TELEVISION : The Dawning of 'Evening Shade' : How the producing team of Harry and Linda Thomason lured Burt Reynolds and other movie heavyweights to a sitcom

Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creator, frequent writer and co-executive producer of CBS' "Evening Shade," refers to the half-hour series about life in a fictional small town in Arkansas as "hick television." To her and to her husband and partner, producer/director Harry Thomason, both Arkansas born, that is a compliment. "She considers herself a hick, and that's how we met," Harry recalls. "She walked into my office and said, 'I hear there's another hick here!' She uses that term in a loving sense."

But the actors whom she and Harry assembled to portray the town's amiable, eccentric characters are anything but hicks. They constitute just about the glitziest gathering of talent that has ever drawled dialogue--or, for that matter, has ever been seen regularly in a television sitcom. The result has had critics in ecstasy and sent ratings climbing since the show went on the air last September--not to Top 20 status but at least to the point where the show often wins its Monday night time slot.

"From the get-go," says Burt Reynolds, the show's star, co-executive producer and chief talent gatherer, the plan was to seek a dream cast drawn from film and theater as well as television. Former box-office champ Reynolds, at 55, is essaying his first sitcom. Charles Durning and Michael Jeter, both of whom won Tony Awards (Broadway's highest honor) last season, are regulars. So are Elizabeth Ashley (another Tony winner), Hal Holbrook (who has won five Emmys), Ossie Davis and Anne Wedgeworth.

The only sitcom veteran besides Wedgeworth is Marilu Henner, who appeared in "Taxi" for five years.

"My agent called completely out of nowhere," Henner recalled. "He said that Burt Reynolds and Linda Bloodworth wanted to see me the next day. We met and talked about the idea and they told me who was in it. I said, 'I can't believe it. Every week these people are going to be on the show?'

"After the meeting," she said, "I called my agent on my car phone and said, 'Don't let this one get away!' "

How such a dream cast was assembled for a sitcom is a story of unusual determination to seek the very best, strong network backing, stronger personal relationships and plain luck.

Linda and Harry Thomason, who also oversee CBS' "Designing Women," had been planning a half-hour show set in a small town named Evening Shade for more than a year. There are actually two tiny towns in Arkansas named Evening Shade--the name was suggested to the Thomasons by Hilary Clinton, a close friend of theirs and wife of the state's governor, William Clinton--but the show is really based on Linda's memories of growing up in Poplar Bluff, Mo.

Harry recalled: "We were desperately trying to think of a cast for this show. . . . Linda does things a little differently; she gets the cast and then writes the show. So Jeff Sagansky (president of CBS Entertainment), Howard Stringer (president of the CBS Broadcast Group), Linda and I sat down on the floor in our office at Columbia and went through the (Screen Actors Guild) catalogues. We couldn't come up with anybody.

"Finally, Linda said, 'What we need is somebody like Burt Reynolds,' and Sagansky said, 'Let's get him.' Howard said, 'You don't really think he'd do a half-hour show?' Jeff said, 'Let's call and ask.' "

What they didn't know then, but soon found out, was that Reynolds was looking for a sitcom in which to star.

A veteran of more than 40 films, he had returned to television in 1989 in a detective series called "B. L. Stryker," but by early last year it was clear that the show had not caught on. Reynolds began considering other options.

"I had always heard that people were kind of stunned I had never done anything with a live audience (most sitcoms, unlike dramatic series, are filmed before a studio audience) except 'The Tonight Show,' " the actor commented recently during a week of interviews on the "Evening Shade" set at Studio City's MTM/CBS studio. "I kind of agreed with that."

Did the negative connotations of working on a sitcom worry him? "Yes, they did," Reynolds added, "but I thought this might be the last stop for me and so I've got to take all the bad and the good and the ugly and learn something."

He met with "three or four" writer-producers whom he thought could deliver a quality project for him, then winnowed his choices to Linda Thomason and Hugh Wilson ("WKRP in Cincinnati," "Frank's Place").

"It was Hugh or Linda right to the last moment," Reynolds recalled " . . . I swung towards Linda because it sounded like she was talking about me--me at this time in my life--when she talked about the character in 'Evening Shade.' It wasn't me in terms of how or what most people seem to think of me, though. I said, 'What kind of character do you see me doing?' and she said, 'Well, I've always felt that the kind of parts you should play and the kind of parts you'd be wonderful in are the parts Jimmy Stewart would play.'

"I was so touched that she thought that was the kind of thing I could do. He is my favorite actor (and a guest on the first of Reynolds' new talk-show specials, 'Burt Reynolds' Conversations With. . . ,' to air on CBS this spring) and I was touched that she saw I had some kind of comic ability and that she put me in a category where I could play somebody that was Everyman and not some cocky. . . .

"She asked what I would have done if I hadn't been an actor," Reynolds continued, "and I said, 'probably a football coach.' I love kids and know I am very good at communicating with young people and I love sports. My brother was a high school football coach for 20 years and when my dad talks about the two of us, he considers my brother as having a little more success than I have. . . . Especially in the South, where I'm from, you have two sports: football and spring football." (Reynolds played football on a Florida State scholarship until a knee injury ended his athletic career.)

Ergo, Reynolds' character in "Evening Shade," was instantly transformed from the journalist that Thomason had been contemplating to Wood Newton, who, after a 15-year pro career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, returns to his hometown to coach the perennially last-place high school football team.

"So we're then going back and forth about the other characters," Reynolds said, "and Linda says, 'There should be a town eccentric,' and I say, 'like Elizabeth Ashley,' and she says 'doctor' and I say 'like Charles Durning.' So we penciled in our dream cast. Ossie Davis as Ponder Blue--he has a barbecue stand where everybody goes; Anne Wedgeworth as Durning's wife-- my first roommate in New York," he interjected, "was Rip Torn, when he was married to the 18-year-old Anne Wedgeworth. Hal Holbrook for Evan Evans, the owner of the town paper--his wife, Dixie Carter, is on 'Designing Women.' Michael Jeter (cast as Reynolds' assistant coach) came out of nowhere; Marilu (cast as his wife, Ava) I've known a long time.

"When it was time for Linda to go to the network and say 'this is what we want,' someone looked at the cast and said, 'Wonderful, but we won't be able to afford camera or film.' So I said 'Call them.' We started calling and the dream cast came together."

"This is probably the most expensive half-hour show to start up because of the cast," observed Harry Thomason. The budget hovers around $800,000 per episode--more than $100,000 over the sitcom average. "In order to do the show, CBS was willing to pay a premium license fee. Another thing we did to allow these people to make the money they wanted per show was to allow them to come and go. We said, 'Just do 10 or 17 shows a year.' The way Linda writes (she writes the script the weekend preceding filming of the episode), she can write with who's going to be there."

The start of another week, and the cast has gathered for a reading of the script in MTM's cavernous Stage 19, previously the site of CBS' "Bagdad Cafe." This week's episode, "Into the Woods," is about Wood, Evan and Ponder's annual hunting trip, which this year includes Wood's son, Taylor (Jay Ferguson), and the Jeter character, Herman Styles. (The installment is scheduled to be broadcast Monday at 8 p.m.)

For most of them, the opportunity to work with Reynolds and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason allayed concerns about appearing in a sitcom and proved more enticing than monetary considerations.

Ossie Davis, 73, who appeared with Reynolds in the "Stryker" series, explained: "Burt called and told me he was doing 'Evening Shade' and would I like to come along? He said it was a sitcom and, of course, I had a little trepidation about that--the formula is strange and slightly intimidating. My fear, after watching sitcoms, is that they're so tenuous I feel I might fall through the damn thing and crash on the level beneath. I'm too heavy, my feet are too big, my head is too solid. I can't float on that surface that the sitcom tends to generate. But once you get to be a member of the Burt Reynolds flying ensemble, you're likely to find yourself doing a whole lot of things you thought would never come your way."

Michael Jeter, a native of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., was recruited for the show by Harry Thomason. "I was doing 'Grand Hotel' (for which he won his Tony for best supporting actor in a musical) and Harry flew into town, told me his wife had written this new series and asked, 'What do we have to do to get you to do it?' He started naming these people--Holbrook, Ossie Davis, Charles Durning, Elizabeth Ashley--and I realized these were people I've been watching for years and whose work I admire. And someone is asking if I would like to do a show with them? There was no question about it."

It was four weeks before Jeter, who flew to Los Angeles to make a quick appearance in the "Evening Shade" pilot, was able to complete his contractual obligations to "Grand Hotel" and permanently join the cast, where his hyper-antic character often threatens to steal the show.

He has found no problem making the transition from stage to tube. "There used to be this reverse pecking order," he said. "It used to be if you really wanted to have a career in movie or television, the first thing you had to do was make a name for yourself on the stage. Now it's flip-flopped. If you want to get a really good role in New York these days, the best way is to have a television or movie name. Someone with a TV 'Q' rating (a measure of recognizability) can walk into the New York Shakespeare Festival tomorrow and have a lot better chance of getting a role in a play than someone who's been working in New York for 15 years"--as has Jeter, 38.

It's Thursday, camera-blocking day, and a hassled Hal Holbrook has been racing back and forth from set to dressing room, where he's on the telephone trying to juggle a tandem appearance with wife Dixie Carter at a theatre in North Carolina. At lunch, jabbing at his egg salad sandwich in the studio commissary, he vents a frustration about television that few of his colleagues on the show seem to share.

"I decided last year that I wanted to spend the rest of my productive years doing a play every year . . . a play of some substance . . . some of the classics that I missed out on because I got myself buried out here making money." "Evening Shade" will let him do that--giving him time off and paying him enough to subsidize his theater work. Holbrook was absent from the series for three months this season performing "King Lear" before sold-out houses in Cleveland and New York.

He is doing the show because of his friendship with the Thomasons, and for the money, as he made clear. "The way it works out now, it's a hard thing not to do," he said. "Not having a contract (he is the only star on the show working without a contract--just a handshake), but having access to making this kind of money helps support my going out and doing plays. When I did 'Lear,' I could only pay half my hotel bill with what I earned every week. That's what you have to do.

"And with Linda, I knew the material would be good, not drecky. I knew it wouldn't be cheap junk."

He is, nonetheless, uneasy about the sitcom format. "What else are you going to do on TV these days? Do you think that I like to get into a blue-striped suit and play an old lawyer on some show about lawyers? Do you think that would be thrilling for me? I'm 65 years old, I love acting and I'm bored with this goddamned business!"

There is no question in either Charles Durning's or Elizabeth Ashley's minds why they are doing the show. "I've never done a series before," said Ashley, who plays Holbrook's eccentric sister, Freida Evans. "The telephone rang and it was big Burt (with whom she made "Paternity" two decades ago). I was thrilled when he said he was going to do a situation comedy--Burt is one of those people who, when you say his name anywhere on the planet, people know who he is and like him. That's a rare thing. Burt is your devilishly handsome, drop-dead, gorgeous mega-macho movie star, but he has something none of the others like that do . . . an utterly brilliant talent for a particularly American type of comedy.

"Anyway, he called, out of the blue, when I desperately needed something--I've never known when one gig is over what I'll do next--and asked me to be in the show. I said 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' "

"I was doing 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' in New York," recalled Durning, who won a Tony for his performance. "Burt called and asked me to do the show and I said I wasn't that keen on a sitcom. Burt, whom I'm very fond of, said my decision wouldn't affect our friendship. . . . Then I heard who was in the cast and that the writer was Linda Bloodworth and I thought, 'Oh, my God!' "

Louisiana-raised Ashley, for whom Neil Simon wrote "Barefoot in the Park," believes her character is one of Bloodworth's unique creations. "Where I grew up, conversation was a blood sport and if you had any character at all, you grew up to be an eccentric. Being eccentric was one of the privileges of being grown up. Southern comedy, like Linda writes, is very different because it is always based on character and it comes from point of view--situation and circumstance colliding with character. And it is always grounded in enormous humor about one's self, unlike Northern humor, which can be deprecating, complaining or just plain mean."

Finally, it's Friday night and the studio audience arrives . . . among them such Reynolds fans as Richard Chamberlin, pro-football great Lynn Swann, Dixie Carter and Doug McClure (a friend since both were under contract at Universal in 1958; Burt cast him in a high school reunion episode).

Asked about the likelihood of his wife, Loni Anderson (also in the audience with their son, Quinton, 2 1/2) appearing on the show, Reynolds said no. "It's tough enough being married to an actress, and she's been unbelievable with this boy . . . she just totally stopped working. As much as I love working with her, I don't think she should do this show, and this would be a tough show for a blonde from Minneapolis to come into."

"I resist the word sitcom," Linda Bloodworth-Thomason explained. "I say they give us 23 minutes and we fill it the best way we can. It's a little play we put on each week, a little video novel. I think that the characters on television, because they are in your living room every week, have the potential of having the same attraction for an audience as the people in novels."

Much of the material found in the show was acquired while Linda was growing up within the extended family that populates many small Southern towns, in her case Poplar Bluff, Mo., "which Evening Shade really is," she said. "I wanted to show that 'hicks' can be very intelligent and very sophisticated and very complicated. That's what we're trying on 'Evening Shade' . . . the same kind of familial love that you felt in (the "Andy Griffith Show's") Mayberry but with a 1990 sophisticated veneer on it."

As if scripted, Linda's explanation of the appeal of "Evening Shade" is vividly illustrated on the set. Filming is nearing completion when, with hundreds in the audience watching and dozens of crew members intent on finishing, everything suddenly stops. Quinton has become upset at seeing his father handcuffed to a pole in the penultimate scene of the episode. "He wants to kiss him and make him well," Loni says, taking the little boy to his father on the brightly lit set.

"We're just playing," Reynolds, instantly a father for real, assures his son. "It's just a play."

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