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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : Scott Baio’s ‘Diagnosis’ is serious: Stay busy in TV and focus on a personal life

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Scott Baio may have starred in three of his own series, but he doesn’t mind being a co-star in CBS’ light murder-mystery series, “Diagnosis Murder.”

“I’m perfectly content to play second banana to Dick Van Dyke,” Baio says from his new Los Angeles home. “That’s a chance that doesn’t come around that often. Nah, I don’t have any problems with it. I love him and it’s where I want to be.”

Baio is one of those rare actors who chose television over feature films. He co-starred on ABC’s “Happy Days” from 1977 to 1984 and then went on to his own shows, the short-lived “Happy” spinoff “Joanie Loves Chachi”; “Charles in Charge,” which ran on CBS and later in first-run syndication, and finally ABC’s “Baby Talk,” which had a troubled run two years ago.

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“I haven’t got any regrets at all,” the 34-year-old actor says of focusing on TV after starring in the movies “Bugsy Malone” (1976), “Foxes” (1980) and “Zapped” (1982). “A very smart man said to me a long time ago, ‘You have the opportunity to do TV. If you do this, anything else you want to do will come from that. If you have one bad movie, sometimes you’re gone.’ That guy was (“Happy Days” creator-producer) Garry Marshall.”

Baio, a New York native, found success in series television and made it out of serious teen idol status. “That time,” he recalls wryly, “was very strange.” From 1977 to 1978, Baio appeared on ABC’s “Blansky’s Beauties,” ABC’s “Happy Days” and NBC’s “Who’s Watching the Kids?,” and his career as a heartthrob began. A difficult three years followed.

“It’s a very surreal thing,” he says. “As an actor, you work, you go home, you hang out with your friends, you have no idea of the fans, the impact.” It wasn’t until a public appearance in Chicago drew 15,000 screaming girls did Baio realize what was happening. “Your first reaction is, they want to kill me. Your second reaction is, they just want to meet me. In a very strange way it can be nice. People like you.”

He admits he bought into that “idol” image: “For a while, I thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I actually enjoyed it very much sometimes.”

Despite the flurry of popularity and its inevitable decline (“Is it really over?,” Baio jokes), he kept away from scandal. “My family saved me,” he says. “I’ve kept solid. I was raised the right way. I never did drugs. I don’t do crazy things.”

While most of his series work was successful, he acknowledges that 1991-92’s “Baby Talk,” inspired by “Look Who’s Talking” and which went through numerous cast changes, “was a nightmare.”

But it still didn’t diminish his interest in series television. “I just look for a great script, comedy, drama, whatever,” he says. “This series is really wonderful. Dick’s a gentleman and a gentle man. He’s very funny and tells great stories. The rest of us follow his lead. I cannot emphasize how very lucky I have been.”

And, unlike many of his colleagues, he’s not in search of a movie that fits into hiatus. For Baio, hiatus will be “playing golf and sleeping,” he says with a laugh. “But I’m always looking. There’s something I’m involved in right now that I can’t really talk about that might have me in a production capacity.”

While he’s directed several episodes of various sitcoms, he doesn’t have any interest in directing “Diagnosis.” “That’s way too much work! I don’t want to work that hard in my life. I like half-hours, that’s fun, that’s a good time. I learned from the best: (“Happy Days” director) Jerry Paris. I think Ronny Howard--not to compare myself to him, mind you--would say the same. Jerry taught us about communicating with your actors. You could have a great idea, but they have to know what you’re talking about.”

As for what’s next, he says, “My future goals are focused around my personal life. My goal is to get married and have children. My professional goals are just to work and work all the time. I know that sounds flip, but it’s not. I love series television and just want to keep doing it.”

“Diagnosis Murder” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on CBS, but is preempted this week by “Circus of the Stars Goes to Disneyland,” which Baio hosts.


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