Harper: Getting the Last Laugh : Television: Actress who was fired from NBC’s ‘Hogan Family’ returns with a comedy called ‘City’ for CBS--in the same Monday time slot.
It may be a first for prime-time TV: an actress who died in a comedy series on one network will compete with her own ghost when she returns in another comedy on another network in the same Monday night time slot.
This may sound like the plot for some high-concept and awful TV movie, but it’s about to happen for real when “City,” a new CBS comedy starring Valerie Harper, debuts Jan. 29 at 8:30 p.m.
The new show, in which Harper plays city manager Liz Gianni, will go up against NBC’s “The Hogan Family,” a family sitcom that was called “Valerie” and starred Harper until she was fired in 1987 in a breach-of-contract dispute over creative control and money issues, which led to a protracted court battle between Harper, the show’s producer, Lorimar and NBC. Harper’s character in “The Hogan Family” was killed off and Sandy Duncan was brought in to play an aunt who takes over the raising of the three Hogan boys.
The connections don’t end there: The actress who plays Liz Gianni’s college-age daughter is Luanne Ponce, older sister of Danny Ponce, who portrays Willie Hogan, one of “The Hogan Family” children.
And the man who put Harper’s new show in direct competition with Harper’s old show is recently appointed CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky--who, like Harper, used to work for NBC. Harper said that Sagansky asked the “City” producers to speed up their production schedule by several weeks to get the show ready to replace the low-rated “Famous Teddy Z,” which is going on hiatus until March.
NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, once Sagansky’s boss, is taking the challenge seriously. “I want to win this battle,” he said after a news conference in Los Angeles last week.
Although Harper has worked for NBC since the lawsuit--in the 1988 movie “The People Across the Lake"--Tartikoff has needled her publicly. At the same news conference last week, Tartikoff presented a David Letterman-style list of the Top 10 questions asked by the press during his 10 years as programming chief; No. 4 was “How are discussions going with Valerie Harper?”
Harper won her case in September, 1988, proving that she had not quit the show in a fit of temper, as Lorimar had charged, but was wrongfully fired. The jury awarded Harper $1.4 million compensation for lost wages; allotted $220,000 to Harper’s husband and former weight-loss trainer, Tony Cacciotti, who had been co-executive producer on “Valerie,” and gave them profit participation that could total $15 million.
Her departure also led to the series being renamed, from “Valerie” to “Valerie’s Family” to the current “The Hogan Family.”
Paul Haggis, co-executive producer of Harper’s new series with Cacciotti, calls the competition with the old show “terrific.” Haggis said that he first met Harper while the court case was in process.
“To be frank, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “So we met in a restaurant, and I sat down with her and the first thing I said was, ‘I’ve heard some awful things about you.’ And she laughed, and we started talking. . . . This is going to sound like we’re staging this, but she’s the easiest actress I’ve ever worked with.”
Haggis said he also finds it easy to work with Cacciotti. Lorimar, which added Cacciotti to the “Valerie” staff as an executive producer with its original executive producers, Bob Boyett and Tom Miller, later charged that Cacciotti was unqualified and that Harper had demanded an unreasonable salary and level of creative input for him.
“Tony leaves me completely alone to work on the script,” Haggis said. “We get together for casting and production. He’s running the production end of things.”
The first series idea that Haggis, Harper and Cacciotti came up with for CBS was called “Desperate Women,” about several generations of women in an Italian family in Brooklyn.
CBS rejected it: “It was a very eccentric little script,” Haggis said.
They then developed “City,” featuring Harper as a widow juggling life with a daughter recently returned home after dropping out of college and the bizarre goings-on within the city manager’s office. Originally conceived as an hour drama blending tough issues with some comedy, like “L.A. Law” or “Hill Street Blues,” the team later adapted the idea to the sitcom format.
“Frankly, I didn’t much like her old series; I told her that when I met her,” Haggis said. “I really think she belongs heading an ensemble cast.”
The series also stars Todd Sussman, Tyra Ferrell, Sam Lloyd, Liz Torres, Mary Jo Keenan, James Lorinz and Stephen Lee as Harper’s co-workers.
Harper’s attorney, Barry Langberg, said that her court case had had “a significant effect” on deal-making in Hollywood.
“A large number of attorneys and business managers since that case, and some studio executives too, say people in the industry now are much more conscious of having a definitive written agreement, so problems don’t arise in the future,” he said.
That’s certainly true for her, he said. This time around, the roles of all parties are better defined by Harper’s contract, including Harper’s right to “creative contribution” to the show.
“We have a real complete contract that was signed by all parties,” Langberg said. “I know that Tony (Cacciotti) has been very active in putting this show together, the show was itself created by Tony and Paul Haggis and Valerie. Valerie has been part of this from the beginning.”
Harper, a former star on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and her own spinoff, “Rhoda,” called her problems with Lorimar “the exception rather than the rule” in her work in the entertainment industry, and said the new contract was tight enough that “there would be no problems. The contract stuff--it’s in one ear and out the other for me,” she continued. “But this time, it wasn’t a ‘we’ll settle it later’ handshake deal like the other one was. . . . I just said: ‘We can’t do it later.’ ”
“I have really completed it for myself, inside,” Harper said of her bitter legal battle with Lorimar. “I really don’t feel angry or vindictive or anything toward the people I was involved with at that time. Listen, people make mistakes, people do things--and you go onward. You put it behind you. There’s no money in bitterness. There’s no credential in it, no payoff. You just make yourself sick, I think.”
Harper said she would never use the title “Valerie” for a show for herself again. “I wouldn’t want to--no, I’m proud of that show,” she said. “I was on 32 episodes. They (Lorimar) say 31, because they erased me (from the last one). But I have the tape!”