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The Powers of Forsythe

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Acting was a happy accident for John Forsythe.

“If anybody would have told me I was going to be an actor, I would have laughed at them,” said the youthful 74-year-old star of “The Powers That Be.” The new satirical series from executive producer Norman Lear (“All in the Family,” “Maude”) airs Saturdays on NBC.

Sports was Forsythe’s passion during college. He dropped out during his junior year to become a public-address announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“They were doing badly at the gate,” he said. “So they had people like Jesse Owens racing a thoroughbred racehorse around the bases. Jesse would beat the horse because he would cut the corners. They had (golfer) Babe Didrickson hitting 9-irons from home plate into center field into a firemen’s net. I got good at describing these things.”

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But it was very seasonal work. “I had to do something in the winter,” Forsythe said. Someone suggested his distinctive voice would make him a perfect radio actor. Forsythe initially balked at the idea.

“I said, ‘An actor? They talk funny and walk funny. I don’t know. I don’t really like them.’ In college, actors were very strange fellows.”

But he took up the suggestion and worked in radio and in the theater. “I went out on the road and drove trucks and played with Shakespeare companies and children’s theater companies. I was one of the original members of the Actor’s Studio.”

Forsythe’s career has endured 50 years. He starred on Broadway in “Mister Roberts,” (replacing Henry Fonda), “The Teahouse of the August Moon” and “Yellow Jack;” worked with director Alfred Hitchcock in the films “The Trouble With Harry” and “Topaz” and starred in several TV series, including the extremely popular “Bachelor Father,” “Charlie’s Angels” (as the voice of Charlie) and “Dynasty.”

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“I have had an interesting life for a guy who stumbled into the whole acting business,” Forsythe said.

“The Powers That Be” is Forsythe’s first series since playing Denver oil tycoon Blake Carrington in the ‘80s TV icon, ABC’s “Dynasty,” and his first comedy series since 1969’s “To Rome With Love.”

“I love comedy,” Forsythe said. “Comedy is the most rewarding thing that an actor can do because it is the hardest thing. A dramatic show has a life of its own and a thrust of its own. But in a comedy, you really have to keep the bubble up and your timing has to be plus perfec t. All your attitudes have to be sharp and clear.”

Forsythe also maintained that comedy is the most effective way of delivering a serious message. “Norman Lear is a man who is noted for having things to say,” Forsythe said. “If you sugarcoat it with comedy, with laughter, it has more meaning than if it is a polemic and hits you right between the eyes.”

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Forsythe plays long-term Sen. William Powers, who is trying to decide whether to run for a fifth term or throw his hat into the presidential ring. His overbearing wife (Holland Taylor), who beats up the help (Elizabeth Berridge), is pushing Powers to run for the presidency. Powers’ daughter (Valerie Mahaffey) is a recovering anorexic whose congressman husband (David Pierce) keeps attempting to slit his wrists.

Powers also is having an affair with his much younger chief administrative assistant (Eve Gordon). And to further complicate matters, the night Powers decides to announce his future plans, a woman (Robin Bartlett) shows up at the house and announces she is the senator’s love child from the Korean War.

Powers, Forsythe said, is a man who has lost his way. “The love child remembers having read letters I had written to her mother and he showed tremendous promise. He is a very decent man and has slipped to the point over the years where he waffles. But as a result of this girl coming into his life, he begins to stiffen. I think over the long pull he is going to be a much better guy because she reminds him of what he used to be.”

“Powers That Be” marks the first time Forsythe has filmed a series in front of a studio audience.

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“It’s a very unique experience,” he said. “It’s a combination of acting on the stage and live television. It takes me way back to the days I started on television.”

Forsythe started in the medium in 1947. “I was on the first commercial television show that was ever done, it was called ‘Miracle in the Rain,’ ” he said. “It was done at a radio studio at NBC. I think there might have been about 15 or 16 television sets in New York.”

“The Powers That Be” airs Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.


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