Previews begin May 6 for Who Wants Fame?, a new comedy by veteran television writer Mark Rothman. Barry Gordon has the lead, alongside alternating co-stars Dawn Wells and Susan Lanier.
Though John Byner and Donna Mills were originally announced as the first duo in a run that would constantly change its casting (a la Love Letters), scheduling did not work out. According to Rothman, Byner and Mills are anticipated for later in the run; while Cindy Williams (TV's "Laverne & Shirley"), Morgan Fairchild, Telma Hopkins, Ed Begley Jr. and Debra Harmon ("Dear John," "Just The Ten of Us") have also expressed interest. For now, Gordon (president of the Screen Actors Guild) is set for the first six weeks of Fame, with Wells (yes, Mary Ann of "Gilligan's Island") and Lanier (filmdom's "The Hills Have Eyes I & II," Night of the Iguana at L.A.'s Ahmanson. The production officially opens the weekend of May 27-30 (recently pushed forward from May 20-23).
Rothman told Playbill On-Line, "We're doing twelve weeks at the Court, and the intent of the play has always been to get rotating casts. I'm just crossing my fingers that people like it."
If they don't, Rothman knows where the finger of blame will point: he's not only the author, he's the producer and director of Who Wants Fame?. Rothman's credits read like a history of 1970s television comedy. He was a head writer and producer on "The Odd Couple" and "Happy Days," and a co creator of "Laverne and Shirley" -- all keystones of the Garry Marshall era. Head writer on "She's The Sheriff" ("we knew the critics would kill us no matter what, so we tried to have fun with the scripts and -- believe it or not -- go back to the `Sergeant Bilko' format"), Rothman also got satisfaction writing for the later, African-American version, "The New Odd Couple." "The original was a classic," Rothman noted, "but sometimes Tony and Jack [Randall and Klugman] would make changes that I thought weakened the script. When the show was done again, I got to go back to the original scripts and see if they still worked, if the structure was stronger. A lot of times, I was right."
But that was then, and Who Wants Fame? is now. "I'm basically running the show here," Rothman told PBOL. "In television, you always have to answer to someone. I wanna be the only one I have to answer to on this. And this is not my first play. Hey, I'm from New York. I'm basically a theatre guy who stumbled into TV. "The Odd Couple" gave me a start; "Laverne & Shirley" made me a fortune, so I can do what I want to do now." What Rothman wants to do is see how audiences receive Fame and then take it to theatres across the country, with New York only as the very last stop. "I think the L.A. audience is the best audience for this show," said Rothman. "My feeling is if we get hurt out here by the critics, we're not as bad as if we get hurt by the critics in New York. There's a lot of the money to be made once this show is on the road. You put famous stars in the provinces, people will come to see them."
As for the play itself, Fame is a two-character romantic comedy about show business. "She's an actress; he's a talent coordinator for a Los Angeles TV morning talk show." Rothman said. "It was down to the wire between the actress and Jacquelyn Smith for `Charlie's Angels.' Smith got the part, but this woman was cast in a knock-off called `Girls in the Sky,' about three undercover stewardess cops. Anyway, she falls in love with the talent coordinator, and both their careers take interesting turns..."
Rothman declined to elaborate further, saying, "I defy anybody to predict where I'm going. If they're ahead of me, then I fail. The fun of my plays is that the audiences try to get ahead of me, but they can't."
With another play in the works and "a screenplay in his briefcase, Rothman is definitely trying to make his mark again on the L.A. entertainment scene. "I've been invisible for the last ten years," he told PBOL. "My wife is a financial executive, so I kind of followed her wherever she goes, but I'm in L.A. now and ready to prove myself again."
Who Wants Fame?, which features lighting by Gil Tordjman and sets by Seanne Farmer, starts previews May 6 at the Court Theatre. For tickets and information call (310) 289-2999.
-- By David Lefkowitz