LOS ANGELES – At the crowded Bay Shore Bowling Alley in Santa Monica, the nation’s TV writers mill about eating a complementary dinner of chili or chicken and drinking from an open bar. A rambling 45-minute press conference – featuring Gregory Harrison, star of CBS’ new sitcom, “The Family Man” (thus the unusual location) – has just ended.
“I intend to bring a very strong reality to my character . . . blah, blah, blah,” Harrison had told the restless reporters, who listened dutifully and scribbled in their notepads.
During mealtime, a dozen cast members of “The Family Man” and “The Hogan Family” arrive. Sandy Duncan skipped the event, so Al Molinaro (of “Happy Days” fame), with his droopy eyes and distinctive nose, may be the most recognizable person here.
Between hugs, the performers seem confused as to their purpose.
Edie McClurg, a cheerful veteran character actress who plays the Hogan family’s obtrusive neighbor, picks at a salad before stopping a CBS publicity staffer.
“So what am I supposed to be doing?” McClurg asks. “Schmoozing?” The CBS public relations staffer smiles and nods.
After that, McClurg notices my press badge and steps toward me.
She touches my arm. “I’m schmoozing,” she says with a giggle.
Later, before everyone starts bowling, McClurg is handed a microphone and told to offer some tips on the game.
“Remember, hit Mr. Head Pin,” she says, then rolls a gutter ball.
It’s called the Television Critics Association (TCA) summer press tour; a chance for more than 130 TV writers from the Catholic News Service to the New York Times to interview performers and to preview the major networks’ fall offerings.
In other words, to schmooze supreme.
ABC, NBC and CBS each took three consecutive days to rave about their programs with the zeal of high school cheerleaders. (Major newspaper writers often stay for the entire 18-day tour, which includes presentations by cable channels and PBS). Held at the elegant Century Plaza hotel in Los Angeles last month, the TCA press tour consists of an endless stream of press conferences and preview screenings. An example: In one day, NBC held nine separate 45-minute interview sessions, then showed 4 1/2 hours of programming from their fall schedule.
At one point, 21-year-old rapper Will Smith, star of the teen comedy “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” preceded Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general who’s hosting several NBC health specials.
In search of something significant from “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” a reporter asked if Smith wants to teach middle America how to rap. Smith was befuddled.
“Teach middle America to rap?” Smith wondered while laughing. “No, no, no, no.”
The press tour has outgrown the days when networks popped for reporters’ airfare and lodging costs. Still, lavish meals are provided as well as a few gifts like a salami, courtesy of “The Fanelli Boys” an NBC sitcom about an Italian family; an “Uncle Buck” whoopie-cushion; and a “CBS: This Morning” coffee mug.
Three reporters sported Bart Simpson watches, handed out by the Fox network.
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The press conferences are part bedlam, part antagonistic and part comical. After being introduced, actors and producers immediately face an onslaught of questions. Although network pages shuffle around the room with microphones, the decorum usually allows the reporter with the loudest voice to speak. Afterwards, there are opportunities for impromptu personal interviews.
Few enjoy the experience of meeting the press – or as an ABC honcho said sarcastically, “There’s nothing I’d rather do on a sunny Saturday morning than meet with you people.”
Even a veteran actor and Emmy Award winner like Richard Mulligan (“Empty Nest”) appeared as uncomfortable as an accused thief awaiting a jury’s verdict. Before his press conference, Mulligan stalked a hallway muttering dialogue to himself and receiving puzzled looks from passersby.
Connie Chung, meanwhile, lashed back at the press when she felt her credentials as a news reporter were being attacked because her show, “Face to Face with Connie Chung,” includes celebrity interviews.
Describing Chung’s interview with “L.A. Law’s” Jimmy Smits, an East Coast reporter said his wife, a Smits fan, fell asleep during the piece.
“You people are so insulting,” Chung responded. “You have no feeling of . . .” Tact? “Yes, that’s good – tact,” she added.
Lenny Clarke, a stand-up comic who stars as a blue-collar worker and family man in the CBS series “Lenny,” overcame sluggish response to his show’s pilot by being the funniest interviewee.
Asked about his former occupation, janitor, Clarke described an on-the-job situation.
“Sometimes people aren’t nice to janitors,” Clarke said. “I remember this very elegant woman, draped in jewelry, came in and said (snobbishly), `Oh, janitor man; oh, janitor man.’ “And I’m looking at her with a mop, a broom and 300 keys on a belt ring. She said, `Could you let me in this room?’ I looked her right in the eyes and said, `Oh, I’m sorry, Miss, I don’t have the key to that room.’ ”
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A ’79 University of Illinois graduate, actor Alan Ruck is co-starring in an ABC sitcom, “Going Places,” on Friday nights. The show, which also stars blonde bombshell Heather Locklear, faces the difficult task of avoiding the network chopping block if its ratings don’t soar.
With more than 30 new shows premiering this fall, something’s got to go.
“Going Places” is the story of four writers, including Ruck, who create segments for a “Candid Camera”-type show. After filming the mildly funny pilot, the show’s executive producers, Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett (who also handle “Perfect Strangers,” “Full House” and “Family Matters”), decided the program needed retooling.
In a Friday night slot, “Going Places” must appeal to a young audience, so Miller and Boyett are adding a character who’s 15 years old and refilming the first episode that had been previewed to critics.
“We’re taking another crack at the pilot,” Ruck said. “I have no problems with that at all.”
Ruck’s career has remained on the upswing since leaving the U of I. A variety of theater roles in Chicago and New York productions, including the original Broadway production of “Biloxi Blues,” helped lead to an abundance of supporting film roles (“Class,” “Three Fugitives” and the upcoming “Young Guns II”). His most famous role was as Cameron, bestfriend and classmate of Matthew Broderick’s lead character in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Though he played a high school senior in the film, Ruck was 29 years at the time.
“That was pushing it a little bit,” said Ruck, now 34.
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Each network presented an extravagant shindig to highlight its portion of the tour.
CBS offered a private concert by the Temptations before a tiny crowd of critics and network stars and staff. The Temptations have been hired by CBS to appear in a series of promotional spots for the network’s lineup. This fall, you’ll hear revised versions of the group’s hit, “Get Ready”: “CBS has got so much for you/so get ready, get ready . . .”
NBC held a flamboyant pool bash. While the peacock network partied, Richard Nixon was honored at a banquet in the hotel’s main ballroom. With a flock of prominent Republicans attending Nixon’s black-tie affair, several hundred protesters gathered outside the hotel to protest conservative policies. Fourteen arrests were made when protesters blocked the hotel’s entrance.
ABC’s topper consisted of breakfast with 17 cast members of “Twin Peaks.” Of course, no one disclosed who Laura Palmer’s killer is, but Mark Frost, co-executive producer of the show, admitted that the mystery won’t be solved completely during the fall season’s two-hour opener, Sept. 30. At one of the dining room’s rear tables, actress Catherine E. Coulsen – “Twin Peaks’ ” Log Lady, a woman who hears things from her log – responded to questions while reporters munched on doughnuts and drank coffee.
“You can’t possibly spend that much time with a piece of Ponderosa pine that beautiful and not develop a close relationship with it,” said Coulsen, whose character’s traits seem to blend with her real life. “A good piece of pine is hard to find.”
Log-less on this occasion (the bark on the famous piece of wood is in storage because it’s losing its brittle, she said), Coulsen met “Twin Peaks’ ” co-creator David Lynch during the filming of Lynch’s cult classic “Eraserhead” in 1972. At the time, Lynch told Coulsen that some day he’d put her in a role with a log.
Said Coulsen, “I’m very fortunate to have the log to fall back on.”