to his returning to The Producers. Even if, as has been rumored, Lane and co-star Matthew Broderick make $100,000 for eight performances a week, each will earn for the entire three-month stint less than Ray Romano and Kelsey Grammer rake in for one episode of their respective sitcoms. Is it any wonder why an actor seeks success behind a camera?

Before we glance at the new season, one quick note about an upcoming repeat. On Saturday, Sept. 6, NBC is showing a "Law & Order" episode (at 10 PM ET) that originally aired in February. It features both of this year's Tony winners as Best Featured Actor: Denis O'Hare (Take Me Out) plays a priest who claims he committed murder and Dick Latessa (Hairspray) appears as his bishop.

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In my July column, I wrote about the new ABC sitcom, "It's All Relative" (Wednesdays, 8:30 PM ET)—which, I had been told, would undergo a title change, but obviously has not—and its three stage actors: Harriet Harris, Christopher Sieber, and John Benjamin Hickey. This seems to be the only ABC series employing theatre talents on a regular basis. Its NBC competitor is "Happy Family," starring two-time Tony winner (The Real Thing, Rumors) Christine Baranski, who's reportedly returning to Broadway as Mame. An Emmy winner for "Cybill," Baranski did not succeed with "Welcome to New York" (2000-01). Now, she's Annie Brennan, who wants to enjoy life with her husband (John Larroquette) since their three kids are grown. But can Baranski charm the husks right off of the corn?

Preceding that show is "Whoopi" (Wednesdays, 8 PM ET), starring Ms. Goldberg, whose previous TV gigs include "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (1988-93), "Bagdad Café" (1990), and her own talk show (1992-93). Herein, she portrays Mavis Rae, a Manhattan hotel owner and former singer with one hit single to her credit. At her Lamont Hotel, Mavis opens the Palladium Lounge, in order for fans to enjoy the one-hit wonder. Critics didn't respond too kindly to Goldberg's singing in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. But will Whoopi have the last laugh?

Last November, NBC announced that it was developing a sitcom for Vanessa Williams, who would play a former Broadway star. However, Williams is becoming a regular cast member of "Boomtown," which switches to Fridays at 10 PM ET. She plays Katherine Pierce, a strong-willed police detective. But can she solve the mystery of what became of the sitcom?

Fridays at 8 PM ET, NBC airs "Miss Match," starring Alicia Silverstone, who won fame in movies and made her Broadway debut in The Graduate. She plays Kate Fox, Ryan O'Neal's daughter, a divorce attorney working for her father's firm. Appearing as the office receptionist, Claire, is Jodi Long, who was Madame Liang in last season's revival of Flower Drum Song. Guest starring in the pilot is the ever-beautiful Melissa Errico. The title stems from Kate's talent for matchmaking. But does she have a knack for picking the right series?

Its CBS competition is "Joan of Arcadia," starring Joe Mantegna (a Tony winner for Glengarry Glen Ross), Mary Steenburgen (who played Candida for the Roundabout in 1993), and Amber Tamblyn (daughter of Russ Tamblyn, who did great dancing in movies, including "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "West Side Story"). The premise? A police chief's teenage daughter talks to God, who turns up in various guises. Jason (son of John) Ritter plays Tamblyn's older brother. But does Joan have the nerve to seek divine intervention for the show?

David McCallum, who won fame (and a teen following) as Illya Kuryakin in "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (1964-68) and most recently appeared on Broadway in the 2000 revival of Amadeus, returns to series TV in CBS's "Navy NCIS" (Navy Criminal Investigative Service, Tuesdays, 8 PM ET), starring Mark Harmon. McCallum plays medical examiner, Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard. (Does that quack you up?) But will McCallum have to perform a post mortem on the drama?

Another CBS entry, "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H." (Wednesdays, 10:00 PM ET), is another series from the prolific David E. Kelley. This is an hour about the brothers Shaw, who live in a city called Poland: one's a police captain (Randy Quaid), another is the mayor (John Carroll Lynch), and the third's unemployed (Brian Haley). Among the large cast are two actors with Broadway credits. Elizabeth McGovern, who played Ophelia to Stephen Lang's Hamlet in 1992 and appeared in Love Letters, portrays Helen, the mayor's wife; Angela Goethals appears as Haley's daughter, Katie, a high-school student who's sleeping with her teacher. Goethals made her debut in Coastal Disturbances in 1987, and has since been in Four Baboons Adoring the Sun and the Roundabout's 1994 revival of Picnic (as Millie). But can this series survive against "Law & Order," beginning its 14th season?

Joe Pantoliano, who survived decapitation in "The Sopranos" to succeed Stanley Tucci in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, stars as CBS's "The Handler" (Fridays, 10 PM ET). He's Joe Renato, who trains FBI agents going undercover. But can he dispatch a couple to go after the guys who killed his character in "The Sopranos"?

Also at CBS is "The Stones" (Wednesdays, 9:30 PM ET), a sitcom about two adult children living with their divorcing parents. Playing Stan and Barbara Stone, who are amicably splitting after 25 years, are Robert Klein and Judith Light, both of whom have numerous stage credits. But might the Stones seek advice from the Brennans of "Happy Family," which airs on NBC the same night, an hour earlier?

Completing the entries is a CBS sitcom, "Two and a Half Men" (Mondays, 9:30 PM ET), starring Charlie Sheen, Jon Cryer (a replacement in Brighton Beach Memoirs), and Blythe Danner, a Tony winner for Butterflies Are Free. It concerns a wealthy bachelor (Sheen) whose Malibu beach house is invaded by his soon-to-be-divorced brother and 10-year-old nephew. Danner plays the socialite mother, Evelyn Harper, with whom the brothers have a strained relationship. But doesn't it all sound like variations on Neil Simon?

Speaking of Simon, it was announced that his latest play, Rose's Dilemma, would open December 9 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, co-starring Mary Tyler Moore and John Cullum. TV's Mary Richards and Holling Vincoeur (of "Northern Exposure") a couple at last. But who would have guessed? One of TV's newest hits, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," follows the adventures of the "Fab Five," one of whom, Jai Rodriguez, has played Angel on Broadway in Rent and appeared Off-Broadway in Zanna Don't. The rumor that the "Fab Five" are going to makeover the guys of "60 Minutes" probably isn't true. But who knows?

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END QUIZ: When John Stamos took over as Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret, whom did he succeed: a) Michael Hall; b) Neil Patrick Harris; c) Raul Esparza? (Answer: Next column, September 28)

The August 3 question was: Which "Law & Order" partner is Jesse L. Martin's Det. Green for Jerry Orbach's Det. Briscoe: a) second; b) third; c) fourth? The answer is b). Martin followed Chris Noth and Benjamin Bratt.

--Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com and The Sondheim Review.

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