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'Animal House' actor turns to directing

Sunday, July 11, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Hollywood is hot, and not just because it's summer.

TV shows that pull back the curtain on the behind-the-scenes world of television and movies have suddenly become a cottage industry. Showtime looks at network programmers with "Beggars and Choosers," Fox delves into the world of an obnoxious movie producer in this fall's "Action," and starting tonight The WB twists the traditional family sitcom by making mom and dad "Movie Stars."

Pittsburgh native James Widdoes is executive producer/director on the series, which will air new episodes Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. beginning tonight.

Widdoes, who began his career as an actor (he was Hoover in "National Lampoon's Animal House"), previously executive produced "Dave's World," "Can't Hurry Love" and "Brother's Keeper" with his business partner, Jonathan Axelrod.

 
  TV Preview: 'Movie Stars'

When: 9 p.m. today and tomorrow on The WB.

Starring: Harry Hamlin, Jennifer Grant

   
 

In "Movie Stars," Harry Hamlin plays Reese Hardin, a Sylvester Stallone-like action star. Jennifer Grant plays his wife, Jacey Wyatt, an Oscar-caliber actress in the Meryl Streep mold. The pair have two kids named Apache (Zack Hopkins) and Moonglow (Rachel David), but life gets topsy-turvy when Reese's daughter from his first marriage, Lori (Marnette Patterson), moves in.

Reese's brother, Todd (Mark Benninghofen), works as his personal assistant when he's not playing poker with other famous siblings: Joey Travolta, Don Swayze and Frank Stallone, who appear as themselves.

With the proliferation of entertainment news coverage, Widdoes said the timing is right for "Movie Stars."

"People know far more than they have in the past [about the entertainment industry], which is something we're gambling on in 'Movie Stars,'" Widdoes said last month over breakfast at Ritter's Diner in Bloomfield (he was in town to see his family in Squirrel Hill). "In the past, people said you can't do a show about show business, but then 'Larry Sanders' came on and that started to break down the rules. We thought the time had come to try it ourselves."

There's plenty of name-dropping and inside jokes strewn throughout "Movie Stars." The kids attend a birthday party for one of Mel Gibson's children, Robin Williams drives the carpool some days, references are made to Scientology, Michael Eisner, Drew Barrymore and Robert Downey Jr.

So far none of those A-list stars has put in an appearance on "Movie Stars," and it's been left to the brothers of the famous to provide laughs. Widdoes said it was surprisingly easy to get them involved.

"We spoke to a couple who weren't interested, because we said you have to be willing to make fun of your relationships," Widdoes said. "One of our first pitches was that the brother will be an assistant, because that happens all the time and it's a gold mine for comedy. But these [brothers] were great, they were riotously funny both on and off-camera."

Widdoes hopes to snag celebrity appearances if "Movie Stars" gets picked up for more episodes. At this point, that's a big "if."

"Movie Stars" sat on the shelf at The WB for a year. It was expected to be a mid-season replacement, but got bumped to summer, a move that usually means the network is throwing the show away.

"In their own unconventional way, I think they truly do believe in this show," Widdoes said. "It's a unique way to introduce the show."

Widdoes said The WB spent a lot of money promoting "Movie Stars" ("Their money, not ours."), filming promos in Malibu and extending the contracts of the cast long enough to see how the sitcom performs in the ratings.

"What's frustrating is as long as there is hope we'll make more. It's like a carrot dangling," Widdoes said.

Whatever the future of "Movie Stars," Widdoes will direct the first 13 episodes of NBC's new fall sitcom, "The Mike O'Malley Show." Axelrod/Widdoes Entertainment, now housed at Paramount Pictures, is developing a sitcom based on the independent feature film "Kiss Me Guido" (straight Italian guy gets a gay roommate).

This fall the networks are shunning sitcoms in favor of dramas, but Widdoes isn't overly worried.

"I don't apologize for what I do, but I do apologize for the amount of it that's out there, because that hurts us all," Widdoes said.

One option Widdoes said he's considering is to go the "Ally McBeal"-"Providence"-"7th Heaven" route and develop a light drama series.

"You take the sensibilities of a half-hour and put it in an hour," Widdoes said. "There's no reason we can't do that."



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