<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Would you buy a used Calizza from Ned Eisenberg?

OK, then, how about a new Japanese car, made in America?

The first question has already been answered and the latter will be tested as the hit movie “Gung Ho” becomes a sitcom headed for ABC’s fall lineup. Eisenberg, a New York stage actor best known for his award-winning Pizza Hut commercials (“Hey Mama, they may have Calizza, but you . . . you still got me.”) will take on the Michael Keaton role from the movie.

Gedde Watanabe and much of the Japanese cast from the film will remain intact as managers of a Japanese auto manufacturer that sets up shop in a closed Pennsylvania car plant.

The sitcom plot revolves around the Japanese adjusting to American culture and their dealings with the American auto workers, whose spiritual leader is the wisecracking Hunt Stevenson (Eisenberg).

Even before “Gung Ho” hit theater screens March 14, ABC committed to airing six episodes of the half-hour series without a pilot. That makes this one of the most gung-ho deals from big screen to small in TV history.

The deal was hastened in part by the fact that the idea of a Japanese auto plant relocating in America was not exactly new to television programmers.

“Other production companies over the last several years had gone to ABC and other networks to develop similar concepts,” said Tony Ganz, a producer of the film and an executive producer on the TV version of “Gung Ho.” The movie “Gung Ho” enabled ABC to see the concept on screen.

“ ‘Gung Ho’ is a movie that seems a perfect pilot for a television series,” said Ann Daniel, ABC vice president for prime-time series development, who Paramount invited to see a rough cut of the film before its release.

The potential for things people didn’t like about the movie lurked as well. Ron Howard, who directed the film and will be peripherally involved on scripts and casting for the series, suggested before “Gung Ho’s” premiere that it might be open to charges of racism. The Japanese are portrayed as rigid disciplinarians for whom work is everything.

But the Americans, including Keaton and George Wendt (Norm from TV’s “Cheers”), who also will not be in the series, were shown to be equally caught up in their own peculiar ways.

“That sense of balance and proportion was important to us from the beginning,” Ganz said.The TV show has hired a Japanese-American consulting firm, he added. “We’re extremely sensitive to how alert they (the Japanese-American actors) are to there being any possibility of a cultural misunderstanding.”

The very nature of the TV sitcom format, however, will give “Gung Ho” the TV series a slightly different perspective than the film. One of the things to fade fairly quickly, Ganz said, will be the constant theme of clashing cultures.

Unlike the film, the “Gung Ho” series will be filmed before a live audience at the old “Happy Days” sound stage on the Paramount lot with four cameras and several standing sets. As a result, the car factory will be mostly alluded to by a mock-up of a factory assembly line that is seen through the “window” of the plant’s employee lounge.

With the emphasis taken off work habits, the series will look at the idiosyncrasies of American culture as seen through the experiences of the Japanese.

The episode filmed Friday evening, for example, concerns the Japanese owners’ decision whether to hire back some of the older American workers, who they fear might be resistant to Japanese work methods. The dialogue, Ganz said, “is as painful as we can make it” in a sitcom context.

The casting of Eisenberg raises another ethnic issue yet to be determined: how writers will treat the ethnicity of his character, the slice-of-white-bread America Hunt Stevenson. Eisenberg refers to himself as an actor casting agents for TV commercials “wouldn’t touch” until they came across the very ethnic Calizza role.

He will be joined on the series by Alex Rocco, who frequently plays ethnic roles and is perhaps best remembered as Moe Green, the fictitious founder of modern-day Las Vegas in “The Godfather.” Rocco will play Stevenson’s widower father.

“I think they could be Mediterranean, maybe Eastern European,” Eisenberg said. “At this stage of the game it hasn’t developed.” The Stevenson family name, he jokingly speculated, could be “an Ellis Island screw up.”

ABC was ripe for the concept of “Gung Ho,” but clinching the deal hinged on Paramount Network Television putting together a key package of talent. Surprisingly, that didn’t mean locking up the Keaton role; Eisenberg was officially cast only three days before filming of the first episode began last week.

Paramount did, however, secure the “above-the-line” talent from the movie, a package that reads like a Hollywood law firm: Howard, Mandel, Ganz, Ganz and Blum. All those names have particular significance to both ABC and Paramount.

Howard directed “Gung Ho” and starred for seven seasons on TV’s “Happy Days” for ABC and Paramount. The writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel wrote “Gung Ho” and also worked with Howard on “Happy Days.” (They also wrote two of Howard’s other five big-screen efforts, “Night Shift” and “Splash.”)

Tony Ganz (no relation to Lowell), ran Howard’s production company for the last five years. He is now a partner with Deborah Blum, who brought Ganz the basic “Gung Ho” story line as written by her father Edwin Blum, a screenwriter who co-wrote “Stalag 17,” among other films.

All five will be executive producers on TV’s “Gung Ho,” Tony Ganz said. From Paramount’s point of view, they were the key element of the package they brought to ABC. “An idea is one thing; the ability to execute that idea on a week-to-week basis is what makes for success on a television series,” said John Pike, executive vice president of Paramount Network Television.

There was no contingency plan for what to do with the TV show if the film bombed. The team of Howard and Keaton was expected to click, Pike said, and in fact, “Gung Ho” took in more than $25 million at the box office in its first four weeks.

The actors who played the Japanese bosses--Watanabe as Kazahiro, Sab Shimono as bad-guy Saito and Rodney Kageyana as the headbanded, dancing Ito--had already been lined up when producers began their search for Keaton’s successor.

Among the 20 or so actors auditioning, Ganz said, was Eisenberg, whom he had seen on the Pizza Hut commercials. Eisenberg appeared in three TV spots as the Italian son of a woman who is heartsick over the fact that Pizza Hut is serving her age-old recipe for calzone, trademarked by Pizza Hut under the name Calizza. (The commercials swept the recent Belding Awards presented by the Advertising Club of Los Angeles.)

Eisenberg, who says he is in his “late 20s” but looks younger, also had training in legitimate theater, having appeared with New York’s Ensemble Studio Theater. He also has appeared in an episode of “Miami Vice” as well as the movie “Moving Violations.”

“We didn’t want to find a young Michael Keaton out there,” said Ganz, who said that Keaton himself, now a high-priced movie star, was never considered a realistic possibility for the role and was not asked. “We wanted to find an actor who would make the character his own and who had his own wit and sensibility.”

“When you can’t get Michael Keaton,” said Pike, “I don’t think you change the series. You modify the character.”

“I haven’t been playing it with him (Keaton) in mind,” Eisenberg said during a rehearsal break last week.