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One Comic’s Roller-Coaster Ride in Hollywood : Comedy: First, Rick Reynolds was hot stuff. Then a TV project went sour. But he’s still writing and acting and looking for the big break.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the wake of the ‘80s comedy boom, no one knows how many stand-ups are milling around out there in the crepuscular land of the Promising Unknown, smoothing their TV and movie pitches while awaiting their big break. But if anyone was touted as a sure thing, it was comedian Rick Reynolds, whose career has been something of a show-biz allegory: First, dazzling success. Then, crushing disappointment. And now?

The story’s still in development.

Less than two years ago, Reynolds was closing on a major career faster than a thoroughbred stakes winner in a driving stretch run. His one-man show, “Only the Truth Is Funny,” had moved from the San Francisco Improv to Off Broadway in New York, then to a hugely successful run at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills and then to a cable concert on Showtime.

The show spun off into a book and a CD. The fabled waters of Hollywood began to part for the Next New Face as Jack Nicholson, Bette Midler, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, among other show-biz glitterati, came to see him. Anne Bancroft gave him a backstage hug.

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“I became a hot property for a while,” Reynolds said musingly as he sat in a Mexican restaurant booth and pondered the least messy assault option on a burrito the size of a flotation device. “The theater spoiled me. I couldn’t go back to the clubs, with drunks going ‘Woop! Woop!’ I wasn’t right for the talk shows, because my style is to talk seriously before I get to the joke, and they don’t want that.”

Reynolds had driven down from his home in Petaluma for several pitch meetings and to fine-tune a TV script with actor-producer David Steinberg at Warner Bros. Studios. The decision about what to do after his short life in the theater was not, he recalls, altogether harrowing, fueled as it was by a $750,000 (his figure) deal to develop a TV sitcom for NBC.

“All three networks wanted me to work for them,” Reynolds said. “The sitcom deal I made with NBC was for six episodes of a series called ‘My Family,’ which dealt with a guy who has had a dysfunctional childhood and buys the house he grew up in. Every episode with his 6- and 16-year-old kids was supposed to be a flashback in which he remembers what led to his dysfunctionality. To me, it was more than a sitcom.”

It was also, apparently, more than NBC had bargained for--if bargain is the right word. Reynolds says that he warned NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield that the show wouldn’t test well--and that Littlefield’s reply was that it didn’t matter. In the series pilot, Reynolds showed the father coming home drunk and beating up the mother. The kids are watching a TV sitcom and turn up the volume. Their faces are stone as they listen to the laugh track.

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“Warren said that that scene upset his 8-year-old daughter,” Reynolds recalls. “I told him, ‘I didn’t write this for your 8-year-old. I wrote it for adults. Do you mean to tell me an 8-year-old determines your network policy?’ ”

“Yes, she’s in charge of programming,” Littlefield scoffed in an interview, as if to say, “ Yeah , sure. " “Many of our shows are what you’d call adult comedy, but we were looking to fill the 8 o’clock slot where you don’t want something aimed at a narrow audience. We wanted to appeal not just to children, but to parents and even grandparents. The truth is, it was a weak pilot.”

The incident was characteristic of Reynolds’ sprightly candor, the quality that makes a comedian refreshing in person but a liability when dealing with network politics. The show was never produced (“I notice no one else picked it up,” Littlefield observes in his defense.)

And Reynolds’ career as a performer came to a dizzying stop.

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“We were like a sure thing,” he says. “Everybody knew we were going to be on the air. Then it crashed. The system doesn’t work. Everything that’s good tests bad. People in TV are so frightened, so relieved to say, ‘See? It didn’t work.’ ”

Then he tried acting in movies: “I read for things. Everyone I lost out to was famous. I almost got a role in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘True Lies’ and lost out to Tom Arnold. You can’t imagine how hard it is to lose out to Tom Arnold.”

Fortunately, he discovered a talent not only for writing TV and movie stories, but also for pitching them. (“I’m so good I could go into business hiring myself out to other writers to pitch their projects.”) He wrote one called “The Boy in the Basement,” which was under option to Outlaw Productions before the rights reverted to Reynolds’ management company.

He plotted a Western for Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz called “Tucson,” and made way for another writer as the producers decided, in Reynolds’ words, “to make a ‘Wayne’s World Out West.’ ” (Production plans are currently in limbo.) He has another called “Could This Be Magic?,” which plays off the figure of Harry Houdini, and may be produced under the aegis of Disney studios and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Films.

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Other Rick Reynolds projects include an episode for Showtime’s upcoming production of “The Seven Deadly Sins,” in which he writes and plays Envy. He has also written a pilot for CBS called “Men at Work,” which was originally intended as a free-form dialogue series based on what men talk about when they’re alone together. As executive producer, David Steinberg disabused Reynolds of the aleatory notion and set him to writing a plot, which now sets them in an architectural firm. (Reynolds plays one of the characters, and there is also a female character.)

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Reynolds and Steinberg have been developing “Men at Work” for more than three years.

“The standard view you see on television now is that of ‘Designing Women,’ ” Steinberg said. “That is, whenever TV gets close to an issue, it’s addressed from the feminist point of view. I think we’re going to be seeing a wave of gender difference shows. We want to be among the first to show how men talk about women, sports, politics, and about how they tear each other down and build each other up.”

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“This CBS thing could go,” Reynolds said later. “I think I’ll have a career.” Then he added, in typical Rick Reynolds fashion: “I know fame makes you unhappy, and takes your worst features and magnifies them all out of proportion. Like Roseanne. At first she was just a normal neurotic. Then she became a monster. Isn’t it ironic to strive for something that’ll make you unhappy?”

Reynolds has gone back to a local Petaluma club to develop a new routine on black/white relations, based on “a white liberal’s deeply buried opinions about blacks, how they’re better athletes, how they have different beliefs. It gets very confrontational. Sometimes I think I’m going to say the wrong thing. Racism is a touchy subject; blacks can use it too, though you can’t say that. Everybody is so hypersensitive.”

So is Reynolds. “I cry so easily. I’m so easily moved. I can’t get wrapped up about fame. Maybe it’s from being too introspective. The unexamined life is not worth living, but the overexamined life isn’t either. All I know is, I have the best life of anyone I know.”

With any luck, the drama of Rick Reynolds may one day become Rick Reynolds--The Musical.

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