Scolari Walking a Tightrope Over Rating Quicksand

<i> The Washington Post</i>

“Newhart’s” Michael Harris, a vain, somewhat arrogant and--many think--quintessential yuppie, is in trouble.

In a downward spiral that began in January, Harris (played by Peter Scolari) was fired from the “Vermont Today” television series.

In February, having discovered that not even an executive headhunter could find him another job in television, Harris became a salesman at a discount shoe store.

To keep up appearances, he took his “cupcake,” the equally self-centered Stephanie Vanderkellen (Julia Duffy), to their favorite restaurant, then suffered further humiliation when the maitre d’ flambeed his invalid credit card at the table. (The flambe idea, Scolari said, was Duffy’s.)


Episodes earlier this month did not center on either Michael or Stephanie. But in an upcoming show, Harris’ misfortunes continue when, reduced to doing mime outside a restaurant to earn money, he discovers that Stephanie is dining inside with wealthy Scooter Drake, the Rhode Islander who has just bought Dick Louden’s inn. A distraught Harris creates a scene and is carted off to jail.

In the March 27 episode, Harris enters a sanitarium and encounters a patient (Eileen Brennan) who checked in for an eight-day rest and never checked out. This installment, Scolari said, repays Brennan, who guested earlier in a “soft” episode.

By April 3, Michael Harris emerges “renewed and more sensitive than Alan Alda, and he’ll appear on Dick’s talk show.”

What’s going on here? Is the fall of Michael Harris a caveat for yuppies? Is it an ending for a character at the end of a series? (“Newhart,” in its seventh season, is struggling on Monday nights, largely ignored by CBS’ promotions department, Scolari said.)


“We’re all suffering a bit of a morale break,” he admitted. “In all fairness to these guys (the writers), they can’t know where they’re going, because we don’t know whether there’ll be an eighth season. They have a wonderful, glorious last episode planned.”

Having played Michael Harris for four seasons, Scolari differs with fans who think Harris is a yuppie extraordinaire.

“I’ve grown tremendously fond of the character, particularly since they’ve allowed his soul to emerge,” he said. “The true definition of a yuppie is that of a waterfowl: Things just roll off their backs. But he experiences all things too deeply, too passionately.”

Peter Scolari might have qualified as a yuppie himself if he’d stayed in Scarsdale, N.Y., where he went to elementary school (in the third grade he played a sultan in a production of “Peer Gynt” and managed to upstage the lead). At Edgemont High School he participated in football, baseball and track. He also could walk on his hands and juggle, skills he used later in a repertory troupe.

His father, Arthur Scolari, practiced law in Manhattan, and his mother, Barbara, had been a singer. Among her friends in show business was a voice animator who arranged for young Scolari, at 13, to dub the voices of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn for animation.

Later, Scolari said, he and his mother learned that the cartoons had been aired on Saturday mornings and represented his first professional experience, although he was never paid or credited. The friendship with the voice animator did not survive the rift, he said.

Scolari spent a year at Occidental College, but when he was 19, his father died. He returned to New York to sell the family home, enrolled at City College of New York (he quit 19 credits short of graduation) and joined the Colonnade Rep troupe.

For seven years Scolari studied acting and mime alongside Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman and others, and in 1978 he appeared in more than 100 performances of “Moliere in Spite of Himself.”


Scolari also taught playwriting at two New York City high schools, an experience with happy memories. “I’ve often said those were probably the most exciting times in my career--not those times when I was getting cheers or curtain calls off-Broadway or getting reviews in the New York Times, but the experiences in the classroom. Those kids knew I had something to offer them, and they knew my heart was in the right place. And I was a better actor on stage and a more clear individual to my friends and family.”

Heading west, Scolari was tapped for ABC’s “Bosom Buddies,” with Tom Hanks. Critics panned the sitcom, but 36,000 fan letters bought it a second season. Scolari thought “we were the best TV comedy team since Jack Klugman and Tony Randall.”

Working in television turned out to be a mixed blessing. Scolari was offered the lead in the touring company of “Amadeus,” but not the chance to replace Tim Curry on Broadway. Scolari declined, planning to audition for the movie, but he said director Milos Forman refused to audition television actors. Mark Hamill replaced Curry and did the tour; Tom Hulce got the movie role.

Scolari’s bad fortune continued. In 1983, while he was rehearsing for a guest spot on “Happy Days,” his wife of two years, Brooklyn attorney Lisa Kretzchmar, asked for a divorce.

But the next year, while filming a low-budget comedy called “Rosebud Beach Hotel,” he met costume designer Debra Steagal, whom he married in 1986. They are now the parents of Nicholas, born last July. And his guest spot on “Newhart” became a regular role, gaining him Emmy nominations in 1987 and 1988. (John Larroquette of “Night Court” won both times.)

“I’m happy to be nominated, but Mr. Newhart has not been nominated or the show, and this show is in a class all by itself,” he said. “I just don’t think there’s a stronger cast, a more solid blend of bizarre talent. And without a good time slot, and having lost much or all of our audience, we have made some of our best shows.”

If the series is dropped, he added, “we have no plans for a spinoff. Michael and Stephanie belong on ‘The Newhart Show.’ ”

Whatever happens, Scolari said, “I wouldn’t trade these two or three episodes in these last few weeks for a Number One rating. They’ve given me a chance to do my very best work.”