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Talking the Talk, and More Talk, in ABC’s Latest

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Peter Mehlman, executive producer of the new ABC series “It’s like, you know . . . ,” had an especially difficult time trying to cast the role of Robbie Graham, a Lutheran who made untold riches after creating a pay-per-view telecast of a Yom Kippur service.

He envisioned John Cusack, an actor who can pull off being simultaneously glib and likable. None of the nearly 50 actors who auditioned--an unusually high number, he said--were able to manage it to Mehlman’s liking.

Then Steven Eckholdt, who grew up in San Clemente and graduated from San Clemente High School, auditioned.

“As soon as Steven read, I envisioned it as Steven,” said Mehlman, whose series premieres tonight at 8:30 p.m. “Of all the [actors in the series], he inhabited the part more naturally than anybody.”

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Mehlman said what clinched the role for Eckholdt was his ability to handle the long, flowing speeches planned for his character.

That ability was tested in the pilot. Graham’s college friend, magazine writer Arthur Garment (played by Chris Eigeman), comes to Los Angeles for the first time to write a book titled “Living in Los Angeles: How Can You Stomach It?”

Soon Garment is voicing doubts that he’ll be able to last for even the two months he had planned.

“Let me tell you something, Arthur: You’re not going to last two months--you’ll last much longer than that,” Eckholdt says as Graham. “You’re going to be like everyone else talking about how you hate L.A., like it’s a prison camp with three area codes, how the people are so dumb, so plastic, so silicone, how nothing’s open late, you have to drive to take a walk, the houses are ugly, the clothes are loud, the bagels are doughy, the pizza sucks, the murder trials last two years, the marriages last two months, then you throw in earthquakes, aftershocks, mudslides, road rage, race riots, guns, Tasers, pepper spray. Just as your head is about to explode, boom, one warm afternoon, you play softball and you think to yourself, ‘My God, it’s January.’ Next day, you wake up, it’s two years later, you’ve sold out every belief you ever held sacred. And you don’t care ‘cause you’re living way too happily ever after in a beach house, waiting for your Guatemalan gardener like every brain-dead Southern Californian.”

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Dialogue like that is “sometimes” hard to memorize, Eckholdt said.

“Sometimes you memorize it and it all comes out just fine and sometimes it doesn’t and that’s just life,” said Eckholdt, who could not remember that speech when the pilot was filmed last year. “I don’t really know what makes it difficult and what makes it not difficult.”

Said Mehlman: “I always think Steven would be a real good actor for Paddy Chayefsky because Chayefsky seemed to put an impossible amount of words into people’s mouths. You have to be someone like William Holden who can just spit them out in the smoothest of ways, and Steven is really great like that.”

Eckholdt’s audition for “It’s like, you know . . . " came in part because of a development deal he had with ABC. He called its pilot script “completely different from anything” he’d read before.

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“I thought it was clever, intelligent and witty,” said Eckholdt, who plays Robin Wright Penn’s ex-husband in the current movie “Message in a Bottle.”

“It’s like, you know . . . " is one of Eckholdt’s two chances for prime-time series stardom in 1999. He was in Miami last week filming the pilot for “Grapevine,” the revival of the 1992 CBS summer romantic comedy he starred in. He said, however, that he would stick with “It’s like, you know . . .” if ABC orders it for next season.

His most-watched role in series television, and what Eckholdt considers “probably one of the best experiences,” came in 1997 when he played Ellen Morgan’s (Ellen DeGeneres) old boyfriend Richard on the groundbreaking “coming out” episode of “Ellen.” He was hired around 6 p.m. on a Thursday for a scene that was to be filmed at 11 a.m. Friday.

“They just showed me where I should stand and said, ‘Do it any way you want, just don’t move,’ ” Eckholdt said. “It seemed thrown together. . . .

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“Then when I realized by reading the script how big deal it was; it was really nice to be a part of it,” he said. “Ellen was fantastic and very supportive and everyone was supportive of her.”

At San Clemente High School, Eckholdt was a member of its lower-level football and wrestling teams. When he failed to make the varsity teams, he said he “concentrated on getting out of high school and just wanted to work, building swimming pools and stuff to earn money.” He attended Brigham Young University for two years.

“I skied mostly when I was in college, which accounts for my not finishing,” Eckholdt said. “I came home, a friend suggested I should get into commercials.” His first was for McDonald’s, where he was sitting in a canoe, having a woman feed him French fries.

“It took about 45 minutes to shoot, and they split it into four or five different commercials. I thought it was great,” he said, “making all this money from 45 minutes’ work.

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“Then I didn’t work for 2 1/2 years after that, and I had to decide if it was something that I really wanted to continue. I had to get somewhat serious, instead of just faking my way through.”

He was able to resume his career with a “Love Boat” episode in the mid-1980s and would later get a slew of roles in made-for-television movies, including that of Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem, who was murdered by terrorists, in 1988’s “The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story.”

More recently, Eckholdt was a regular on the 1995 ABC drama , “The Monroes,” and he’s had recurring roles on “Friends,” “L.A. Law,” “Life Goes On,” “Matlock” “Melrose Place” and “WIOU.”

He’s hoping that “It’s like, you know . . . " will beat the odds against new shows and survive, because he’s impressed with the writing.

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“I really wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “It’s semi-rare to see good television scripts which you know will be equally as good down the line and not taper off in quality.”

* “It’s like, you know . . . " premieres tonight at 8:30 on ABC.


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