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Mailer and the ‘Girls’

Special to The Times

It is fair to say that Norman Mailer is no fan of television. As he himself bluntly puts it: “I hate sitcoms. They violate any notion of serious acting and serious art.” He once wrote that the entertainment media were the great corruptor of man’s soul: “Each day a few more lies eat into the seed with which we are born, little institutional lies from the print of newspapers, the shock waves of television, and the sentimental cheats of the movie screen.”

So, well-read TV fans who tune in to the WB on Tuesday may be a bit surprised when they catch Mailer guest-starring on “Gilmore Girls.”

His appearance may be one of the most unlikely stunt-casting stunts in TV history -- not just because of Mailer’s avowed distaste for television, but because of the show that he agreed to appear on. The grizzled author of “The Naked and the Dead” and 30 other machismo-drenched novels -- a man who once famously said that “all women should be kept in cages” and who is considered by some to be one of literature’s greatest misogynists -- is guest-starring on a show that women’s organizations cite as being one of the most feminist shows on prime-time TV.

“It’s so bizarre,” delighted “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino bubbled in a phone interview. “Anyone who knows who he is will think it’s pretty ... cool.”

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Of all the lighter shows across the dial, “Gilmore Girls” may be one of the few with bona fide literary pretensions.

It is a show that isn’t afraid to name-check R.W. Apple and “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” in the space of one minute. Lorelai -- the show’s spiky young single mom -- imagines her inn becoming a literary salon; her daughter, Rory, attends Yale and reads Proust. “Rory’s Book Club,” hosted on the show’s website, recommends that its young fans read Jhumpa Lahiri and Honore de Balzac.

Sherman-Palladino likes to think of herself as a stealth member of the intelligentsia in the land of light entertainment (her production company’s name, after all, is Dorothy Parker Drank Here Productions). So when she was considering stunt-casting ideas, she bypassed the usual sitcom fare -- say, J. Lo, Demi Moore or Freddie Prinze Jr. -- and fixed on the likes of Tony Kushner, Stephen Sondheim and Norman Mailer.

“We thought never in a million years we’d get Mailer to do it,” she said. And, in fact, they couldn’t: Initial phone calls to Mailer’s publicist went unanswered. But the show’s creators discovered that they had an ace in the hole: One of the show’s writers was a close friend of Mailer’s son Stephen, a television and theater actor.

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The show’s writers wrote in a part for Stephen, and sold the idea to both Mailers as a father-son day on the set. This was the lure that apparently reeled Norman Mailer in: “I was just looking forward to working with my son,” he explained by telephone from his home Provincetown, Mass.

Not surprisingly, the 81-year-old Mailer had never seen the show, but he seems to have been impressed by the tapes he received. “I liked it more than I thought I would,” he said. “The people were quirky and slightly kinky and in their skin at the same time. Sitcoms usually never see a check that they won’t cash, if you think of laughs as cash. With the ‘Gilmore Girls,’ there was more irony and restraint.”

The role “Gilmore Girls” offered wasn’t much of a stretch: Mailer plays, well, Norman Mailer, who has taken to conducting interviews with a journalist -- played by his son Stephen -- at the inn restaurant owned by Lorelai. (The plot twist: He refuses to order lunch, infuriating the chef.) “The fun was to play a very small side of myself, but play it well,” Mailer said.

What side was that? “The curmudgeon,” the actor said. “I played him as a real sourpuss.”

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Mailer, in his typically nonconforming fashion, waved off a script and decided instead to improvise his lines. (“I can’t remember a line to save my life,” he explained.) The resulting sequences don’t exactly adhere to the “Gilmore Girls’ ” typical rapid-fire, “His Girl Friday"-esque dialogue, but instead give Mailer space to muse in his archly circuitous way on one of his favorite subjects: himself.

Viewers are treated to a Maileresque diatribe on compliments: “Generally, when people give you a compliment there’s one or two things wrong with them -- either they are false, or what’s worse, is they are sincere: They really mean the compliment. And then they are offering you their loyalty. And I’m kind of a stingy, cold fellow and I don’t want to give the loyalty back.”

And on his place in American letters: “I’m either the best or I’m not. And I have no idea. There are 20 of us around, 20 American writers right now -- I could name them but I won’t -- who think they are the best living American writer. And I’m one of those 20.”

Still, the episode’s references to feuds with Gore Vidal and literary marriages with Marilyn Monroe will probably baffle those viewers who haven’t yet worked their way through their high school required reading lists. As Mailer put it, “I think most people who watch sitcoms don’t know who ... I am.”

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One group that surely will know who he is, however: the feminists whom Mailer has notoriously loved to bait. And “Gilmore Girls” has an abundance of this sort of viewer: In 2001, the National Organization for Women pronounced “Gilmore Girls” the most feminist show on prime-time television, commending it for its “positive female role models” and “depict[ing] the struggle of single moms working and trying to raise teenagers.”

NOW, it should be noted, is the organization that Mailer attacked in his anti-feminist polemic of 1971, “The Prisoner of Sex.” During the heated days of Women’s Liberation, Mailer delighted in inflammatory pronouncements such as “Women, at their worst, are low sloppy beasts” and “The prime responsibility of a woman probably is to be on Earth long enough to find the best mate possible for herself and conceive children who will improve the species.”

It seems age and time have mellowed him, though.

“He was absolutely delightful and charming,” Sherman-Palladino said. “I wonder whether it even occurred to him that it’s a chick show: Chicks who star in it, a chick who created it, chicks who write it.”

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Mailer dismisses the suggestion that his appearance on a “chick show” might be considered unusual. “I wasn’t aware of its reputation,” he said of “Gilmore Girls.” And that whole anti-feminist thing?

Blown out of proportion, he says: “I don’t have any objections with the women’s revolution -- the only I objection I have is that, like most revolutionaries, they got a bit too ideological and I got singed by it.”

In fact, he says he approves of the “Gilmore Girls’ ” girl-power message: “I think it speaks really to a lot of young women who are in the middle class but kind of adventurous. And they are really looking to the time of their lives to find out what is real and not so real.”

In sum, he’s now a fan: “Will I watch the show now that I’m on it? Of course.”

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That said, don’t expect him to be appearing again soon. His priorities these days are finishing his next novel and spending time with his sixth wife and nine children.

As his son Stephen observed, “It was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Though maybe now you’ll be seeing writers on all kinds of other shows.”

Philip Roth’s agent should consider himself warned.


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