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The Play’s the Thing : Top TV Writer-Producers Rekindle Passion for Stage

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Koch is former West Coast editor of Channels magazine

“In the late 1940s I collaborated on a short-lived (four performances), long-forgotten revue for the Los Angeles stage called ‘My L.A.’ ”

So begins playwright-screenwriter-television writer Larry Gelbart’s program notes for his Tony-winning “City of Angels,” now midway through its four-month run at the Shubert and still running on Broadway where it’s been for the last two years.

But that “dismal experience” had a positive effect, he writes: “The bug to write for the theater had been implanted so deeply it could only be removed by major surgery. . . .”

Gelbart, who adapted “MASH” for TV with Gene Reynolds, isn’t the only successful TV writer-producer with the theater deeply implanted in him. Recently, more of his big-name colleagues than ever before have joined him as either writers or producers for the legitimate stage, from Los Angeles to Massachusetts. Among them: James L. Brooks (“The Simpsons,” “Taxi,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”), Jay Tarses (“The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” “Buffalo Bill,” “The Bob Newhart Show”), Tom Patchett (“Alf,” “The Bob Newhart Show”), Matt Williams (“Roseanne,” “Carol & Company,” “Home Improvement”), Jeffrey Lewis (“Hill Street Blues”) and Tom Fontana (“St. Elsewhere”).

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Now that television has helped give them financial resources, television’s top writer-producers can indulge their love for the stage and the need to stay in control of their scripts, something that even the most powerful TV producers can’t always get away with in dealing with networks. The theater also allows them to do less commercial subjects, something they feel they can’t do readily in television, where they see the networks wanting increasingly banal material. And Broadway still beckons as The Destination.

“The freedom for the writer, the absence of people positively insisting on changes (in the theater), is soul food,” says Gelbart, who turned a novelist’s struggle with Hollywood’s often-oppressive collaborative screenwriting process into a central issue of “City of Angels.”

“This has happened before,” says Steve Lawson, associate artistic director of the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, and a writer for TV’s “Hallmark Hall of Fame” and “St. Elsewhere,” “but not to the extent that it seems to be happening now.”

“It is a greater number than (from any other medium) in the past,” confirms Lloyd Richards, former dean of the Yale School of Drama and former artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. Richards, who has been advising some of these television talents, sees the movement of TV names to the stage as a good sign. “It brings in new voices,” he says, “which is always refreshing, new ideas, which is stimulating . . . and New York could certainly use it.”

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As with Gelbart, theater was the first love of many of these writers, but few could make a living at it. As a result, they drifted into television, where they enjoyed popular success and reaped the financial rewards that accompany it.

“A lot of the TV writers I know started in the theater and always had literary ambitions,” says Tom Fontana, the Emmy Award-winning writer-producer of “St. Elsewhere” who is now playwright-in-residence at the Writers Theater in New York City. “They’ve made money in TV and are now saying, ‘Maybe we ought to go back to what we wanted to do.’ A lot of us have literary pretensions we’d like to keep alive.”

For some, renewed flirtation with their first love has been sparked by increasing disappointment with the direction of network television, underscored by the recent cancellations of such drama series as “thirtysomething” and “China Beach.”

“If you’ve already worked in television for a while and gotten your stash,” says Jeffrey Lewis, a former executive producer of “Hill Street Blues” and last season’s ambitious, now-canceled “Lifestories,” “there’s a disincentive to work in it because of the lack of creative opportunities, due to the collapse of network self-confidence.”

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As a result, Lewis says he’s trying to produce the first play he has written, a fictionalized account of the life of I. T. Trebitsch-Lincoln, whom Lewis describes as a scam artist who lived his final days as a Buddhist monk in a YMCA in Shanghai during the early part of this century. Lewis claims Trebitsch-Lincoln was a Hungarian Jew who became an Anglican member of the British Parliament, an adviser to a Chinese warlord and, perhaps, a spy during World War I. Despite this fantastical background, the play takes place entirely in Trebitsch-Lincoln’s room at the Shanghai Y as he ponders life’s metaphysical questions.

“It’s difficult subject matter,” says Lewis. “It’s not commercial.”

Despite two offers to turn the play into a TV miniseries, Lewis says he’s holding out for a chance to put it on stage, given the trivializing changes he expects television would demand. “It’s cold out there for anything serious on TV,” he says.

Similarly, Jay Tarses, who has a development deal with NBC, saw his first play, “Man in His Underwear,” given a week’s run at this summer’s Williamstown Theater Festival. The production, directed by Paul Benedict, took place at Williams College, the Massachusetts school where Tarses twice flunked out as an American studies major before graduating from Ithaca College in theater.

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“I thought I might have something to say in more than the confined format of television,” he says. In theater, “You can take it beyond one-liners if you have something to get off your chest.”

“Man in His Underwear” centers around a garage and closet space organizer, who, as he turns 58, considers having a baby with a much younger mistress. His 35-year marriage has reached an impasse and his wife can’t have any more children.

“It’s a romance,” says Tarses. “The marriage becomes less and less communicative. It’s about the death of passion, about growing old, about fighting growing old and about what kind of romance children think their parents should have.”

Tarses reluctantly concedes that he dreams of making it to Broadway. “I’ve always loved the idea of theater,” he says. He and other TV writers “can afford to do this. It gives you a better feeling than what we do for money.”

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Gelbart continues to focus his energies on theater as well. His latest work, “Power Failure,” directed by Michael Engler and starring Christopher Lloyd and Christine Estabrook, recently finished its initial run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Gelbart says the play’s next stop will likely be another regional theater or cable television because of its subject matter.

The play centers around corruption, betrayal and decadence among people in high places. “It’s quite savage and very dark,” says Gelbart. “It made a lot of people squirm, including me. There’s no chance it could go on network television.”

So concerned with artistic freedom are these wealthy TV writer-producers that some are financing the production of other fledgling playwrights as well as their own plays.

Perhaps the best known of the group is James L. Brooks, said to have the richest writer-producer deal in Hollywood. To get his services for TV and film, Brooks required Columbia Pictures to agree to finance a theatrical arm of his Gracie Films production company, through which he mounted TV writer Lisa-Maria Radano’s “Brooklyn Laundry” at Hollywood’s small Coronet Theater. The play is now in rewrites and Brooks is said to be thinking of taking it to London’s West End--a substantial investment--in hopes of drumming up enough interest and prestige to bring the production to New York.

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Through his production company, Patchett-Kaufman Entertainment, Tom Patchett has already staged five theatrical productions at smaller L.A. venues--"Wallem and Tolan Do the Coast,” a revue written by and starring Linda Wallem and Peter Tolan; “Self- Defense” by Joe Cacaci; “Self-Storage” by Tony Spiradakis; “Old Friends” by Marty Zurla; “Natural Causes” by Eric Chappell; and “Wolverines,” Patchett’s first play.

Similarly, Matt Williams has set up a separate company, Novi Productions, run by his wife, actress Angelina Fiordellisi, to stage theatrical productions. Last April, Novi put on “The Gravity of Honey” by Bruce E. Rodgers, at the Tiffany Theater in Los Angeles. Williams says that his own early career disappointments in New York theater have driven him to use his new-found Hollywood clout and cash to nurture struggling playwrights and subsidize new plays, regardless of their likely commercial appeal:

“When people say, ‘You sold out for television,’ I say, ‘Damn right!’ So I made a vow to myself that if I made it in television or film, I would put something back.”

A cynic might suggest that these productions might simply be a less costly way of developing television series, without the expense of a pilot.

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“You hope that will happen,” Williams says unapologetically. “Some of that money can then be circulated right back into theater. Television,” he adds, “could be theater’s best friend.”


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