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On the Tube: Stars reflect on their TV inspirations in CBS special

Friday, August 27, 1999

By Barbara Vanchieri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It figures that Matt Groening preferred Eddie Haskell to the Beaver.

"He was the bad kid and he got away with stuff, and I really liked that," says Groening, creator of "The Simpsons." In fact, he thought Eddie should have his own show -- and in a way he does, with Bart as his less silky, cartoon successor. Homer, meanwhile, is a descendant of Ozzie Nelson's befuddled TV dad.

Groening dissects the families on the shows of his childhood, such as "Leave It to Beaver," "Father Knows Best" (also set in Springfield) and "Ozzie and Harriet," on a CBS special airing tonight at 8. Candice Bergen hosts the two-hour show, "Influences: From Yesterday to Today," produced by the Museum of Television & Radio.

It features interviews with 16 entertainers, mainly actors, about the TV shows and stars who influenced them. Glaring by their absence are any African-Americans, although "The Cosby Show" is repeatedly saluted and creator James L. Brooks describes the origins of "Room 222" with its black school teacher played by Lloyd Haynes.

Couldn't someone track down a single Wayans brother or the always funny Robert Townsend? Or, better yet, what about paging Eriq La Salle, who will be earning $27 million for three more seasons as Dr. Peter Benton on "ER"?

In a summer when the networks have been under fire for lack of diversity in casting, you'd think someone might have noticed. Heck, I realized there were 11 men and only five women, not counting Bergen.

The special is pretty much an opportunity for the industry to be self-congratulatory and to revisit favorite clips -- not that there's anything wrong with that. The world might be a better place if we all had to watch Lucy and Ethel stuffing chocolates down their blouses, in their hats and in their mouths on a regular basis. As Paul Reiser acknowledges, "We're standing on the shoulders of all these great shows."

Reiser, who adopted his father's admiration for Red Skelton, was 15 years old when he discovered the 2,000-year-old man routine of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and "it opened up every blood vessel in my brain." Years later, both men would do guest spots on Reiser's "Mad About You."

It's no surprise that Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball and Johnny Carson are mentioned more than once, but there are some unusual favorites, such as the 1970s series "James at 16," which David Duchovny faithfully watched. And Christine Lahti singles out Annette Funicello from "The Mickey Mouse Club" as being "seemingly independent, bright and spirited" in a land where most women were tame and passive.

Lisa Kudrow, sounding almost as quirky as her character Phoebe on "Friends," so admired Elizabeth Montgomery on "Bewitched" that she thought about growing up to be a witch. While Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin often get plaudits for "Saturday Night Live," Kudrow enjoyed Laraine Newman's work, and her favorite from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was Sue Ann Nivens (Betty White).

Fran Drescher, who wanted to be "That Girl," pays tribute to Lucille Ball, while Jenna Elfman admires the sheer fun Carol Burnett seemed to be having on her long-running series.

"Frasier" star Kelsey Grammer followed Bob Hope and Jack Benny and today sees echoes of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton from "The Honeymooners" in the brotherly relationship on "Frasier." He says, "You knew that Ralph Kramden was never going to kill Ed Norton, although he said it all the time." And while Frasier Crane literally has tried to throttle Niles, he really loves him.

While it's easy to wax nostalgic about TV, it's instructional to hear what some of the best writers or producers did in their early years. Brooks, who would later work on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Rhoda," "Lou Grant," "Taxi," "The Tracey Ullman Show" and "The Simpsons," earned his first credit on "My Mother the Car."

"It's very tricky to say I want to be original. I don't know whether that works. You just try and do it as good as you can," he reasons.

"Howdy Doody" represents producer Steven Bochco's earliest television memory. Later, he came to appreciate such dramatic anthology series as "Studio One" and "Playhouse 90," which brought audiences such work as "Requiem for a Heavyweight," written by Rod Serling and starring Jack Palance as a broken-down boxer.

Serling, a brilliant storyteller and a very good writer suited to the medium of TV, was a role model for many, Bochco says. He also learned a lesson from the creative forces behind "Columbo" starring Peter Falk as the rumpled but crafty police lieutenant.

That show was remarkable in the fact that it had no action, no jeopardy, viewers knew the identity of the perpetrator and Falk's entry was delayed until the crime had been committed. Richard Levinson and William Link, the show's creators, were among Bochco's early mentors.

"They taught me the value of doing something different and then fighting for it with everything you've got to preserve its integrity." That's what he did with "Hill Street Blues," which he agreed to do on the condition "they absolutely leave us alone to just come up with whatever we come up with."

And he came up with some mighty strange (Detective Belker, for instance) and stellar material, although Bochco says, "We just wanted to do something different. We didn't think about it. We didn't have a master plan. We just sort of did it, and we did it by the seat of our pants."

And today, Bochco finds himself among the influential instead of the influenced.

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