The man who was Apollo Creed first and foremost is expected to come out slugging. He's a good guy but a bad dude, the kind that fans want to see firing a gun or hot-rodding a car or otherwise making life bad news for bad guys.

Carl Weathers, hot off a dramatic death at the hands of Soviet no-goodnik Drago in "Rocky IV," is about to do battle again. This time the ring is television and the adversaries are a quartet of little old ladies from Miami.

Weathers stars as "Fortune Dane," premiering Saturday at 9 p.m. on ABC opposite the NBC smash hit, "The Golden Girls" and CBS' "Saturday Night Movie." And like "Rocky" in his first bout with Creed, he doesn't have to win the fight to be a hero. He only has to go the distance; any improvement in that time slot will satisfy third-rated ABC.

Yet, expectations are high. Weathers, as Hollywood wisdom holds, is a real star contender.

Says New York media buyer Paul Schulman, who analyzes and predicts prime-time performances for potential sponsors: "A lot of people are very unhappy that Apollo Creed died. And they're going to be very happy he lives on in the body of Fortune Dane."

"Fortune Dane," about a political trouble-shooter fighting white-collar crime and corruption, also has some earmarks of a "quality" show. Weathers, one of a trio of executive producers, is joined by Ronald Cohen ("Call to Glory"), who provides the reality-based scripts, and Barney Rosenzweig ("Cagney & Lacey"), who lends proven production skills.

But Weathers, 38, is the only one whose hair is stylishly cropped and whose 6-foot-2 frame gets tucked into smart leather jackets and custom-made boots. Carl Weathers, producer, knows exactly what he wants from Carl Weathers, star.

"I've always thought 'action-oriented,' " Weathers says, speaking in the overly concise diction of a TV evangelist. "But I had always wanted--the only word that comes to mind is tenderness . A character who on one hand could kick butt, but on the other hand would not be afraid to cry."

Says Rosenzweig, "It's clear when you talk to a guy like Carl Weathers that he's not going to play a brain surgeon. He is one of the more intelligent people I've ever been in business with. But he is a physical animal. He's gorgeous. He's got a 31-inch waist and, I dunno, 44-, 46-inch shoulders. The guy looks like a Greek god. . . ."

Rosenzweig, who is executive producer of "Cagney & Lacey" and therefore expected to know something about quality, might also be forgiven some of his enthusiasm. He and the many partners in "Fortune Dane"--Weathers not the least--each are counting on different things from the series. And at the top of the list are clout, fame and money.

Even as "Rocky" and its successors were turning Sylvester Stallone into Hollywood's most bankable actor, the critics were predicting stardom for Weathers, Stallone's screen nemesis-turned-pal.

"Carl Weathers is a real find," Pauline Kael wrote in her 1976 New Yorker review of "Rocky." As with other critics, she credited Weathers/Creed's "flash and ebullience" with "putting the fairy-tale plot in motion."

But film roles for black leading men were in short supply. Weathers, who had made his film debut in "The Four Deuces" shortly after coming to Hollywood in 1974, was offered cartoon characters and superheroes that he considered "pointless and meaningless."

TV responded more readily to Weathers' particular magnetism. He was offered the role in "Dynasty" as Diahann Carroll's husband and turned it down (Billy Dee Williams was asked first and said no, but eventually accepted). He was offered a sitcom, never produced, in which he would have played father to a young son. He turned it down. He was offered an action ensemble show, a sort of "Dirty Dozen" for TV. . . .

Weathers was holding out for a true starring role. "I see myself as a person who has the ability to carry a show, and that's what I wanted to do," he says.

Now, eight films (including "Semi-Tough" and "Force 10 From Navarone"), one record ("You Oughta Be With Me" in 1982) and three sets of TV producers later, Weathers could be poised on the brink of mass-media stardom.

Getting there hasn't been easy. One potential series originally called "Cutting's Edge" came to a grinding halt under the new name "Braker" at MGM/UA. Later, Weathers and Robert Urich ("Vega$," the current "Spenser: For Hire") teamed up for a TV remake of "The Defiant Ones," the original film of which first inspired Weathers to become an actor. But to get the project finished, they had to take huge up-front pay cuts.

When the ensuing musical chairs of studios and producers finally stopped, Weathers found himself teamed up with Columbia Pictures Television, Rosenzweig and Cohen--and only a few weeks to build his "Fortune" in time for ABC's schedule. (As Rosenzweig described the first few weeks, "Instead of a courtship, we were all thrown into bed together. . . .")

What's more, each of the partners in "Fortune Dane" seeks something different:

ABC, the last-place network with new management, declares itself intent on proving it can turn out not just hits but quality hits.

Rosenzweig, who has a relatively unlucrative deal on "Cagney & Lacey" (more on that later), was attracted to Weathers for the financial stability his show offered.

Cohen, who acknowledges a reputation as a "volatile" writer, has dreamed of doing a show on big-city politics and corruption.

Columbia-TV, with only one prime-time network series on the air ("Crazy Like a Fox") and only two announced fall series pilots ("Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" and "Houston Knights," both from Jay Bernstein Prod.) needs some fresh long-range successes.

And, of course, Weathers, who parlayed the heat surrounding him into an executive producer title and a network commitment to air six episodes--and, he hopes, a stepping-stone to a major career. "We're talking about leverage," says his manager, Ronald Kramer. Success on a TV show "can only give Carl Weathers the leverage to do all the things he wants to do."

Weathers says that includes producing and directing for both TV and film and possibly even becoming involved with the sound tracks. Says Kramer: "He has that mind-set and determination. Carl can do anything he wants to do."

MGM/UA Television wasn't a very prolific producer of network TV, but it was the same studio that produced the "Rocky" films. So at first, it seemed like a natural place for Weathers to hang his hat.

The time was shortly after "Rocky III," and Weathers had only recently begun to take TV seriously. The turning point was his association with Kramer, the independent record producer who 2 1/2 years ago gave up that line of work to become Weathers' personal manager. "Ron finally tied me down and said I should look at television, that there is something to the medium far beyond what people are saying," Weathers recalls.

But Weathers' experience at MGM/UA didn't live up to that buildup. Eric Bercovici, a respected writer who had penned the script for the miniseries "Shogun," created a character for him named Harry Cutting. In the off-beat pilot script for "Cutting's Edge," Weathers was to play a tough cop surrounded by such characters as a white cop who hated his guts and Caruso Jack Orsini, a cop who wanted to be an opera singer.

But Bercovici ran afoul of then-president of ABC Entertainment Lewis Erlicht over problems with another show he wrote and produced, "Jessie," starring Lindsay Wagner.

ABC renamed the Weathers project "Braker" and replaced Bercovici, but wasn't impressed with the pilot shot by his successors. The network passed on "Braker" as a series.

Bercovici, though rancorous about ABC in general and Erlicht in particular, had no such feelings about his short-lived leading man: "Carl just registers on the screen. The camera likes him," he said from Rome, where he was readying a nuclear war drama, "The Fifth Missile," for presentation on NBC later this month.

ABC agreed. Ann Daniel, vice president of prime-time development for ABC, said, "All the moving parts of the pilot weren't working as they needed for Carl to be shown to his best advantage. But it was clear he was a star ."

Moving Parts .

That was the name Ronald Cohen had in mind for a series based on one of his favorite themes, the way in which big cities like Chicago are run. There's a tacit alliance between mobsters, politicians and businessmen--"And the cops and the courts are the grease that make the moving parts operate," he says.

Cohen also has learned something about Hollywood's moving parts: He was fired from two critically acclaimed shows he wrote, "American Dream," about a suburban family's move to the inner city, and "Call to Glory," about a 1960s Air Force family.

"I have a volatile reputation with the network," Cohen says. "They know I'm a pain in the butt. But they like the way I write."

So did Carl Weathers.

Weathers' MGM contract had expired, at this point, and he was shopping for a new studio and an executive producer. One of the executives who had most impressed him was Columbia Television president Barbara Corday, and she steered him toward Cohen.

(Is Hollywood incestuous? Corday and Ken Hecht wrote the script that was later rewritten by Cohen as the pilot for "American Dream"--which was executive-produced by Rosenzweig, who is married to Corday, who co-created "Cagney & Lacey.")

But in fact, Weathers' idea for a series meshed well with Cohen's "Moving Parts" concept. Weathers had envisioned an attorney who worked undercover to bag criminals, using the law as well as a gun. Cohen kept the same strict sense of right and wrong but moved the character into the political arena. The character of Fortune Dane--which the network decided to make the series' title--allows Cohen to explore such topics as corruption in the mayor's office, the sanctuary movement and airport theft.

The mayor of Bay City was made a woman (played by Penny Fuller), not to suggest that this was really San Francisco--in fact, the show is shot in Oakland--but to give Dane a relationship in which he can express the "vulnerability" that Weathers wanted, says the exec producer-star.

But even before the character of Dane evolved, a significant piece of the puzzle was missing.

It was clout; real clout.

Weathers had muscle, both the kind that ripple through his shirts and the kind that get you into meetings with studio and network executives. He also had ABC's trust after serving as the catalyst on the new "Defiant Ones" and going out on a financial limb to see it through. But he didn't have the kind of production track-record that turns concepts and stars into hit shows.

Neither did Cohen. "I have a great deal of credibility as a writer but I didn't have unlimited credibility as a producer," he admits.

This is where fate and money enter the picture.

Barney Rosenzweig figures that he's not an overly ambitious man. And that's why he turned Weathers down when the star approached him to be his executive producer last summer.

"If I had Gary Goldberg's money, I wouldn't care about my next deal," he says, referring to the "Family Ties" executive producer, the yardstick by which TV windfalls currently are measured. (Goldberg is said to be earning approximately $40 million on the syndication of "Family Ties" reruns.) "I would make 'Cagney & Lacey' until it peters out and I would enjoy it every step of the way. I have no desire to ever do anything else as long as it's around.

"It isn't that I don't like Carl Weathers, it isn't that I don't want 'Fortune Dane' to be a success. But I'm not driven ."

But Rosenzweig's mood changed after Oct. 31, when Mace Neufeld--a producer for whom Rosenzweig went to work in 1977 and to whom he brought the first "Cagney & Lacey" script, developed three years earlier--filed a lawsuit against Rosenzweig and Orion Television, which produces "Cagney & Lacey." Neufeld charged a breach of contract regarding an agreement between him and Rosenzweig as to how profits and fees from the show were to be split up.

Neufeld's suit asked for $25 million in punitive damages from Rosenzweig and Orion, plus additional compensations. (Federal Court Judge Edward Rafeedie dismissed the case on Monday, but an attorney for Neufeld said that it was refiled in state court the following day; the federal court decision will also be appealed.)

Rosenzweig's earnings and potential profits were already low by industry standards, partly because he traded off money for creative control when he and Neufeld dissolved their partnership in 1980.

(Reliable sources place Rosenzweig's fees at about a third of the $30,000 per episode that is typical for an executive producer. Concerning his percentage of profits from syndication, Rosenzweig says that, at best, he expects to "make less than Gary Goldberg's agent will on 'Family Ties.' ")

Now he found those earnings challenged. While Rosenzweig and his attorney are painfully careful not to suggest that the case has any merit, Rosenzweig noted prior to the dismissal that "anything can happen in a jury."

Meanwhile, ABC was insisting that Cohen and Weathers find an executive producer over them--a chief executive producer, if you will. Corday says that Cohen named Rosenzweig and Edward Milkis as two with whom he would be willing to work. Though neither technically was available, Corday, "as a joke," offered to contact her husband.

In Rosenzweig's state of mind, it was no joke. "I don't want to have 'Cagney & Lacey' canceled in another year or two, as it indeed someday will be, and then to, Phoenix-like, try and rise up out of the ashes of a canceled show, broke, at the age of 50, and start trying all over again."

He met again with Weathers--and this time with Cohen, too--and hammered out a deal with Herman Rush, president of the Columbia Pictures Television Group by which the Rosenzweig Co. would produce Weathers' show. Columbia would hold non-network distribution rights.

For the three executive producers, it was a marriage built largely on convenience. "And now," Weathers says, "I gotta look in your eye, sweetheart, and you know, you wake up in the morning and you don't have your makeup on. We had to learn a little about each other."

Rosenzweig says it's taken time to realize the limits to which they can realize Cohen's ambitions.

"We now know better what we can accomplish," Rosenzweig says, as the series premiere date nears. "I'd give the first episode a C-plus. Episodes 1 and 2 are really back story. Episodes 3 and 4 are really what the series is about (the corruption and sanctuary plots). If I had been totally autocratic, we wouldn't have made the first two."

So who holds the most power of the three?

Weathers says, "Ultimately, Barney is the guy we all turn to and say, 'Bless us and anoint us.' Barney is the guy with the track record."

But the one time they did have what Cohen describes as a protracted argument--about the location for the show's production--Weathers won. Following an initial episode shot in Sacramento, which doubled for New Orleans, the remainder are filmed in Oakland, not Hollywood. That's where Weathers played defensive end for the Raiders after graduating from San Diego State and where his ex-wife and two small boys still live.

Says Cohen: "Carl survived and competed in the world of big-time pro sports. He's used to combat. He's used to arguments. But Carl and I can have a tremendous argument on a Thursday night-- tremendous argument--and he comes in the next day and says, 'Hi, Ronald, how are you?' He doesn't allow it to become personal."

Weathers says the turning point behind the scenes of "Fortune Dane" was when all three producers realized they could deal with each other that way. "I don't care what you had for breakfast or who you yelled at or what your wife said or what your kids are going through," he says. "All I care about is how do we solve the problems?

"The reason I got the bleeping deal is because I keep finding the solutions. When they tell me 'We can't afford to finish it,' I say 'Take some of my money.' When they tell me 'We gotta put on a new producer,' I say 'I don't give a damn, put him on and let's get to work!' When they tell me 'We can't do this thing because of this problem,' I say, 'Yes we can, I'll work through Christmas!' "

What does ABC think of its new-found "Fortune"?

Consider that at the network's January preview sessions for the nation's TV critics, one of the main events was a press conference featuring all three producers, followed by a hastily edited clip from the first episode.

It is the emotional climax of the episode and has Weathers confronting Adolph Caesar as his adoptive father, caught up in a bit of wrongdoing. It is also a key scene plot-wise, as it establishes Dane's reasons for leaving his hometown and his job as a cop to head for Bay City, where he is to become involved with the mayor's office.

"Don't you know I love you?" Weathers says. Here's this big, macho guy, and there are practically tears in his eyes.

"I didn't trust you to forgive me for the immoral thing I had to do," Caesar replies dourly, and now Weathers looks positively crushed.

They could have selected an action sequence with Weathers and co-stars Joe Dallesandro or Daphne Ashbrook (as Bay City police detective Perfect Tommy and bad-girl-turned-sidekick Speed, respectively). Instead they selected one without any gunplay, slugfests or squealing tires.

Coming only two days after a speech by Brandon Stoddard, the new president of ABC Entertainment, in which he vowed to bring ABC "a renewed sense of dignity," the message was clear: "Fortune Dane" is a "quality" show, one that has not only car chases and fistfights but also sensitive father-son speeches between a movie star like Weathers and an Oscar nominee like Caesar.

"We certainly hope he (Weathers) will give us an added boost," says Ann Daniel.

Daniel and other ABC executives declined to attach a desired ratings figure to "Fortune Dane." But media buyer Schulman speculates that the network "has no designs on 'Fortune Dane' coming in and being a big winner, because Saturday night currently belongs to NBC. But I would expect this to be a terrific effort by ABC."

To satisfy sponsors, "Fortune Dane" only has to deliver about the same number of viewers as did "Lime Street," the Robert Wagner show that was canceled in that same time slot. To satisfy ABC, it only has to come in second to NBC's "Golden Girls," as that would represent an improvement in the ratings.

To satisfy viewers, "Fortune Dane" will have to be good and Dane himself will have to be appealing. Because he was Creed, Weathers has a head start.

And to satisfy Carl Weathers?

"I'm in business, I'm doing my own series, I've got the best producer and best writer in television, and I've got a chance to do what I've always dreamed of doing--standing in front of a camera in front of millions of people and doing the best work I can do.

"So how can you lose?"

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