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‘Til Death Do They Part : Woods and Lithgow Are ‘The Boys’ in ABC’s Movie About the Effect of Smoking in Close Quarters

Times Staff Writer

Bill Link and Dick Levinson were writing partners. Together in the same office, face to face for 41 years, the two of them wrote some of television’s most lasting movies (“The Execution of Private Slovik”) and TV series (“Columbo,” “Murder, She Wrote”).

Link used to say their relationship was like marriage without the sex.

Four years ago, Levinson, a smoker, died of lung cancer.

ABC’s Monday-night movie “The Boys” was written by Link as a sort of private therapy to get over Levinson’s death. In the two-hour film, the healthy non-smoker contracts lung cancer after inhaling years of secondary smoke from his tobacco-stained partner.

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The strange love story rests largely on the shoulders of stars James Woods and John Lithgow and their ability to capture the essence of the two writing partners. The actors had never worked together before.

“Except for that gun-running thing we do for the IRA,” Woods wisecracked during a picnic-lunch break on the set.

Playing against type, the reed-thin Woods, famous for frenetic roles in such films as “True Believer,” “Salvador” and the current “The Hard Way,” plays the health nut.

Lithgow, meanwhile, takes on the role of the compulsive chain-smoker. A big, malleable actor, he has starred in such diverse films as “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai,” “The World According to Garp” and “Obsession.”

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Neither actor seemed concerned about taking a break in his film career to do television.

“Each of us looks for good material. And a lot of good material today is written for television,” said Lithgow, who starred in last year’s TNT adventure “The Last Elephant,” about elephant poachers in Africa.

“There’s always been great material on television,” said Woods, who won Emmys for his roles in the 1989 TV movie “My Name Is Bill W.,” about the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and 1986’s “Promise,” both with James Garner.

“The irony is,” he said, “television now does the kind of material that movies used to do, because the independent filmmakers are gone and the studios are looking for that big blockbuster. Television now addresses the material that movies used to embrace. I mean, ‘The Best Years of Our Lives,’ for example, or ‘Gentleman’s Agreement,’ or any of those early issue-oriented pictures would now only be TV movies.”

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Although this is the first TV movie to deal directly with the issue of secondary smoke, both actors insist that “The Boys” is not a network disease-of-the-week movie.

“The secondary smoke is certainly an important aspect of the story,” Lithgow said. “One man is dying because the other man smokes. It’s an important little turn of the plot, but it’s sort of the last thing I think about. This is not an advocacy film, in my mind, at all.”

“But (secondary smoke) is the motor of the story,” Woods said. “It’s the deus ex machina , if you will, that propels the story. It causes this almost repressed friendship to finally blossom. It’s that terrible reality in life that sometimes we only are able to express our love to people when we’re losing them or have lost them.”

In a short time, Lithgow and Woods said they developed the kind of comic rapport and unspoken bond that Levinson and Link shared. The repartee is evident as they tell how Lithgow was chosen for “The Boys.”

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Said Woods: “I told my agent to close his eyes and imagine the best person to play Arty, and I’ll do the same thing. And we both came up with Mickey Rooney, but he wasn’t available.”

“So they went for someone taller,” Lithgow interjected.

“Yeah, we went for Andy Rooney,” Woods said, “and then Andy Garcia, then finally John. But John was doing ‘The Last Elephant’ at the time.”

“I was off in Africa,” Lithgow said. “You couldn’t phone in and you couldn’t get calls out, but somehow or other a faxed script arrived on my bed one night.”

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“A carrier pigeon brought it in word by word,” Woods said.

“A carrier caribou was more like it,” Lithgow corrected.

Woods and Lithgow knew and respected each other from afar while going to school in Cambridge, Mass. “I went to MIT and John went to Harvard,” Woods said.

“The first time I saw Jimmy was in a student production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘The Victors,’ when he was 19 years old,” Lithgow said.

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“And I machine-gunned Stockard Channing to death. That’s back when she was Susan Channing,” Woods added.

“Even back then, I’d heard an awful lot about him and his work process,” Lithgow said. “We work in a very, very similar way, which is perfect for this movie.”

“It’s a sort of shorthand,” Woods said.

“Very fast,” Lithgow said. “In fact, the relationship between these two writers is so easy and fun for us to play, because that’s very much like our collaborative relationship as actors. We have already devised a thousand little tricks. His mind just whirs along, and I love to keep pace with it.”

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Already, Woods and Lithgow are looking for a new project together. “We have the same agency, so we told our agents to put their heads together on our behalf,” Lithgow said.

“And they’ll probably come up with some fabulous script, and then give it to Redford and Newman,” Woods said.

“The Boys” airs Monday at 9 p.m. on ABC.


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