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On the Set : Brothers’ Keepers : THE LAWRENCES HAVE THEIR ACT TOGETHER IN ‘LOVE’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A suction arrow sails across the kitchen, narrowly missing Matthew Lawrence’s 15-year-old head. The culprit? His rambunctious little brother Andrew, 7, whose steely determination in affecting cartoon personas sets his older brother’s teen paranoia into a frenzy.

But it’s all in “Brotherly Love,” a new NBC sitcom on Sunday night that stars all three Lawrence brothers, including oldest sib Joey, 19.

The brothers play Joe, Matt and Andy Roman. Joe’s the older half-brother to Matt and Andy. When their father suddenly dies, Joe helps his father’s young widow Claire (Melinda Culea), run the family’s garage shop and raise her boys.

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“Brotherly Love” is a testament to NBC’s confidence in the Lawrence brothers, all of whom were performing by age 3. NBC President Warren Littlefield says he hopes “the show opens Sunday as another ‘Must-See TV’ night.”

On the sprawling Sunset Gower Studios set, the action repeats. (Actually, it’s the stage manager, hidden behind Andy, firing the dead-on shot.)

Standing in front of the stage stove, Culea admonishes her TV sons as the rehearsal continues. Sitting at one of the long tables facing the set, in front of the audience benches, is Donna Lawrence, the boys’ mother and one of the show’s producers, along with their father and her husband, Joe Sr.

Donna’s copy of the script lies open to the page of current action. She mouths Andy’s lines along with him. Andy works exclusively from memory. And when he rushes a line, before director Terry Hughes (“Golden Girls”) can even say “Cut!,” Donna whispers, “No.” She knows it didn’t work. And, as expected, Hughes asks Andy to say his lines more slowly. During this rehearsal, that attempt continues several times.

Donna’s had some experience with this. Coaching began with Joey, since all of her sons began acting before they could read.

In a phone interview several days later, Donna explains how she works with Andy, who “doesn’t really read yet. Well, he reads at the level of someone going into the second grade, so I work with him.” Donna gets the next week’s script Friday (taping day) evening, breaks it up into two parts and works with Andy on Saturday and Sunday. By Monday, Andy’s got it down. All the boys, Donna says, “have an amazing capacity for memory.”

As producers, Donna and Joe Sr., an insurance broker, offer family tales to the show’s writers and help out on the set. “It’s not just a title,” Joey explains about his producer parents. “They work . And know more about this business now than most people.”

At lunch at Hollywood’s Off Vine following the morning’s rehearsal (Donna and Joe Sr. dine at a neighboring table), Joey laughs heartily recalling the earlier scene. “I get flashbacks all the time with these guys,” he says, motioning to his brothers, his silver jewelry catching the sun. “I was always being told to speak more slowly.”

Often described as clonelike, the brothers are the first to cite their differences. “I’m kind of in-between them, personality wise,” Joey says over a chicken sandwich. And without prompting, he and Matt say simultaneously, “Andy’s the most outgoing.”

“Matt’s the quietest,” Joey says looking at Andy, who’s kneeling on his chair and holding a taunting piece of fried calamari in front of Matt. “I don’t know how Andy got so outgoing.” Smiles all around.

Joey was discovered at 2 in the family’s native Philadelphia when a department store photographer said to a surprised Donna, “Do you know what he has?’ ”

“It just shocked me,” says Donna, who was then a schoolteacher, “to think that others thought he was as special as we did.” Print and commercial work followed. “Joey’s just always been a people person, so animated and wanted to perform,” she recalls of the rush of offers.

At 3, Matt got involved, via one of Joey’s auditions. Joey was “too old and Matty was with us and the casting agent asked Matty to try it,” Donna says. “Joey blazed that trail for them and with each boy we learned some new ways of how to handle things.” Those “things” included “keeping ego out of the way. Don’t let it become an identity.”

Matt got his first series role at 3, as Sammi Jo’s (Heather Locklear) son Danny on ABC’s “Dynasty.” Matt, the family agrees, is not only the quietest family member, but fiercely independent. “He’d turn things down, which was always fine,” Donna recalls. “He’d say, ‘I don’t want to do commercials and say these stupid lines.’ And we’d say, ‘Fine with us.’ ”

She adds, “Both Joey and Matty worked continually until Matty was in the seventh grade and he got a great project, but he decided not to do it and to go to school that year to prove he could do it.” Middle Matt soon proved he could also co-star, in 1993’s popular “Mrs. Doubtfire” and in last year’s syndicated “SuperHuman Samurai Syber-Squad.”

Andy, who grew up on his brothers’ sets, was a natural and quickly landed roles. Like Matt, he got his first part at 3, on NBC’s short-lived 1992 series “Walter and Emily.” Andy played Tom Arnold’s youngest son in CBS’ 1993 sitcom “Tom” and plays John Travolta’s son in the upcoming feature “White Man’s Burden.”

Throughout lunch, the brothers--despite the age differences, which might divide some siblings--affectionately tell tales together. Both Joey and Matt encourage Andy to finish his many energetic stories. And they never interrupt him.

“Yes, they really are like that together,” Donna says. “They get along that well, finish each other’s sentences, care that much about each other.”

Littlefield agrees and says the sincerity of the family encouraged the network to develop a show for the brothers. Joey, Littlefield reminds, has acted on NBC since he was 6, playing Joeys all around (1983-87’s “Gimme a Break,” which Matt joined in 1986, then as “Blossom’s” breakout star during its 1990-95 run).

“Let me say this,” NBC’s highest power says, “we’ve all worked with child actors and their parents and it has not always been easy. But the Lawrences! How long has our honeymoon been? Years. We feel that strongly about them. We wanted to continue a relationship with all of them.”

Littlefield also confirms an earlier comment of Joey’s that a series had been in the works since the troubled “Blossom’s” third season. Littlefield made it clear his network “wanted to be in business with them beyond ‘Blossom.’ And having worked here and there with the other boys, we began, a year and a half ago, to focus on the show as for all three boys.”

“Initially there was a problem,” Littlefield says of “Brotherly Love,” which evolved from an idea from executive producers Jim Vallely and Jonathan Schmock. “They were all too nice! We know they love each other that much in real life, but for a show we need conflict.”

That conflict remains exclusively for the Romans. Hughes says, “This family is a delight. They’re always prepared and very, very professional. When they need to know their stuff, they all do. It’s that easy.”

“It’s so much easier now, having them on one set,” Donna says with a sigh. “When they’re on different projects, we have to arrange to be with them and schedule things.” When Matt was filming “Mrs. Doubtfire,” Joe Sr. was with him and Donna shuttled between Joey’s and Andy’s jobs. Her parents also moved out from Philadelphia to L.A. to help, “but that’s not the way we like to do it. We want to always be together.”

They’ll all be together as the trio stars in ABC’s upcoming TV movie “Brothers of the Frontier,” which doesn’t have a scheduled air date yet.

How has Donna kept her boys so normal? “I know this sounds corny, but from the very beginning, through all the teen stuff with Joey, we never used the word star, " she says. “We told them the only stars are the ones in the sky. That was the way it was from day one.”

This business of show business, Donna adds, “is very complex and dangerous, particularly for children. But we’ve just kept in mind the basic ethics of child development: nature and nurture. We’ve always maintained how important it is for them to keep in contact with their friends and go to school.” Matt and Andy attend a private school when they’re not on the set. Joey attends USC’s film school.

“We have to keep things in perspective,” Donna insists. “This business is not bigger than life and nothing is more important than the basics. But this business can also be very enriching, with so many different experiences, the travel, the people, but letting [child actors] become too involved with themselves is wrong. We always tell them they are not better than anyone else, because the truth is, they’re not. They’ve just been given a gift.”

Matt’s “Brotherly Love” character, as well as Andy’s, “are exaggerations of what they’re really like,” Joey explains of Matt’s teen insecurity and Andy’s penchant for superheroes. Whether Matt’s collection of 24 lizards and Andy’s massive admiration for Jim Carrey will weave into story lines remains to be seen. Littlefield decribes mop-headed Andy as being “like a wind-up toy!”

Their TV mom, Culea, also admires the Lawrences’ cohesiveness. “The family’s pretty amazing to work with,” she says. “There have never been any problems with them all on the set. It actually makes thing flow easier.”

Littlefield gushes again: “I know it just sounds way too good to be true, but it’s really extremely unique. We have such high expectations. There’s something for everyone in this show.”

Joey, at work on his second album and with a dual role in the Oct. 6 NBC movie “Prince for a Day” (Andy’s got a part in it, too) says, “I think the Generation Xers will like my character, the teens Matt’s, and the littler kids and families, Andy’s. Everyone will find something to relate to.”

Mom Lawrence concludes, “Hopefully, everyone will get the good message of the show, feel for this family and maybe be able to identify with them.”

“Brotherly Love” airs Sundays at 7 p.m. on NBC.


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