Recycled From Last Season

TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Clooney is one of the biggest names on TV thanks to "ER," but it took him nearly eight years and almost as many series to achieve superstar status.

Producers and network executives kept putting him in shows because they knew he had something special. "He was always great," says Peter Golden, senior vice president of talent and casting at CBS, "whether it be in 'Baby Talk' or 'Roseanne."'

Several regulars on new fall series find hope in that story. Wendell Pierce, Leah Remini, Marc Feuerstein, Debra Messing and Jeffrey D. Sams all appeared in series last season that were cancelled but are getting another shot at stardom.

Pierce, best known from "Waiting to Exhale," is actually appearing in his third CBS series in a row. "I went from a one-hour drama, 'Maloney,' with Peter Strauss, and then I did 'The Gregory Hines Show,"' he says.

This season, Pierce is playing a former baseball player turned sportscaster on the CBS comedy "The Brian Benben Show."

"I guess I'm kind of like the kid who moves a lot," Pierce says, laughing. "The one who makes friends at new schools all the time. In a way, it's a challenge because it's something ideal for an actor. You try to do different things and be as diverse as possible. Unfortunately, you know you don't have time to continue to develop a character that you start one year. It forces you to begin to develop a new character."

Still, Pierce, who realizes many stars of failed series disappear, feels "very blessed" that he keeps working.

CBS, Golden says, loves Pierce because he's a "wonderful" actor and "great" with comedy. "It's great to have a good actor who can do comedy in a drama, and that's what he did in 'Maloney,' which was essentially a light drama. He brought so much energy to what he did in 'Maloney' that we knew it would translate [in a comedy]. He was great in 'Gregory Hines."'

When the role came up on "Benben," says Golden, "we had talked about a few people, and a couple of people came in and read. Everybody kept going back to the thought of Wendell. I think he will once again bring a great layered performance. He can have moments where you really feel for him, and in other moments he's really funny. There's something that makes you want to watch this person."

Golden feels the same about Remini, who stars with comic Kevin James in the CBS comedy, "The King of Queens." She appeared last year on NBC's "Fired Up" with Sharon Lawrence .

"You just want to watch her," Golden says. "Her chemistry with Kevin James is so great."

Remini, who also appeared in 1989 on NBC's Saturday morning series, "Saved by the Bell," says it was weird to report to work on a new show this fall.

"It's, like, all new writers, a new dressing room," she says, laughing. "It's like when you go to seventh grade. You're in the same school from first to sixth grade and then you go to a totally new school and you see your friends once in a while."

The actress shot the pilot for "King of Queens" while she was still on "Fired Up." "It's this thing called second position," she explains. "You can do another show, but only in second position, meaning if 'Fired Up' got picked up, they would have to have recast [the role on 'King']."

Initially, Remini didn't want to do "King of Queens," in which she plays the wife of a delivery man. "Originally, it was written just for the 'wife.' They wanted me for it, but they knew I didn't want to be a woman who is cooking and cleaning. That's not what women do all the time."

So she met with the staff, and with James. "We did a little riff in the room and the writers were, like, 'What can we do? We want to put your voice in there!,"' she says. "You don't come across that a lot."

Like Pierce, Messing is starring in her third series in as many years. She appeared in Fox's "Ned and Stacey" and last season's short-lived ABC sci-fi thriller "Prey." This season, she stars in the NBC comedy "Will & Grace," as a single career woman whose best friend is a gay man.

Messing says this series feels different than her other two. "For me, it feels like I'm sort of a freshman, because it's NBC," she says. "It's sort of wishing and hoping that you will be accepted by the big kids and everybody will be nice to you and you'll make it to sophomore year."

The actress is keeping her fingers crossed that this series makes it. "It was funny going to press tour this year," she recalls. "I walked into the room and [journalists] were, like, 'Welcome back, Debra. Every year you're here. Good to see you.' I'd say, 'Good to see you too. How is your daughter?' We've become friends now. They said, 'We hope to see you back again next year.' I said, 'I hope I'm back next year, but not on another show. I want to be on the same show.'

"From your mouth to God's ears, I hope I have the kind of career George Clooney has."

Like Remini, Messing was still on "Prey"' when she was offered "Will & Grace."

"We were finishing our 13th episode and we didn't know yet if we were picked up," Messing relates. "We finished, like, at 4 in the morning on a Saturday, and that Tuesday I was called in by the executive producers to discuss doing this pilot. I had no idea if I was still committed to 'Prey,' but I was signed on a week later to do the pilot with provisions that if 'Prey" was picked up, I would have to go back."

So when "Prey" was canceled, Messing says, "I knew I was going to go and do something. I was thrilled."

CBS' Golden says networks are always scouting for talent. "Allison Smith was in ABC's 'Spy Game,' which was not good at all, but she had moments in it," he offers as another example. "When we were casting 'Buddy Faro' [another new fall entry] and they needed a His Girl Friday, the casting director and producers said they wanted to go with Allison Smith. So you look at that and say the [ABC] show really didn't work and the chemistry between the two people maybe didn't work, but she was great."

Similarly, CBS had kept its eye on Jason Beghe, who is the star of its new hourlong series, "To Have & to Hold."

"He was also in 'Chicago Hope' in an arc," Golden says. "He did an episode or two of 'George and Leo' last year. He is someone else who is great with comedy and a terrific dramatic actor and a real attractive leading man--someone who comes along who jumps out. You remember them and you find a way when they are available to try your utmost to use them."

Sams is yet another actor who has been plucked from the crowd. He starred in two short-lived 1995 series, Fox's "Medicine Ball" and CBS' "Courthouse." Last season, he was a regular on NBC's flop "Sleepwalkers." This fall, he appears in ABC's "Cupid," as an aspiring actor whose roommate (Jeremy Piven) believes he's Cupid.

"I'm trying to be Hollywood's best-kept secret," muses Sams, who was seen last year as Vivika A. Fox's sweet husband in the hit film "Soul Food."

"I try to keep growing as an actor. I don't want to be stereotyped in any particular role. I change so much. Now I have a bald head and goatee, which I never had."

Samms decided to try his luck at TV once again because he loved the story of "Cupid."

"I think it's the new show of the millennium. We're living in a time of chaotic craziness. Everybody wants to be in love. Anything I can add to love is a grand thing, especially, too, since I just got married."

But doesn't Sams get discouraged when his series fail?

"It's always a little discouraging," he acknowledges. "You hope to be a success. You hope that America will tune in, but you never know. I guess nowadays it's harder to give a show a chance. I wish they would take more of a risk. But, you know, for me it's a crapshoot. There is a little disappointment, but at the same time I've got the opportunity a lot of actors don't have just to do a pilot. So I have definitely been blessed in that sense, so I really can't complain."

Neither can Feuerstein. Two years ago, he had a recurring role as a vet on NBC's "Caroline in the City." Then he became a regular on "Fired Up." This year, he's graduated to the lead role of NBC's comedy, "Conrad Bloom."

Feuerstein, who will also be seen shortly in the feature, "Practical Magic," plays an advertising executive with lots of women in his life.

The actor says being in three different sitcoms "allows me the perspective to realize just how similar every sitcom experience is," he says.

"There are always people who feel a little jilted by their story line because they are not the No. 1, 2 or 3 storyline. I have been on shows that have had a definite hierarchy. The truth is that it's great to be the center of the story."

The solution, he jokingly recommends to fellow actors, is "to get a show that they know will be canceled after exactly a year, having been only the third wheel, and then you will get your own show."

Feuerstein was filming the last episode of "Fired Up" last spring when an NBC executive on the set told him about "Conrad Bloom," which was created by Marco Pennette ("Caroline in the City").

"I wasn't sure I wanted to do 'Conrad Bloom,' believe it or not," he says. "It is a dream to do your own show, but I also was toying with the idea of doing a drama because I have done a lot of theater and I consider myself a dramatic actor as well as a comedic one."

But he was sold on "Conrad" after he read the script. "It had heart and soul," Feuerstein says. "The guy isn't necessarily much different from the guy I played on 'Caroline,' but it's much fuller. But this character is so different from the guy I played on 'Fired Up.' I don't even know who that was. One day he was an aspiring Marxist writer. The next day he was writing children's theater. The jokes don't mean a lot if they aren't based on character, which 'Conrad Bloom' is full of."

Feuerstein doesn't seem to be bothered by the pressure ofstarring in his own show. "I wish I could say I was, because it would be a more interesting story that I was constantly sweating and nervous and dying, but really I'm not."

In fact, he feels like he did back when he was in sixth grade and played fullback on a youth football team. "I wanted the ball," he says. "When the coach looked at me he could see in my eyes: 'You give me the ball and I'll run down the field and I'll score a touchdown.' That's how I feel about 'Conrad Bloom."'

And if he doesn't score, there's always next year.

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