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Fall TV Season Trickles In : ‘Head of the Class’ Learns Some Lessons in Moscow

Times Staff Writer

The “ugly Russian,” that brutish, bad-guy character of American spy and adventure films, turned out to be “people, just people, pretty much like us,” when the ABC comedy series “Head of the Class” came to Moscow recently.

The students at Moscow High School No. 20, where the series shot two episodes, were not out to conquer the world on behalf of Marxism-Leninism, but in a question-and-answer session with Howard Hesseman, who plays teacher Charlie Moore, they turned out to be more interested in how the U.S. political system works, whether freedom of religion is more important to Americans than freedom of the press, why Americans smile so much and what Soviet products Americans would like to import in exchange for blue jeans and pizza.

“A lot of stereotypes died in that classroom,” Michael Elias, an executive producer of the 3-year-old Warner Bros. series, said later. “The Russian kids turned out to be kids, just as Russians in general have turned out to be people, just people pretty much like us. And that is something we want to show.”

The scripts for the two episodes filmed here are pure situation comedy: The characters in “Head of the Class,” which revolves around an American high school honors class, come to Moscow for a rematch in a quiz contest and promptly set about having their little adventures around the Soviet capital.

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Two of the American boys joke about the KGB, the Soviet security police, and promptly meet two attractive girls who do indeed work for the KGB--in its headquarters cafeteria.

A right-wing, would-be yuppie in the class meets his Soviet counterpart, an equally ambitious hard-liner from the Komsomol, the Communist youth league, and they do ideological battle. And the class poet and a popular Soviet singer recite lines from Chekhov and Pushkin, two great Russian writers, to one another.

“It is all the normal American TV sitcom, though the locale has moved to Moscow,” Rich Eustis, the program’s other executive producer, said as the last filming was completed Sept. 20. “On another level, however, we are saying some things, and saying them quite consciously, about the Soviet Union and about Russians by portraying them as they are, as we found them and as we think Americans should get to know them.”

The point will probably come across the clearest when teacher Moore has a date with a beautiful Soviet counterpart he meets at High School No. 20 and they compare teaching in the Soviet Union and the United States and talk about the misconceptions that the two societies have about each other.

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“Americans don’t realize, for the most part, that people here live quite normally,” Elias said. “Even in our group, which was prepared for this trip, people were amazed by the normality of life. Somehow they didn’t expect to find gas stations and dry cleaners and grocery stores, and that is a measure of how stereotyped our image is of Moscow.

“The reactions of our own people opened our eyes and showed up how many American misconceptions there were about Russians. . . .

“We will be showing army officers strolling with their wives and kids in Red Square on Sunday; we will be showing a regular Moscow school; we will be showing a lot of things that are not part of the stereotype of the Soviet Union in the American mind. And we are using real Soviet actors in as many parts as we can so that people will see they are not the thugs portrayed in a lot of American films.”

Noting that “Head of the Class” has an audience currently estimated at 35 million, many of them children and teen-agers, Eustis added, “If we can diffuse the concept of Soviet people as enemies, we may have done some good.”

“Another thing we are going to change is the image of Russian women,” he said, describing Olga Tabo, the 19-year-old drama student who plays the Soviet teacher, as “gorgeous, astonishingly beautiful.”

When they filmed the episode last season in which a “Soviet” team, composed of Russian-speaking actors recruited from around Los Angeles, went to the United States for a quiz contest, Elias and Eustis already had in mind the “enemy image” of the Soviet Union as portrayed in a succession of American movies, including “Red Dawn,” “Rambo II” and “Amerika.”

“The first episode shows the kids cooperating, refusing to have a tie-breaking question in favor of friendship and deciding on a rematch in Moscow,” Elias said.

“In these two new episodes, the kids begin to discover the real Russia, not the stereotype, and to interact more broadly. This is not at all forced--this has been our own experience in our two weeks of filming here.”

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When they saw peace slogans in the classrooms at Moscow High School No. 20, the Americans at first thought their Soviet hosts had put them up in preparation for their visit and the films, but then they noticed that some of the posters were drawn by students last year and that there were just too many varieties to have been put up overnight.

“This impressed us--that they are teaching their children about the need for world peace,” Elias said. “I hope that it is something we can convey about the Soviet Union within the context of what is still entertainment. I am not sure how much effort we put into educating our children for peace.”

The Americans at Warner Bros. and ABC discovered that Soviet film-making procedures often differ considerably from those of the United States, in terms of casting, rehearsing, preparing locations and other aspects, but that none was irreconcilable.

“Being the first to shoot an American television series here has meant a lot of pioneering,” Elias said, “but they probably had to adjust more to our peculiar way of doing things than we to theirs.”

Organizing the production here took nine months and a financial commitment by ABC and Warner to underwrite the $300,000 in additional costs for the two episodes, Elias said. Total cost for the two episodes will be about $1.5 million, he said.

The first of the Moscow episodes will be broadcast on Oct. 26.


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