After appearing in such classic films as "Bonnie and Clyde," "Chinatown" and "Network," it may seem odd that Faye Dunaway would decide to do a sitcom. But says the Oscar-winner, she always wanted to be a clown.
Though movies never allowed her the opportunity to fulfill her dream, TV has. She's starring with Robert Urich in the new romantic comedy "It Had to Be You," which airs Fridays on CBS.
"I always wanted to get into that lighter, happier, looser self, who has always been there in my personal life," Dunaway explains over a quick lunch at the Warner Bros. commissary.
"I think after 'Bonnie & Clyde,' I got into the whole star machine," she acknowledges. "I was offered very elegant, sophisticated, urban roles which I had fun playing. But in my heart, I wasn't really like that. I wasn't so perfect and untouchable as that."
Dunaway began toying with the notion of a sitcom while living in England in the '80s with then-husband, photographer Terry O'Neill, and their son Liam, now 13.
"I felt like I could get into this," she says, diving into her Caesar salad. "I could do comedy. I could reinvent myself. I certainly didn't want to do an hour, which everyone thought (would be right) for me. This was an answer to everything I wanted and needed. I would like to develop a great female clown."
Actually, in "It Had to Be You," Dunaway plays a variation of her urban, sophisticated, strong modern woman. Dunaway's Laura Scofield is a successful book publisher who falls madly in love with hunky Mitch Quinn (Robert Urich), a widowed carpenter with three kids.
Co-executive producer and director David Steinberg wants the series to capture the sophisticated spirit of the Preston Sturges-Howard Hawks comedies of the '30s and '40s. "Katharine Hepburn wasn't a comedienne, but she is very funny in 'Bringing Up Baby," Steinberg says. "Barbara Stanwyck's the same way. In 'The Lady Eve,' she's gorgeous and funny."
And he believes Dunaway possesses the same qualities. "When you take a great actress like Faye and you give her the rhythms of those comedies, something unusual starts to happen," Steinberg says. "You get a situation comedy that doesn't quite look like the current things out there. It doesn't have the hipness of a 'Seinfeld,' but an evocative feeling of these old romantic comedies."
And Dunaway's been doing her homework by watching the old comedies. She's especially impressed with the late British comedian Kay Kendall ("Les Girls") and the legendary Carole Lombard. "Kay Kendall was just so frivolous, wonderful and juicy," Dunaway enthuses. "Carole Lombard was larky. Myrna Loy was fantastic!. I love Roz Russell!
"Also, coming into TV comedyland, one of the first places I went to look for research, to see and to learn was Lucille Ball. She was a genius. Her housewife clown is as important a clown as Chaplin's Tramp."
Laura Scofield, though, is very much a '90s career woman. "What does the executive woman do when (her career) is not enough?," Dunaway asks. "You want that man and you want that relationship and you want these kids. It's very much a '90s dilemma. We're now moving pretty smoothly in a man's world and being our own person. But what else do we want? The comedy comes in because she is now a fish out of water."
The willowy actress had been in discussions for a while with CBS President Jeff Sagansky about doing a comedy series. Lorimar, which has since merged with Warner Bros., offered her "It Had to Be You." Not only did Dunaway accept, she helped develop the series from the early script.
In its original form, Dunaway says, Urich's Mitch was a plumber. "I thought, 'That's not good,' " she recalls, smiling. "But I've always loved carpenters. People who build things."
Presto chango. Mitch was transformed into a carpenter.
Steinberg became involved after Dunaway was on board. "Faye came after me," says the former stand-up comic and executive producer-director of "Designing Women."
Though CBS and Steinberg were developing a series, the network and Lorimar thought Steinberg would be perfect for Dunaway and "It Had to Be You,"
Before Steinberg committed, he asked Dunaway to observe on the "Designing Women" set for three weeks, so she could learn what doing a sitcom really entailed.
"To my surprise and delight," Steinberg recalls, "she showed up an hour before I got there and left an hour after I did. She talked to the women, she talked to the cameraman and the makeup person. She became a scholar of the form."
Dunaway acknowledges it's been a a difficult adjustment going from the world of movies to doing a weekly series in front of an audience. "The show last night was our second show, and I feel like I am a thousand leagues more comfortable than in the first one," she says. "I am used to having nobody on the set. Doing a film, nobody is hanging around and watching what's going on."
"Every week she comes up 100% per cent," Steinberg says. "She's trying very hard. What she doesn't really have to learn is that she is a version of Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn."
"It Had to Be You" airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on CBS.