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‘Malcolm in the Middle’ of a Quirky but Loving Family

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Television producer Linwood Boomer didn’t grow up in a typical American family. His mother was known to walk around the house naked. On occasion, she’d shave the body hair off Boomer’s hirsute father. One day, Boomer’s dad tore out the lawn and put in gravel and junipers so he wouldn’t have to spend time mowing the grass.

Boomer’s quirky childhood is the inspiration for the equally quirky new Fox comedy series, “Malcolm in the Middle,” which premieres Sunday after “The Simpsons” at 8:30 p.m.

Newcomer Frankie Muniz, 14, plays the irrepressible Malcolm, the third in a family of four boys, who loves skateboarding and fighting with his siblings. In the first episode, Malcolm is aghast when it’s discovered that he has an IQ of 165 and is sent to a class for “gifted” students where he is surrounded by a group of social misfits.

Malcolm’s oldest and favorite brother, Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson), is in military school because of his antics; his next-oldest brother, Reese (Justin Berfield), is a two-fisted hellion; and youngest brother Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan) is described as “trapped somewhere between toddler and hamster.”

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Then there are the parents. Malcolm’s street-smart mother, Lois (Jane Kaczmarek), and befuddled but kind father, Hal (Bryan Cranston). They would never win awards for housekeeping, cooking, lawn care or vehicle maintenance, but they do love their kids.

“I was in the middle,” says Boomer, who was a writer and executive producer on “Night Court,” “3rd Rock From the Sun” and the upcoming animated series “God, the Devil and Bob.”

“We were rotten kids. After my mom saw the pilot her main comment was, ‘I’m not going to tell you [what] your IQ was, but it sure heck wasn’t 165.’ ”

Boomer acknowledges he was shocked last July at the semiannual meeting of the Television Critics Assn. in Pasadena, when the numerous writers were bothered by the scenes involving the mother and father being naked.

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“I actually was stunned,” Boomer says. “It never occurred to me that you shouldn’t be naked in your own house. You spend all that money for a house for crying out loud.”

Cranston, best known as Jerry Seinfeld’s dentist on “Seinfeld,” loved the hair joke. “That was the first thing that caught me in the script,” he says.

For his body-shaving scene, he had to have two makeup women apply yak hair to his body for three hours. “Then when we did the shaving scene--the close-up of Jane shaving my back is not me. They tried to do it, but the glue on the hair wouldn’t let the razor go through it. So they actually had a casting session for hairy backs. They picked a guy whose body shape was somewhat similar to mine. Then they shaved his back.”

Kaczmarek, who had to hide her pregnancy on the series, jokes that her parents were upset when they saw the pilot. “They are extremely conservative,” she says. “My father does not watch anything on network TV. It wasn’t their cup of tea, so I don’t think my mother’s bridge club will be tuning in. But people I have run into have watched [the pilot] over and over and over and it has a kind of cult following about it [within the industry]. It’s going to appeal to people in a real big way.”

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Kaczmarek grew up with three siblings in a Polish Catholic neighborhood in Milwaukee. And just like her TV family, they only had one bathroom. “Everyone had one bathroom,” she explains. “The bathrooms were small but you learn to somehow function.”

The actress, who is married to Bradley Whitford of “The West Wing,” says she doesn’t think Malcolm’s family is dysfunctional. “I thought this is a highly functioning family,” she explains. “They have dinner together every night. How many families do that anymore? They have an odd take on things, but the parents are extremely hands-on. These kids don’t get away with anything. The parents participate in a major way in these kids’ lives. They are loud and kind of chaotic, but it’s highly functioning.”

Kaczmarek gets to shine in the second episode, titled “The Red Dress.” When Lois discovers that someone had burned her new red dress she was going to wear for her anniversary dinner, she uses various hysterical methods to get the culprit to confess. Meanwhile, Hal waits patiently for her at the restaurant only to end up drunk and eating a lobster dinner with the bathroom attendant.

Muniz, who also stars in the upcoming film “My Dog Skip,” says doing the series has been “really cool.” One of the things he loves is the fact that he’s always wanted to have brothers and now he gets to have three. “I only have a sister and she’s older.”

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Boomer says he and his staff geared up for a nationwide hunt to find a young actor to play Malcolm. “On paper, it seemed like an impossible role to fill,” he explains. “We had to find a kid who looks like a preteen who can handle pages of dialogue and be funny and get this gigantic amount of work done in the hours they allow kids to work. So we geared up and the second day of casting we found Frankie. It was the easiest piece of casting I’ve ever done in my life.”

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In the series, one of Malcolm’s best friends is Stevie (Craig Lamar Traylor), a disabled, breathless but very funny gifted student. In real life, Boomer also had a best friend with cerebral palsy.

“My mom was very big on insisting that I do things,” Boomer recalls. “I don’t think she ever literally said, ‘You go be friends with that crippled boy.’ She said you are going to go over and visit with that boy. He was a really hilarious kid. We became friends and the most annoying part of it was just that my mom was right, which infuriated me. For a while I pretended I didn’t like him. I didn’t want to give her that satisfaction.”

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Half of the 13 episodes were directed by Todd Holland of “The Larry Sanders Show,” who is also co-executive producer. He got involved in the series because the pilot script made him laugh. He’s also “sort of the middle kid of four.” However, Holland adds, “I am not a genius.”

He also loved the fact that Boomer imbued the script with humanity. “What I related to is that it’s very rare to have comedy that has a true emotional component,” Holland says.

“I read that in the script and I said to Linwood, ‘Is this an accident or do you intend to have this heart happening at the same time it’s insane and funny?’ Linwood said yes. It was totally intentional.”

Holland describes “Malcolm” as a great Bugs Bunny cartoon of the ‘40s, which includes humor for kids as well as adults. “I watch Bugs Bunny now and there is all sorts of political humor there and things from the period that I had no clue about when I was a kid,” Holland explains. “But I still laughed and enjoyed Bugs Bunny. Our goal is to let ‘Malcolm’ be that strong.”

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He acknowledges his mother wasn’t fond of the body hair and topless sequence in the pilot. “She said she didn’t really think it was appropriate,” he says, laughing. “I guess I’m doing something right!”

Writers David Richardson and Al Higgins, who are also co-executive producers, say it was a bit of a problem to get Boomer’s voice. “It’s about his life growing up,” says Higgins, whose brother Dave plays Lois’ smitten co-worker.

“So you try to put in your own experiences growing up, but you realize his family was different from everyone else’s family. So you take your memories and then put a slant on them to try to fit them into Linwood’s world.”

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Richardson says Boomer had the first six episodes pretty much mapped out. “He had story lines that he wanted to attack that he was recalling from his own history,” he says. “It was kind of tough in the beginning as it is on all shows to get what Linwood wanted.”

Still, Higgins says, luckily for the writers, Boomer was clear on what he wanted. “He really knew what was right, which was refreshing. What is great about all of these stories is that you have an idea, but what is underlining each of them is a real emotional issue through-line. So it’s not only that you are laughing, at the end there is a nice emotional story.”

Originally, “Malcolm” was scheduled to air the fall of ’99 as a 7 p.m. show. Boomer says he was pleased when Fox moved the show to midseason and gave them a later time slot.

“Creatively, you have more time [to work on the series],” Boomer says. “Also, the 7 p.m. time slot gave the impression it’s a kids’ show, but actually it’s a family show. I think it is sort of an unfortunate thing that has happened that people have forgotten the difference between a family show and a kids’ show.”

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