LIFE AND DEATH ALTER COURSE OF 5 TV SERIES

Times Staff Writer

When "Cheers" co-creators James Burrows and Glen and Les Charles had to come up with a title for the episode they were filming at the end of last November, the name "Cheerio Cheers" seemed to fit. After all, the plot line centered around Diane Chambers' (series star Shelley Long) announcement that she was leaving for Europe, the writers' ruse to cover Long's pregnancy.

They had no idea at the time how sadly appropriate that title would be.

"Cheerio Cheers," which is scheduled to air April 11, also marked the final time Nicholas Colasanto stood behind the bar as the dense but lovable Coach Ernie Pantusso. Colasanto died Feb. 12 of a heart attack.

"I don't think we'll ever want to replace Nick," Burrows said the other day.

Burrows and the "Cheers" staff were not alone this season in their need to make some difficult and often painful decisions after the loss of an important cast member. Death, imprisonment and resignation took their toll on five shows this season--and very nearly a sixth.

"For a single season, that's quite an unhappy number of people to be affected that way," said Michael Gleason, executive producer of "Remington Steele."

In addition to Colasanto's passing:

--Jon-Erik Hexum accidentally shot himself in the head while toying with a gun loaded with blanks on the set of "Cover-Up" last October. Even as cast and crew mourned, a talent hunt for his successor ensued.

--Stacy Keach began serving a nine-month sentence in England's Reading Prison Dec. 7 after his conviction for importing cocaine. That left "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" with no star, an uncertain future and a rush order for the services of mimic Rich Little.

--Chris Robinson, Dr. Rick Webber on "General Hospital," avoided a prison sentence for tax evasion that would have forced him to leave the show (starting Tuesday) by serving his sentence nights and weekends so that he can remain available for daytime taping.

--Chad Lowe, the young lead on this season's new teen comedy "Spencer" unceremoniously bowed out of his contract late last year, an action that likely will keep a battery of lawyers busy for some time. The show was hastily modified and returned to the Saturday night lineup two weeks ago under a new name, "Under One Roof," with a new actor as Spencer.

--Even as production on this season's episodes of "Dallas" began, Barbara Bel Geddes announced she would not be returning to the show. The season was well on its way before Donna Reed appeared as the new Miss Ellie.

All of the above shows have had to deal with the personal and professional tragedy that comes with the loss of a star.

Soap operas historically have had a no-fuss method of dealing with an actor's absence: They simply hire a new face to portray the old character and go on as if nothing happened.

"If indeed Chris was going to be in prison we would have had to replace him with someone else," "General Hospital" executive producer Gloria Monty said regarding Robinson's predicament.

But Monty said that she generally tries to avoid replacing a character and has done so only once in her eight years with the show.

Prime-time producers are even more reluctant to replace them. "I think most attempts to duplicate are very dicey at best," Burrows said. "There's always a constant comparison (to the previous actor)."

Instead, Burrows said, an attempt is made to replace the character's qualities. The Coach's were "his sweetness, his density--not stupidity, but just getting hit in the head with a number of baseballs--and I guess the third is he was an incredible listener.

"Maybe you can't find all that in one character," Burrows added.

"Dallas' " producers knew they had to find very particular qualities following Bel Geddes' resignation. To keep a character like J.R. under control, Miss Ellie, the lone voice of parental authority in the Ewing household, had to be replaced. (Jock Ewing had been killed off following actor Jim Davis' death in 1981.)

Donna Reed eventually was selected because she exhibited the same "authority and gentleness" and was in "the same age range" as Bel Geddes, according to producer Leonard Katzman. "We weren't looking for a doppelganger ," Katzman said, "but we didn't want somebody too far off."

"Cover-Up's " producers took a slightly different approach.

"It was always in mind to come up with a new character and give him a new persona," according to Terry Allan, vice president of Glen Larson Productions.

Four weeks after Hexum's final appearance as Vietnam veteran-turned-secret agent Mack Harper, "Cover-Up" returned to the airwaves with Antony Hamilton, 30, as Jack Stryker.

The producers were not displeased that their new star had an Australian accent and a slightly rougher look than Hexum. "It helped audience acceptance by making him his own character," Allan said.

But what happens when the leading character's name is in the title of the show?

Obviously, "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" must have a character named Mike Hammer.

What's more, executive producer Jay Bernstein said neither he nor CBS considered a replacement for Stacy Keach--which meant the series couldn't return shortly with a new actor as did "Cover-Up."

As a result, "Mike Hammer" went off the air when the last completed episodes with Keach aired. One week before Christmas, Bernstein and Columbia Pictures Television, co-partners in the show, had to lay off 208 people.

Eight scripts ordered by the network were never shot.

Keach's scheduled release June 7 (a nine-month sentence minus three months off for good behavior) would allow the show to return to the airwaves in the fall. But the network will say only that it will "wait and see" about renewal, according to a CBS spokesman.

Keach's particular predicament compounds the problem. Though Harvey Shephard, CBS' senior vice president of programming, publicly stated that Keach would not be blacklisted for his misdeed, one industry source observed that it is "highly unlikely" CBS will make any commitment to the show while its star is in prison.

Bernstein, best known as the manager who made stars of Farrah Fawcett and Suzanne Somers, recently spent $50,000 of his own money on a "fact-finding mission" to radio and TV talk shows in 15 cities.

"I had to see if the public viewed this as a quality television show," Bernstein said after returning.

Bernstein gave the network recordings of responses to the talk shows, most of them forgiving of Keach and favoring the show's return. He believes they make a strong case that "Hammer" can again make a dent in the ratings.

In the case of the short-lived "Spencer," NBC may have turned to its advantage the loss of the title star.

Even before Chad Lowe announced he was leaving the show after only six episodes, "Spencer" was having problems. It was a teen-oriented show airing in a family-oriented time period, Saturdays at 9:30 p.m., after "Diff'rent Strokes" and "Gimme a Break."

Executive producer Mort Lachman likes to say that "Spencer" turned into "Under One Roof" because NBC's Brandon Tartikoff "didn't have enough to keep him busy one Sunday."

Tartikoff, president of NBC Entertainment, had loved a pilot show from Lachman called "Not in Front of the Kids," about a family where three generations lived under one roof. As Lachman tells it, Tartikoff, while puttering around the house, came up with the idea to merge the shows, thereby de-emphasizing Spencer's teen-oriented escapades and at the same time bringing back the lovable coots from "Not in Front of the Kids."

Lowe was replaced by Ross Harris, who had a major role in the film "Testament." The show also took on Harold Gould and Frances Sternhagen as Spencer's grandparents and dropped Ronny Cox as Spencer's dad. Mimi Kennedy remains as his mother, Doris.

The success of these shows in coping with their losses has varied.

" 'Coping' is an interesting word in terms of this particular situation," said "Cover-Up" executive Allan, who was with Jon-Erik Hexum when he was rushed to the hospital. "There is one thing that enabled us to 'cope,' and it sounds like a cruel and callous thing, but it's 'the show must go on.' "

But the show was always trying to catch up to a sensible production schedule, and twice couldn't make its air date. "Cover-Up" eventually built back up a viewing audience close to what it had been as of Hexum's last episode. It has slipped slightly in the last few weeks.

In light of the show's tragic first year, Allan asked CBS to decide on "Cover-Up's" fate by last Thursday so he could announce the hoped-for renewal as a present to cast and crew at the season's wrap party. CBS turned him down; the top-rated network will not confirm renewals until about a week before the fall season is publicly announced on May 10.

CBS has been equally willing to keep "Mike Hammer" in limbo. Once a hit opposite "Fantasy Island" at 10 p.m. Saturdays, the show was trailing ABC's "The Love Boat" in the 9 p.m. slot as of its last airing.

After Keach voluntarily returned to London to stand trial last December, the series never had the chance to prove its mettle in the second half of the season, when cold weather typically accounts for increased TV viewing and therefore overall higher ratings.

Even the last few completed shows presented a sticky situation. Three were missing Keach's distinctive first-person narration as the hard-boiled Hammer. After Stacy's actor-brother James proved "too emotional" at the time to do the voice-overs, executive producer Bernstein said, Rich Little ended up with the role. Bernstein said the results were "slightly disappointing."

If "Mike Hammer" fails to turn up on CBS' fall lineup, it could still become a "second season" entry, a series that becomes a replacement show starting early in 1986. "The good news," Bernstein said regarding chances for renewal, "is that nobody at the network has told us 'no.' "

"Under One Roof" is too new to bet on, but it is quite possible the show will best be remembered by lawyers, not viewers. A statement from Alan Landsburg Productions, producer of "Spencer"/"Under One Roof," said of Lowe, "He broke a contract; we are proceeding with our legal remedies."

Lachman suggested that Lowe, who declined to comment on his reasons, "wanted to go into Broadway or go into a movie like his brother (Rob Lowe)."

"Cheers' " future is secure. The show has been renewed for a fourth season and syndicators have guaranteed its production for a fifth.

As sorely as Nicholas Colasanto may be missed, life at the Boston bar will go on without the Coach. Executive producer Burrows said the production team's main concern at the moment is resolving Sam and Diane's relationship, which once again will be affected by a season-end cliffhanger.

But Colasanto's passing did not go unheralded. Shortly after the actor's death, a "Cheers" segment that included one of his most memorable performances was rerun and dedicated to him.

It was reminiscent of an episode of "Cover-Up" a few months earlier, when Antony Hamilton's first assignment as Stryker was to inform series star Jennifer O'Neill that Jon-Erik Hexum's character was killed in action. The episode concluded with a small written tribute to Hexum narrated by actor William Conrad.

That leaves Robinson. Though he will be able to continue on "General Hospital," he has been removed from the viewers' eyes in at least one regard: The maker of Vicks 44 cough medicine yanked the commercial in which Robinson says, "I'm not a doctor, but I play a doctor on TV. . . ."

"We were surprised and disappointed to learn that someone as prominent as Chris Robinson had done something like this," said Richardson-Vicks spokeswoman Debra Bennetts when asked about Robinson's conviction. The commercial now airs with a different actor--a successor, not a replacement, for Chris Robinson.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Friday April 5, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 18 Column 6 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction In the April 1 edition of Calendar, William Conrad was credited with having narrated a tribute to Jon Erik Hexum on a "Cover-Up" episode after Hexum's death. The narration was done by Richard Anderson, who has starred on the show since its inception. FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Saturday April 6, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Part 4 Page 4 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction A story in Monday's Calendar about cast changes in television series reported incorrectly that Chris Robinson, who plays Dr. Rick Webber on ABC's "General Hospital," was charged with and pleaded guilty to tax evasion, a felony. The charge in fact was willful failure to file income-tax returns, a misdemeanor. Robinson is serving a sentence nights and weekends and remains available for daytime taping of the soap opera.
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