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Focus : With Sweeps, You Get Stars

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s May sweeps, when the networks will roll out the big guns: the Menendezes, Miss Universe and a Stephen King miniseries. And on regular shows, it means the special guest star .

If Urkel needs an aunt on “Family Matters,” have it be Donna Summer. The “Fresh Prince’s” home is for sale, have the buyer be Donald Trump and Marla Maples-Trump. “seaQuest DSV” needs a breath of fresh air, so have someone who’s parted the Red Sea: Charlton Heston (Sunday).

This is “stunt casting,” where big names who normally don’t pop up on TV--and some who never even act--show up on series. Guest-celebrity casting goes on all season, but even more so during a sweeps month, when ad rates are set for local stations. And this month the networks want to make sure that their regular shows go out with a bang before summer reruns.

“Stunt casting tells the viewer that, ‘Hey, the lights are on here,’ ” says Preston Beckman, NBC senior vice president of program planning and scheduling.

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For faltering shows, guest stars can be a godsend. Witness “Homicide,” the critically acclaimed drama series that NBC brought back from hiatus last January. For its return episode, the guest was Robin Williams, just as his movie “Mrs. Doubtfire” was drawing huge audiences in theaters.

“That episode was clearly written with him in mind,” Beckman says. “It was the ultimate stunt casting.”

Top shows have proved quite adept at knowing how to use guest stars. “Murphy Brown” will feature movie director Louis Malle, Candice Bergen’s real-life husband, playing himself. The season’s No. 1 show, “Home Improvement” will feature separate episodes with Victoria Principal, real-life improvement expert Bob Vila and the astronauts who repaired the Hubble Space telescope.

New viewers may tune in to both shows, but more than likely, the guest stars will be a wake-up call to get regular audiences to tune in.

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On one of the back-to-back episodes of “The Mommies” this week, “Lassie” and “Lost in Space” mother June Lockhart plays the divorced mother of Barb (Julia Duffy). Also in the same episode will be other TV moms of yesteryear: Barbara Billingsley (“Leave It to Beaver”) and Florence Henderson (“The Brady Bunch”) and Audra Lindley (“Bridget Loves Bernie” and “Three’s Company”). An episode filled with today’s supermodels preceeds it.

“The average viewer watches two out of every four episodes of the top-rated shows,” says David Poltrack, CBS executive vice president of research and planning. “So (with celebrity casting) you may get a higher proportion of the core audience. You get them to say, ‘There’s something special about this episode. I better watch it.’ ”

On “Evening Shade,” singer Tony Bennett, suddenly hotter than ever, plays against type this month: He acts. “I’m not shooting for (acting roles), but if I get a magnificent script, I’m not going to knock it,” says Bennett, who plays a nightclub singer-turned-salesman. “I went to work, and I loved it.”

For the cast of “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.,” guest stars meant a chance to toss a football around with National Football League stars and game announcer Terry Bradshaw, who plays a “Robert Duvall-esque colonel,” according to executive producer Carlton Cuse.

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“A lot of the NFL audience will like Brisco,” Cuse says. “It’s synergy.”

You’ll find lots of football players on Fox series this month. It may be the month’s ultimate stunt: Fox starts NFL broadcasts in late summer.

MAY VISITORS (A PARTIAL GUEST LIST)

ABC

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Coach: Race car drivers Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr. (TBA); Mary Hart (May 23)

The Commish: Brian Keith (May 14)

Full House: Little Richard (May 10)

Grace Under Fire: Diane Ladd (TBA).

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Home Improvement: Victoria Principal (Wednesday); Space Shuttle Endeavor astronauts (May 18), Bob Vila (May 25).

Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman: Original Lois Lane Phyllis Coates, James Earl Jones (May 8).

Phenom: George Burns (TBA)

CBS

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Christy: Judy Collins, John Schneider. (Thursday)

Diagnosis Murder: Delta Burke (May 13)

In the Heat of the Night: Peter Fonda (May 11)

Walker, Texas Ranger: Stuart Whitman, Jonathan Banks (May 14)

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Fox

The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.: Fox football announcer Terry Bradshaw and NFL stars Jim Harbaugh, Carl Banks and Ken Norton Jr. (May 13 and 20)

Living Single: Mark Curry (Sunday); real-life mothers of Queen Latfiah and Kim Fields (May 8); NFL player Jerome Bettis (May 15).

Married ... With Children: Waylon Jennings (Sunday); NFL star Todd Christensen (May 22).

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NBC

Blossom: Matthew and Andrew Lawrence (Monday); Terry Bradshaw (May 23)

Empty Nest: Audrey Meadows (Saturday); Morgan Fairchild (May 21)

Frasier: Radio call-in voices Christine Lahti (Thursday); Mary Tyler Moore, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, former fugitive Patricia Hearst, designer Tommy Hilfiger, cartoonist Garry Trudeau (May 12)

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The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: Karen Malina White (Monday); Ben Vereen (May 9); Donald Trump and Marla Maples-Trump (May 16); Dick Clark (May 23)

Nurses: Adam West, Jean Kasem (Saturday)

Seinfeld: Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford (May 19)

Sisters: Naomi Judd (May 21)

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Wings: Diet Coke model Lucky Vanous (Thursday); Ray Charles (May 12)


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