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A Poignant Romance on ‘Heat of Night’

TV or not TV. . . .

CHANGES: Carroll O’Connor is a Southern police chief in NBC’s “In the Heat of the Night,” but tonight’s episode finds him in a bittersweet romance.

As Chief Bill Gillespie, O’Connor professes his love for a black city councilwoman (Denise Nicholas). Couch potatoes will recall Nicholas as co-star of the 1969-1974 series “Room 222,” a drama set in a school.

In a long-developing relationship of “In the Heat of the Night,” the chief and councilwoman “are just sort of thrown together at a policeman’s ball,” says O’Connor. “He takes her home, and in saying good night, he finally confesses to her the way he feels about her. He tells her that he’s crazy about her and he kisses her. She likes him a lot too.

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“He goes home, and that’s it. They both admit there’s not much that can happen with this relationship. I don’t think they could contemplate marriage in a small town in the deep South where they’re both political figures with constituencies. What I’m showing is a relationship that by all standards of common sense should develop into something normal but remains outside the realm of normality because of prejudices that exist.”

“In the Heat of the Night” takes another twist next Tuesday when the elegant song stylist Bobby Short guest-stars as an old-time musician in an episode in which a tune leads to the solution of a crime.

“I’ve known Bobby for 30 years,” says O’Connor, “and I thought that if the guy is a performer, he ought to be able to act. I called, sent him a script and he was thrilled. When you see him do this thing--wow.”

COFFEE BREAK: Marty Ryan left as executive producer of NBC’s “Today” show nearly two years ago in the wake of anchor Bryant Gumbel’s controversial internal memo and the arrival of Deborah Norville.

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“NBC decided it wanted a change,” says Ryan, now executive producer of ABC’s 90-minute “Home” series, which airs weekdays at 10 a.m. He was replaced on “Today” by Tom Capra, who announced last week that he’s leaving the news show to go into entertainment programming.

“I thought what I was doing at ‘Today’ was pretty good,” says Ryan. “We were in first place, making a lot of money. But I didn’t like the direction of the news division. It was increasingly driven by bottom-line mentality and not quality mentality.”

Ryan took “about a year off to try to get my son and daughter to remember what my name was. And I began the long, slow job search.” He started talking to ABC executive Dennis Swanson, whose duties include running the network’s daytime lineup.

He wound up with “Home,” which is co-hosted by Gary Collins and Beth Ruyak and is produced at ABC Television Center in Hollywood. A refugee from New York, home of “Today,” Ryan now lives with his family in Calabasas, “and we love it here.”

“Our goal with ‘Home,’ ” says Ryan, “is to reach primarily women and help with cooking and health and parenting and everything that touches their lives and their families. Swanson’s idea is that there should be a 90-minute program in the middle of the day that is as much of a franchise as ‘Good Morning America’ is earlier in the day.”

For “Today,” Ryan arrived at work at 5 a.m. For “Home,” he’s on duty by 6 or 6:30 a.m.: “It’s work, but it’s not heavy lifting.”

WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?: Because ABC’s new “Homefront” series is about GIs returning after World War II, “People thought, ‘Who the hell is going to watch it except older folks?,’ ” says co-executive producer David Jacobs.

Instead, says Jacobs, “I can’t get people over 50 to watch the show"--but it’s doing well enough that it was picked up last week for the remainder of the 1991-1992 season.

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“I can’t make jokes because I’m over 50,” adds the producer. “But the demographics are high among women 18 to 35 and good with men 18 to 35. One reason is that there are very young casts with romantic stories.”

In addition, Jacobs thinks “the ends of centuries are always reflective. It’s not nostalgia. People are looking back. You’re eager to go on to the next century, but you don’t want to leave anything behind. There’s an interest in where we came from.

“World War II seems like an era that wasn’t beaten to death in recent years. The ‘60s were beaten to death. Kids growing up today hear about the ‘60s so much from their parents that they’re sick of it. But this is about their grandparents.”

DRAWING BOARD: Randy Shilts, author of the groundbreaking AIDS history “And the Band Played On,” dropped us a thank-you note for our item of last week hoping that the Magic Johnson case hastens the making of HBO’s long-awaited film version of the book. “I sure hope your comments get things moving,” writes Shilts.

BULLETIN BOARD: Jot it down--CBS’ second festival of TV retrospectives begins Saturday with a look at “The Bob Newhart Show” of the 1970s. Sunday brings another revival of “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And Monday features a special about “MASH.”

SILENTS, PLEASE: Hey, Henry Gibson (“Laugh-In”) isn’t that old, but he sure was a delight to watch Monday night as a silent-film star threatened with death on “MacGyver.” Lots of derring-do, clever makeup and special effects made the outing great fun.

THE SKY’S THE LIMIT: All that political coverage by Century Cable hasn’t stopped some of our readers from howling about the latest rate increase slapped on viewers. We’ve said it before: There has to be an end to exclusive cable franchises.

FAST FORWARD: Can that jowly Sen. Bill Bradley we see so much on C-SPAN really be the same, dashing basketball forward who thrilled us with Princeton and the New York Knicks? Oh, Bill.

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ON GUARD: Watching former Celtic Bob Cousy talk to Roy Firestone on ESPN, you understood the legacy of intelligence that the great guard, along with Bill Russell, has left the Boston basketball franchise to this day.

IN THE MOOD: Say what you will about cable, but it’s pretty thrilling to be able to zap from the Mills Brothers singing “Up a Lazy River” on the Nostalgia Channel to the Commitments knocking out “Try a Little Tenderness” on VH-1. A little cultural history right before your eyes.

LADY LUCK: The secret to Roseanne’s success is that she may not be every woman, but she is Everywoman.

BEING THERE: Johnny Carson says that Mario Cuomo once “experimented with decisiveness.”

Say good night, Gracie. . . .


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