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Skeletons Rattle Out of Closets on ‘Hollywood Story’

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Death. Drugs. Depravity. Who wouldn’t wanna watch?

Folks I know in the show-biz industry actually plan their Sunday activities so they’re home in time to catch each new entry of E!’s “True Hollywood Story,” the addicting bio-series charting the lost, the lame, the losers in their business.

Now they won’t be able to go out any night of the week. E! has expanded “THS” to a nightly franchise at 9, seven nights a week, as part of a two-month campaign to heighten the smallish cable channel’s profile.

And what a starting point: Last week’s “THS” shows were themed under the heading “Plummet From Prime Time”!

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Firs there were two engrossing hours on the Monkees, that ‘60s pseudo-group that “rode a runaway train from obscurity to fabulous wealth and fame” before “simmering tensions began to heat up”! (There’s nothing quite so deliriously overheated as “THS” writing and narration.) Then it was that same decade’s “Batman” bunch; next, it’s repeats that told all about “The Brady Bunch,” “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Three’s Company” and “Family Affair” moppet Anissa Jones, who died at 16 of a drug overdose. Michael Landon was up Saturday, while “THS” commemorated the 100th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s birth with two new hours Sunday delving into the movie suspense master. Hitch turns out to be “consumed with sex, exploding with violence, marinating in cognac--he was a man on fire”!

They don’t do “True Hollywood Stories” about folks with normal lives, you know.

You need drugs and tantrums (that would be Brett Butler, premiering Aug. 23), sexual proclivities (who knew “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane was so twisted?), criminal behavior (those “Diff’rent” kids), physical oddities (“Fantasy Island’s” Herve Villechaize debuts Sunday), secret lives and tragic ends (practically everybody).

Oh, sure, some of the stories are “inspiring and redemptive,” as noted by E! senior vice president of original programming John Rieber, talking over lunch on the sunny terrace of a plush Los Angeles hotel. His crews have produced I-shall-overcome hours on stars such as Elizabeth Taylor (repeating Wednesday) and ex-druggie Mackenzie Phillips of “One Day at a Time” (Aug. 24). But the “THS” subjects we really love--admit it--are the complete muck-ups.

“There is an element [for viewers] that, ‘Whoa, they really have it bad, my life’s not so bad,’ ” admits the show’s executive overseer, original programming vice president Betsy Rott.

“For all of the success, there’s always something that’s not perfect. You know, they’re very human people.”

Which is probably why so many of the embroiled celebs actually participate in recounting their “ups and downs,” as Rott delicately puts it. They want the attention. When’s the last time you thought about Davy, Micky and Peter? Or such other fallen-off-the-radar subjects as Corey Feldman and Gary Busey? “They know they have a story to tell, and their personalities are: ‘What the hell, this is what my life has been. If you’re gonna tell the story, let’s tell it,’ ” Rieber says.

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“And is there an upside to being a ‘True Hollywood Story’? Absolutely. Because millions of people will hear the story and put you back in the spotlight.”

Cooperating or not cooperating doesn’t make a difference in the celeb’s portrayal, the producers say. “If they don’t take part, we’re not gonna bash them,” says Rott, who like Rieber came to E! from local TV journalism. “We just tell the story, and let other people tell the story.” Crane’s kids and co-stars, for instance, told of the murdered actor’s peculiar peccadilloes. Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, provided myriad home movies and reminiscences Sunday. And though Butler didn’t help with her “THS,” Rott notes, “she did not stop us, and that’s really important.”

Being E! also helps, since the channel does show biz all the time. Celebs see E! mikes stuck in their faces at premieres, at promo sessions, on the set, on awards show red carpets. “We have been walking side by side with everybody we cover for the last 12 years,” Rieber says, “and that gives us the inside material that so many other people don’t have. I also think it’s the reason so many people take part in the show.” Rott, who supervises every script, thinks another selling point is “we really do try to be fair, and it’s important to us to be accurate.” Rieber adds: “Everyone’s point of view is heard.”

As in that Monkees show. The guys hail and trash one another, their ex-wives tell all, and industry colleagues chart their rise and fall in thoughtful reminiscences. These are so cannily crafted, they almost make you not notice there is no footage from “The Monkees” Emmy-winning TV show. Rights problems. These happen a lot.

Still, “True Hollywood Story” is truly “destination TV. People will come in every night at 9 to see what the story is,” Rieber boasts, and he’s absolutely right. “A good story’s a good story.”

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