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Tuned In: Van Dyke and Moore set to play 'Gin Game'

Saturday, January 11, 2003

HOLLYWOOD -- With all the remakes and reunion shows that invade prime time, you'd think Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore would have acted together on the same stage in the 37 years since the end of "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore star in "The Gin Game," coming soon on "PBS Hollywood Presents." "We're old enough now," Van Dyke said.(Gale Adler)

Save for a variety special just before the launch of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," the TV spouses have remained apart. PBS will rectify that with a new production of the play "The Gin Game." Why such a long wait?

"Well, we had to be old enough," Van Dyke said at a rollicking, warmly nostalgic PBS press conference Thursday. In 1981, he'd seen a previous production for PBS's "American Playhouse" starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn. At the time, he told Moore, "Some day, we're going to be old enough to do this."

"No we're not," she replied.

"And so I just called her up last spring and said, 'We're old enough now,' " Van Dyke recounted.

The bittersweet comedy, expected to air sometime this spring, stars Moore as a new resident to a nursing home who plays cards with a longtime tenant, played by Van Dyke.

"It was amazing," Van Dyke said, "like we had just seen each other yesterday."

Van Dyke said he's more of a song-and-dance man than an actor, and would consider doing "The Gin Game" only with the erstwhile Laura Petrie.

"I wouldn't have tried it with Judy Dench, for God's sake," he said. "She gives to me, and there's just so much mutual support here that, well, it was the only way I felt any confidence in doing this at all."

"And the amazing thing is, we never had an affair," Moore said, generating laughs. "I always thought it was a terrible waste."

While their classic series reruns on cable constantly, Van Dyke isn't fond of most of what passes for sitcoms today. He was surprised by the quick pace of NBC's "Scrubs" when he filmed an upcoming guest appearance.

"Everybody has attention deficit disorder now because there are no scenes of character development," he said of the current TV comedy environment. "Relationships are hinted at by a line or two and everybody insults everybody. It's kind of mean and brutish to me."

Moore is more accepting of some of today's comedies, citing "Scrubs," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Frasier" and "Friends" as favorites, but not "Sex and the City." Van Dyke said he was in the wrong age group for "Friends," adding, "I can't watch anybody that makes a million dollars a week!"

And don't get them started on reality TV. When asked for his thoughts, Van Dyke put a finger in his mouth, mock gagging.

"Makes me embarrassed to be a member of the human race looking at that stuff," Moore said. "Really!"

To the 'Manor' born

PBS follows "The 1900 House" and "Frontier House" with "Manor House" (April 28-30), sort of a reality TV version of "Upstairs, Downstairs." Brits were cast to live as if they were of the Edwardian era, pitting the Scottish home's staff against the wealthy family they served.

At a press conference, participants reacted to the experience differently depending on their standing in the home. The upper-class family, extremely well cast in their roles, said they hated leaving. Servants were more enthusiastic about the end of the three-month project.

"It was the most fantastic, it's, like, liberating," said 18-year-old Kenny Skelton, who played a lowly hall boy. "I supposed it's different if you're upstairs, because [afterwards] then you had to go wipe yourself and do that sort of thing."

Fans of PBS's historical reality shows have an opportunity to participate in a new American edition. "Colonial House," scheduled to air in 2004, is seeking people interested in traveling back to a 17th-century, East Coast way of life. Applications are online at http://www.pbs.org/colonialhouse.

PBS programs

A sequel to the popular "Masterpiece Theatre" miniseries "The Forsyte Saga" is tentatively set to air in January 2004. During its 2003-04 season, "Masterpiece" also will present a new version of "Dr. Zhivago," written by Andrew Davies ("Pride & Prejudice," "Othello"), that hews closer to the novel. A new "Prime Suspect" is also in the offing for 2004.

The future of "Masterpiece" is cloudy now that ExxonMobil has announced plans to pull its funding in 18 months. PBS president Pat Mitchell said she's optimistic another sponsor will come on board.

"Another company has never had the opportunity to step up and say, 'Yes, we like to support great British drama,' " Mitchell said. "We've got one of the strongest schedules in this next season. We've got ammunition as we go out to make this offer to the corporate market."

ExxonMobil decided "Masterpiece" no longer fit its marketing goals.

Series executive producer Rebecca Eaton said ExxonMobil is a far different company from Mobil, the original funder of "Masterpiece Theatre."

"Mystery!" will return in the summer and, after the fall success of "Skinwalkers," an adaptation of another Tony Hillerman novel, "A Thief of Time," is in development.

A two-hour documentary, based on the Gavin Menzies book "1421: The Year China Discovered the World," will air in 2004. Menzies posits that Chinese admirals may have discovered America.

International documentary series "Wide Angle" will return for a second season in July. This summer PBS will also premiere the documentary "Watergate Plus 30," a look back at the Watergate break-in.

On Jan. 28, PBS airs "Crisis and Conflicts: The 108th Congress." Hosted by Jim Lehrer, the hour-long program examines the political state of the nation with Republicans in control of the both the White House and Congress for the first time since 1954.

Hey, Arnold!

When you hear that Kelsey Grammer headlines A&E's new film "Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor" (8 p.m. Monday), you'd be excused for thinking he plays the famed American traitor. Grammer acknowledges that he's known for playing a scoundrel on TV as the pompous Dr. Frasier Crane, but says it was the role of George Washington that drew him to the project.

"The man is a monument, possibly because he did see things in black and white, and that was a problem," Grammer said. "It's very hard to sustain that kind of focus in a long travail, and George Washington certainly did that."

The title role went to Aidan Quinn, who said he had a rudimentary knowledge of Arnold that's probably representative of what many Americans know.

"I had a high school knowledge of Benedict Arnold: One, he was a traitor, and two, we don't talk about him," Quinn said. "To find out all the complexities behind it and how, in a way, there wouldn't be an America perhaps without his victories at Ticonderoga or here and there, it was fascinating to me."

Quinn said the time is right for a film about Arnold that delves into gray areas.

Director Mikael Salomon called Arnold a "tragic hero."

"What I saw was a guy who makes understandable decisions because of all the wrong reasons and with really bad timing," he said.

Museum tie-in

National Geographic Channel, available via satellite and on the digital tier of some cable systems, will re-air "SuperCroc" at 8 p.m. tomorrow. It's the story of a 110-million-year-old relative of the modern crocodile, growing to 40 feet in length and weighing as much as 10 tons. A SuperCroc exhibit will be on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh through Jan. 26.

Premiere ratings

Among Wednesday premieres, CBS's cheese-fest "Star Search" won its time period in household overnight ratings, as did ABC's "The Bachelorette." ABC's "Cel-ebrity Mole: Hawaii" ranked second at 10 p.m.

On Thursday against new episodes of "Friends" and "Scrubs," "Star Search" ranked second.

Meanwhile, The WB's "The Surreal Life" performed well for a WB Thursday night show, ranking fourth in its time period and beating UPN's "WWE Smackdown!"

On Tuesday night, FX police drama "The Shield" nabbed the highest ratings for the second season premiere of any series in basic cable history. Though not the highest-rated episode of "The Shield," the show scored better ratings than it averaged during its first season in both household ratings and the adults 18-49 demographic.

At least he's honest

Most publicists are in denial or simply get agitated when critics dislike their shows, especially when they routinely slam a network's programming. But not Brad Turell, executive vice president of Turner Broadcasting System, the network that aired last year's abysmal movie "Atomic Twister." He takes the negative reviews in surprisingly good-natured stride.

"Love it or, in your case, hate it, 'Atomic Twister' was the highest-rated -- believe it or not -- movie on basic cable this year," Turell said.

Then he listed some follow-up titles for 2003: "Counterstrike," "Evil Never Dies," "National Lampoon's Thanksgiving" and "Super Storm."

"We'll send these to you, you might not like them, in fact, you probably won't like them, but you write about them and you're actually kind in the way you torture us, which is very nice," Turell said. "But we know they'll get good ratings. God knows why, but our audience loves these films and we're going to continue making them as long as they want to watch them."

'Soul Food' on BET

Ah, corporate synergy.

In an effort to draw more viewers to Viacom-owned premium cable network Showtime, Viacom subsidiary BET will air the first 12 episodes of Showtime's "Soul Food" beginning Jan. 21 and leading up to the new season of "Soul Food" this spring.

"The Parkers," which airs on Viacom-owned UPN, will air in reruns on BET beginning this fall, to be followed by reruns of the UPN show "Girlfriends" in fall 2004.

Kelley's return

After the two-episodes-and-out failure of "girls club," uber-producer David E. Kelley has a new series in the works for fall. The untitled family drama for CBS, once the home of Kelley's excellent "Picket Fences," will focus on three brothers and their families in a small New Hampshire town.

Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com .

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