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TV Preview: 'Goodbye Girl' says hello again

Sunday, January 11, 2004

By Barbara Vancheri, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A couple of producers rightly suggest that Jeff Daniels is a "very courageous actor." He is stepping into the role of Elliot Garfield in "The Goodbye Girl," the very part that won Richard Dreyfuss a Best Actor Oscar - over Woody Allen, Richard Burton, Marcello Mastroianni and John Travolta.

  

"The Goodbye Girl"

When: Premieres on TNT at 8 p.m. Friday; repeats at 10:15 p.m.; multiple other showings through Feb. 1.
Starring: Jeff Daniels, Patricia Heaton, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Alan Cumming.

Even Daniels himself had asked "Why?" when he heard TNT and director Richard Benjamin were planning a remake of the 1977 romantic comedy. After all, in addition to turning Dreyfuss into a golden boy, it had garnered four other Academy Award nominations for picture, writer Neil Simon and actresses Marsha Mason and young Quinn Cummings.

"But you look at it and it's a great part and you look at what Dreyfuss did and you go, all right, I can see why Dreyfuss won the Oscar and all that. But is there another way to do it? Not necessarily better but different. ... What if his performance didn't exist? What would I have done with it?"

He watched the original and flagged the "signature Dreyfuss moments" so he would be sure to do something different at those points.

In addition to Daniels, the remake stars "Everybody Loves Raymond" star Patricia Heaton as a former Broadway dancer named Paula McFadden and Hallie Kate Eisenberg as her daughter, Lucy.

When Paula's latest boyfriend leaves them in the lurch, they end up sharing their New York apartment with an actor named Elliot Garfield, who has come to town from Chicago to star in "Richard III" off-off Broadway. Their mutual dislike turns to dependence and love.

"In the middle between Dreyfuss and me is this person called Neil Simon. ... Every word that changed had Neil's keyboard attached to it. And to be honest, Patty [Heaton] was great and Richard Benjamin was great, but I think we all did it because of Neil.

"I had never done anything by Neil Simon before and so it was a chance for me to kind of get into his world and see how to do it, how do I pull this off. It's a lot of work."

The remake includes updated references to ESPN and other cable channels, Italian director Roberto Benigni and Toyota gas-electric hybrids. Befitting life in 2004, Elliot has a cell phone but he drops it, sending him outdoors to a nearby pay phone for a key scene.

"It was the first movie I've done where I memorized the whole part before the first day of shooting," Daniels says. "Usually you kind of spread it out over the course of the shoot," but this movie was very heavy on the dialogue and the direction often was: Faster. And then, faster still.

"You really got to have it down because with Neil, you don't ad-lib, you don't substitute words, you got to memorize it to the letter because there's a rhythm to it."

Having it ready for the plucking from his brain came in handy on the last night of shooting when Elliot is at the pay phone (a scene early in the movie). The crew was drenching Daniels with man-made rain and a 22-hour day was ending at 4 a.m. "That's when you're standing there going, man, I'm glad I memorized this when I did because I don't know if I could keep it in my head otherwise."

As an actor who founded the Purple Rose Theater Company in his hometown of Chelsea, Mich., Daniels could relate to Elliot's desperation to make the most of his turn in "Richard III." But a wacky revisionist, played by Alan Cumming, insists Elliot play Richard as a flamboyant gay man.

"I'm aware of the regional theater actor going and making the journey to New York City. I did it at a much younger age, but it's still going down I-80" and into uncertainty and hopes of success. "I was joining Circle Repertory Company, which was a great off-Broadway theater company in the '70s and '80s. I was going to become an apprentice and also act."

Now, Daniels lives in Michigan with his family and tools around to movie sets in what he calls a low-end Gulfstream bus. He had just returned from the Louisiana set of "Because of Winn-Dixie," a family film about a preacher, his daughter and a stray dog named after the supermarket chain.

"I just enjoy kind of the whole RV thing. I've had RVs forever and of course on movie sets, you live in those things and I just said, 'Why don't I get a decent bus?' And so I drove it down there and it sat on the movie set for the three months and then I drove it home. You end up sleeping in truck stops, you're back there with the truckers. It's a whole other world. It's just great."

Asked if the star of such movies as "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Gettysburg" and "Dumb & Dumber" gets nagged there about autographs, he says, "They don't even look at me. That's the beauty of it. After being on a movie set where you're kind of pampered like Paris Hilton, you end up at a truck stop and nobody looks at anybody, and everybody just is completely independent, self-contained, just doing their own thing. It's just great."


Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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