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Call It ‘Satire, 90210'

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tonight on the WB, writer-producer Darren Star airs “Beverly Hills, 90210’s” dirty laundry.

The first network sitcom from Star (the creator of “Melrose Place” and “Sex and the City”), “Grosse Pointe” has already weathered a storm of backstage conflicts and rumors. Co-star Joely Fisher recently jumped ship to assume a leading role as John Goodman’s sister in Fox’s freshman sitcom “Normal, Ohio"--leaving a void in the cast that has yet to be filled. And long before Fisher’s flight, word leaked that “Grosse Pointe,” a series about teenage actors starring in a white-bread high school television drama, was in actuality a scathing behind-the-scenes parody of Star’s and Aaron Spelling’s early ‘90s collaboration, “Beverly Hills, 90210.”

The news apparently did not sit well with Spelling--whose “7th Heaven” is the WB’s top-rated series. The problem? A character named Marcy Sternfeld, described in the pilot script as an insecure, bulimic, cosmetically altered actress whose “uncle,” a studio bigwig, secured her on a part on his net’s teen series.

Seeing the not-so-subtle parallels to himself and his daughter, “90210" star Tori, Spelling reportedly used his substantial clout with the WB brass to instigate changes in Star’s series. (Spelling declined comment by press time.) This led to a tense debate between Star and Spelling, whose relationship first started crumbling back in 1995, when Star left the Spelling stable to develop “Central Park West” for CBS.

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Rumors also spread that former “90210" troublemaker Shannen Doherty (who stars in another WB series, “Charmed”) was infuriated by her “Grosse Pointe” counterpart, a vixen named Hunter Fallow. (Calls to Doherty were not returned by press time.) Here, Star, “Grosse Pointe’s” creator and executive producer, separates fact from fiction and explains why all this backstage drama may very well find its way into future plots.

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Question: Up until now, you’ve sidestepped this question. But now that “Grosse Pointe” is airing, will you finally admit that it’s a spoof of “Beverly Hills, 90210"?

Answer: Yes, it is . . . and it isn’t. Because I created [“90210"], I have a close association with that show. But to me, these characters are all archetypes. There’s the bitchy diva. The neurotically insecure actress with sort of a heart of gold. There’s the narcissistic star. There’s the kid who’s over the hill but still trying to hold onto his youth. To the extent that the characters on “90210" sort of fit into those cliches, I think you can find a lot of parallels, but at the same time these are relatively great stock Hollywood types. But I’m not denying [the comparison]. I come from the school of “write what you know.”

Q: In “Grosse Pointe,” the actors are constantly demanding script changes from their producers. What’s been your experience?

A: With any show that reaches a degree of success, you have actors coming in and complaining about script stuff. It didn’t happen to this degree [on “90210"], but certainly it was there.

Q: Tell us one story.

A: A couple of actors were having an affair in reality and they were very upset that their characters on the show were suddenly put together, and they accused me of exploiting their real-life relationship. And I was only dimly aware that they were even having a real-life relationship. So they were saying, “We won’t be kissing on screen.” We ended up having to make some changes because they just wouldn’t do it, and that’s a story that possibly could find its way into “Grosse Pointe.”

Q: How did Aaron Spelling react to your decision to leave “90210" and “Melrose Place” to develop “Central Park West” for CBS?

A: When I left “Melrose” and “90210,” I was going to be a creative consultant, but I was denied that opportunity because I went to New York. Spelling basically said to me, “Look, if you’re going to New York, you’re not going to be available, and I don’t want you consulting on these shows.” And so I had to let go, and I think those shows, especially “Melrose Place,” had a great creative decline, which I had nothing to do with. When I watched I was often shocked with what I was seeing. These weren’t the shows that I had created.

Q: Did you make an effort to retain creative control?

A: I was barred from any involvement. He made it very clear that if I was leaving, I was gone--period. And that was a tough thing for me to deal with. These were my babies. Not only was I not allowed to consult, but if there were ever a party or any function thrown by Fox or Spelling for these shows, I was never invited. I’d go on the Fox Web site to see that my credit as creator was moved from the main opening titles--a lot of subtle stuff to disinvest me.

Q: Did that leave a bitter taste in your mouth?

A: Yeah, it did, but it also forced me to carve out new creative horizons.

Q: Is “Grosse Pointe” Darren Star’s great revenge?

A: It’s not about revenge at all. I don’t think about Aaron Spelling when I think about “90210.” I think about me. I’m doing a sendup of my experiences, and to me, there’s a big sense of presumptuousness for other people to come in and say, “You can’t do that.”

Q: But isn’t that what Spelling did? How did that all go down?

A: It came through the WB. I imagine he had conversations with [WB CEO] Jamie Kellner, and through those conversations it filtered down to me that he was unhappy. I had actually called him before I did the show to say, “I’m doing a sendup of ‘90210' and I hope you can do a cameo on it.”

Q: That’s obviously not going to happen. How upset was he with your series?

A: His [initial] attitude was “funny idea.” When it came to my attention that he was that upset about things, I wrote him a note and I called him and he voiced to me how he was really upset.

Q: What changes were made?

A: There were some things he was upset about that to me were total fabrications, but he took it all very personally. The minute you look at a satire and recognize yourself, you’re going to find things that weren’t even intended. There was a funny vomiting scene in the back of a limo that was taken out. For me that was a total fabrication, but he kept making an association between [the Marcy character] and Tori.

Q: Wasn’t there also a complaint about Marcy’s hair color, which was red in the pilot but is now brunet?

A: The hair color was truly a choice by us to have a brunet, a blond and a redhead on the show. I had no idea that Tori Spelling’s hair was red at the moment. To me, I associate Tori Spelling as being blond. That was a very specific request. Luckily we were able to digitally alter her hair color (in the pilot) and not have to re-shoot anything. It was a cost of doing business.

Q: You digitally altered an actress’ hair color?

A: Yeah--interesting, huh? It’s all material for future scripts. Maybe I’ll do a musical version.

Q: One of Spelling’s main complaints was a nepotism story involving Marcy and her uncle. How disappointed were you to lose that rich source of humor?

A: My feeling was if it was something he wasn’t comfortable being a part of, I’d have to lose that familial connection with the Marcy character. I didn’t want to personally offend someone who I’ve had a relationship with for years.

Q: Why did you let Joely Fisher out of her contract?

A: We never really made a deal to have her as a series regular. She was really just doing this on a show-by-show basis. The show’s really about the kids, and I felt like I couldn’t say to her, “Don’t take a lead in a show to be like the side-kick in ours.”

Q: Much like Luke Perry, the Quentin King character is older than the others, owns a potbellied pig and has a receding hairline. How do you think Perry is going to react to seeing this?

A: I think Luke will hopefully have a good laugh. While they have some things in common surface-wise, this guy’s not Luke Perry. It’s a satire. We take a little bit of material and use it as a jumping-off point.

Q: “90210" cast member Joe E. Tata pops up in the tag to Episode 3. Do you hope to bring on other vets of the show?

A: It would be great to have little cameos. I have a fondness for all those guys. I always got a kick out of Shannen. I wasn’t hanging out with her at Roxbury, but I always had a really nice relationship with her and still do--I hope.

Q: Has she seen it?

A: I think so. I know I sent her the script when I was trying to get her to do a cameo in the pilot, but she was directing an episode of “Charmed” and wasn’t able to do it. I wanted her to have a conversation with the Hunter character just so from the very beginning she could be in on the joke--winking to the audience. I wanted her to do that for herself, and I still want her to do it.

Q: Just as you wanted Spelling to make an appearance. Isn’t that a little like inviting your grouchy neighbors to your party so they won’t complain about the loud music?

A: Yeah, but if I was the neighbor, I’d go.

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On ‘Pointe’

* “Grosse Pointe’s” premiere is a few bubbles short of a full lather, though the show improves in later episodes, Howard Rosenberg writes. F24


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