Kathleen Turner and the Small Screen--'Friends at Last' : Kathleen Turner's Friendly Persuasion

Michele Willens is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

It is eerily quiet this morning in Manhattan's Riverside Park. The snow is gently melting under a sunny sky and the park is forbiddingly frosty. Suddenly, a full-bodied, sexy and familiar voice cuts through the cold air and here comes the woman behind it--Kathleen Turner.

The actress, wearing a long skirt, boots, suede coat and newly cropped hair, is strolling through the park with Canadian actor Colm Feore. If you didn't know better, they could be any handsome, middle-aged couple trying to make sense of 20 tumultuous years together.

Actually, it's one of the final scenes of "Friends at Last," a CBS movie airing Sunday. The project exudes out-of-the-ordinary prestige, starting with Turner's first television role since her year on daytime soaps in 1977 and including the major U.S. debut of Feore, a Canadian who received rave reviews in the film "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould."

Most of the participants in the film, in fact, come out of the motion-picture world. All have said that, because of the nature of this project, they were willing to make the move to television.

"The truth is, with women-driven character studies like this, we would have been in (movie) development for five years," explains executive producer Allyn Stewart, who calls the film "a post-divorce love story."

This film, which chronicles a couple's marriage, rancorous divorce and ultimate friendship, is heavy on the female side. Along with Stewart and Turner, this was also a television first for screenwriter Susan Sandler ("Crossing Delancey").

Both Sandler and Stewart say Turner's involvement was not only critical in getting the film made--and quickly--but also was key in the creative process. "My agency got me in a room with Kathleen as we were developing the script," says Stewart. "She came aboard right then and was an incredibly bright addition in all ways." Agrees Sandler: "Her voice is so strong and so vivid that it made it much easier to write."

Turner, like Glenn Close and Sally Field before her this season, takes to the small screen because it seems to be where some of the more interesting roles are showing up. "I wasn't reluctant about doing television, per se," says Turner, sitting in her cluttered brownstone apartment after completing the telefilm. "The truth is, there's so much material crammed into this, and while that's possible to do in features, the big jumps in time don't work so well. In television, you have natural breaks."

"I was only concerned," she continues, "that there would be less quality in the filmmaking itself, because of the tight shooting schedule (24 days). But once we chose the director (John Coles), I was quickly convinced that he was sensitive as a director and very imaginative with the camera. Still, the days were too long (sometimes 17 hours) and next time, I demand a 30-day schedule at least!"

Turner did not go timidly into network politics: She fought hard to fill the project with stage actors--"people who understand you just get up on a stage and do it!"--including Feore.

CBS, needless to say, kept hitting her with the more brand-name television stars. "They said, 'We really feel you need the protection of a name,' " Turner says with a laugh, "to which I said, 'The protection is in the material, I hope.' Finally, it was a Friday and I said, 'If you want me to show up for work Sunday, this is the guy. Basically, we ran out of time."

The film deals not only with the focal relationship, based on a true story, of a columnist and his homemaker wife, but with the personal impact of feminism. "I see it as a kindly telling of the private cost of the women's movement," says Turner, who has enjoyed a decade- long marriage and has a 7-year-old daughter. "I play a woman whose husband leaves her in the '70s, who's left without a resume, a credit card in her name or any self-identity. But she works her way up to a point of self-worth."

Turner, who this year will become the spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood, believes the film will strike a chord in many viewers, particularly women who got caught between movements and can't afford the luxuries that people like Kathleen Turner can afford. "Hey, I hired a wife to make my life easier," she says, referring to her assistant, "someone who makes sure the food is in the fridge and the nanny crisis is taken care of. And even I don't have enough time for everything. I always say if God could give me the 26-hour day, I could change the world."

Right now, 24 hours can barely do it all. A new movie, "Moonlight and Valentino" (with Whoopi Goldberg) opens in September and she is currently starring with Roger Rees and Eileen Atkins in "Indiscretions" on Broadway, to which she has promised at least eight months.

Like most other female stars over 40, she laments the dearth of good feature material, but is not pointing fingers. "We need women producers, writers and executives. Otherwise, it is like expecting male senators to write legislation for us. Hollywood in general is at least 10 to 15 years behind the times. We just last year made a big fuss over Tom Hanks playing gay."

Aging does not seem to phase her and, indeed, she looks her most fit in years ("I swim half a mile a day"). "I'm just starting to grow into my age," she says and laughs. "When you get to this age you either start to hide, afraid you'll lose what you've gained. Or you let it all go, take bigger risks and expose yourself more."

She then recalls a scene near the end of "Friends at Last" when her character wakes up in the hospital after a major operation. "There is loss on my face which is unlike anything I've ever done on film before," she says. She saw the film?

"No," she winks, "but I know how it looks."

"Friends at Last" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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