Andy Richter’s Rant … Susan Lyne, Made for TV … Eddie Hayes’ Legal Memo to Norm Macdonald

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

There isn’t really a more quintessential show-business drama than a love story between two professionals, one on the way up, the other on the way down. Variations abound, but the most famous of these-the “Star Is Born” story-has been made four times: The first, about a struggling young actress and an alcoholic film director (Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman), was a modest success called What Price Hollywood? and was directed in 1932 by George Cukor (one of his first) and produced by David O. Selznick, who five years later turned it into a rising young actress and a fading movie star (Janet Gaynor and Fredric March), in the smash success-and one of the earliest color films- A Star Is Born (1937), directed by William Wellman. Seventeen years later-and 22 years before Barbra Streisand’s extremely popular 1976 semi-rock version-came the first musical adaptation of the story, directed by the original director, George Cukor, and conceived as a comeback vehicle for Judy Garland, then age 31, whose star had faded at the end of the 40′s, that most brilliant 1954 color and Cinemascope A Star Is Born [Monday, March 23, AMC, 46, 8 P.M.]. The irony is that this Cukor-Garland production-co-starring an excellent James Mason as the doomed star, with a truly fine script by Moss Hart and a smashing group of new songs (like “The Man That Got Away”) by legendary composer Harold Arlen and equally celebrated lyricist Ira Gershwin-was both the very best of all the versions and also the only one that in its own day was not a financial success. There has been a good deal of controversy about this, because the initial release in New York of Cukor’s A Star Is Born ran over three hours; soon afterward, studio head Jack Warner recut the film and replaced the first release version with one that was 42 minutes shorter. Garland and Cukor were furious and heartbroken. Cukor said to me years later: “Awfully sad. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote an article called ‘The Star Is Shorn.’ For Judy Garland, it was a great injustice, maybe because of that she didn’t win the Academy Award.” I was one of the lucky few who saw the original long version down near Times Square the first week of its release, and there was an overwhelming emotional wallop and an epic sense of truth which the shorter one undeniably lacked. For years, Cukor and others tried to find the missing sequences-including a Garland musical number-and finally many of these, though not all, did turn up just before Cukor died in 1983 and have been lovingly restored. As a tragic show-business fable, it carries all the substantial weight of Cukor’s life experiences in the theater and film with some of the greatest star players of the 20th century, from Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Jean Harlow to John Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, both Hepburns (he discovered Katharine!) and Cary Grant, James Stewart, Judy Holliday, etc. And his Star Is Born has the absolute ring-no matter how brassy at times, or even sentimental-of the way it really is in show business. Garland is astonishingly good, terribly moving, naked, honest. Mason has charm, dignity and a sense of great talent wasted, but not quite the star allure the role could have used: Cukor wanted Cary Grant and you can see why-he would have been far more romantic, therefore more touching. Grant reportedly read the script aloud superbly to Cukor but was afraid the role might be interpreted as autobiographical because Grant’s career was in a slump at the time. The saddest irony is that Judy Garland’s amazing comeback essentially became her swan song. She did some emotionally charged acting in a couple of films (like John Cassavetes’ 1963 A Child Is Waiting ), but A Star Is Born was her farewell to Garland the singer-actress-superstar. But then again, what an exit!

Wednesday, March 18

It’s not even one year old, but already Dharma & Greg is reaching for story lines. Tonight, it’s the old Native-American-who-wants-to-die-in-a-sacred-burial-ground-which-happens-to-be- the-same-place-where-the-protagonist-of-the-sitcom-happens-to-live-providing-for-many- unexpected-laughs-and-touching-moments-along-the-way plot. Floyd (Red Crow) Westerman plays the Native American. [WABC, 7, 8:30 P.M.]

Who the hell does she think she is-Barbara Walters? Daily Show correspondent extraordinaire Beth Littleford, who knows when to stick the knife in and twist it a little, and when to sit back and let her interview subjects hang themselves, gets her own special tonight-called The Beth Littleford Special ! It’s a compendium of her best pieces, including the anti-circumcision guys and Fabio, as well as some new stuff. [Comedy Central, 45, 11 P.M.]

Thursday, March 19

The cast, crew and studio audience were sent home from the March 11 Seinfeld taping when Jerry mysteriously lost his voice. Maybe it was because it was the second to last time he’ll ever do the show. Fortunately, Jerry has voice insurance, which a lot of actors have. It means a doctor comes down to the set, takes a swab, validates it and then the insurance kicks in. Tonight, Jerry pats himself on the back in yet another meta-plot (the show about nothing? No, now it’s the show about itself) in which George learns how to know when it’s time to leave. [WNBC, 4, 9 P.M.]

Friday, March 20

Andy Richter is proving that, unlike Hank on The Larry Sanders Show , you can be a TV sidekick without sacrificing your dignity (not that Hank ever had any). “It can be a little bit unnerving,” said Mr. Richter, an hour before a taping of Late Night With Conan O’Brien . “But I have an ability to sort of limit my own awareness so that it’s at a manageable level. Conan runs on such a high level that, next to him, I really feel like a Zen master. He soaks up all my nervousness.”…

Hey! Conan soaks up all of our nervousness, too! Anyway, the incredibly relaxed Mr. Richter has proved a nice foil to Mr. O’Brien, who bobs and weaves.…

“A lot of my job is editing myself,” Mr. Richter said, “because you always run the risk of saying something that brings the conversation to a halt. There is a tradeoff between me saying something funny and being a derailer.”…

What happens if you do?…

“It gets edited. One time, I had like a 101-degree temperature, and I had been napping in my dressing room all day and Conan was setting up a bit and-sometimes he’ll do this, he’ll toss me something like, ‘Andy, what is it we’ve said we’ve always wanted to do in the show?’ And he was giving me an opening for a joke and I’m supposed to say something like, ‘Save puppies,’ or something, and I go, ‘Murder a homeless person and try to get away with it.’ And Conan just looked at me shocked and kind of laughed and was like ‘What?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ And then we paused so that it could be edited. But the audience all laughed! That’s one of the instances where working on TV is kind of depressing. I’m not saying we’re too politically correct, but that is a moment where if I was in a room with friends, they’d know I was joking, but you bring it into the context of TV and people are like, ‘Oh, that’s not O.K. to say.’ I get this feeling from TV audiences that they want everything to be nice, like your grandma sitting at the kitchen table. I’m like, ‘That’s not very funny.’ I mean, here we have a story where allegedly a 19-year-old [24 years old, but that's O.K.-ed.] woman was blowing the President of the United States, but if you do a joke where you say she blew the President, they’ll say, ‘How dare you!’ When Sonny Bono died, we sat down at the desk and I said, ‘I’m sorry he’s dead and all, but when did he become the Queen of England?’ He was a sight gag and this is something that I had heard people saying all day, but the audience acted like I had exhumed his corpse and was fondling it. I’m no Dennis Leary or Dennis Miller, but it seems like the times you step out and say ‘That’s kind of silly,’ it’s got to kind of go with the party line.”…

Mr. Richter, whose career was not killed by his starring role in Cabin Boy, said his ultimate goal is to do movies, although he’s signed on as Late Night sidekick for at least three more years. “I don’t get that impatient,” he said. “The amount of work that I’ve gotten for my age is tremendously lucky. Until this job, I was just piecing together a living.”…

Tonight’s Late Night: Matt Dillon flacks the most recent “girl and her breasts” movie, Wild Things. [WNBC, 4, 11:35 P.M.]

Saturday, March 21

Is Norm Macdonald unhappy or not? The comic, fired earlier this year from his gig on Saturday Night Live ‘s “Weekend Update,” complained on the Feb. 27 edition of Late Show With David Letterman that NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer would not let him out of his contract. Mr. Macdonald said he felt guilty taking NBC’s checks without doing much work. And from what he told Mr. Letterman, it seems that he has what’s called a “noncompete” clause in his contract, meaning he can’t work anywhere else in TV without NBC’s permission-even if he quits.…

Not that Mr. Macdonald asked for our help, but NYTV called up jack-of-all-trades New York lawyer Eddie Hayes (who has helped many characters out of some ugly jams) to see if he couldn’t quit NBC and start going to work somewhere else right away without facing any legal consequences. Mr. Hayes’ short answer: Go ahead and try it.…

“A noncompete clause is something you bargain for,” the lawyer said. “They’re paying him for not working for someone else. What’s completely ridiculous is that it means that while they don’t want him to be funny for them, they’re terrified of him being funny for someone else. The courts are very hesitant to enforce a noncompete clause, because if a guy’s taking money for not working, the courts are inclined to enforce it. But if he goes to the guy and says, ‘I don’t want your money, I want to work,’ most courts would realize that it’s very hard for an Irish guy to keep a job, to work every day, and they’d be inclined to say if it’ll keep him out of the pubs, then let the guy go to work!” Not that Norm’s Irish, but he does like the pubs. [WNBC, 4, 11:30 P.M.]

Sunday, March 22

Somewhere in the TV dreck about Hollywood in all the shows hyping the Oscars, here’s something informative: Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream , with studies of studio moguls Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, the Warner brothers, Carl Laemmle. [A&E, 14, 9 P.M.]

Sunday night cheesefest: Blood on Her Hands , a made-for-TV movie in which Susan Lucci convinces her lover to kill her husband. Haven’t we seen that story before ( The Postman Always Rings Twice, Body Heat, every other episode of Melrose Place )?…

Anyway, the ratings-challenged ABC network has hired someone new to handle its movies and miniseries: Susan Lyne, former editor of Premiere (from when it was really good to when it was so-so) and most recently in charge of the New York acquisitions office of ABC’s parent, the Walt Disney Company. Despite its troubles this year, ABC has done pretty well with its movies, garnering big numbers for the “Oprah Winfrey Presents” series, which included The Wedding and Before Women Had Wings ; and those Wonderful World of Disney TV movies (a new version of Cinderella among them) were no slouches, either. Ms. Lyne said she plans to stay in New York, with frequent trips to Los Angeles.…

“There’s a lot you can do in TV that you can’t do in movies,” Ms. Lyne told NYTV over the phone on her last day in her Disney job. “Feature films are going much more toward the big event movies and action films and comedies. On TV, you can do dramas. In TV, I can make 20-plus movies a year and three or four miniseries. Features take much longer.”…

Wouldn’t it be wiser, or more convenient, to move to L.A. permanently?…

“I feel strongly that good ideas come from a lot of different sources, not just L.A.,” said Ms. Lyne. “I think what has always attracted me is a good story, a strong character. For TV you want emotional stories that pack a strong wallop in some way. I’m really looking forward to it.” [WABC, 7, 9 P.M.]

Tired of network interference, Larry says he’s quitting The Larry Sanders Show on tonight’s episode (just 11 more to go) of The Larry Sanders Show. [HBO, 28, 10 P.M.]

Monday, March 23

If you don’t have the stomach for Barbara Walters’ soft-focus, pre-Oscar celebrity interviews, take a look at a time when barbarism was not quite so bejeweled with In Search of History ‘s look at cave dwellers in Europe, Asia and Africa 100,000 to 35,000 years ago. [History, 17, 8 P.M.]

Barbara (Walters) does Burt (Reynolds), as well as Will Smith and Kim Basinger, on the always-hilarious Barbara Walters Special. [WABC, 7, 8 P.M.]

See how many times Billy Crystal, star of My Giant, can bring together Bill Clinton and Titanic in the same punch line during the 70th Annual Academy Awards show from the Shrine Auditorium. Watch Ben Affleck do his shambling, likable-guy thing when he presents an award. Thrill to Celine Dion’s rendition of “My Heart Will Go On” (she usually punches herself in the chest during that last, climactic verse). [WABC, 7, 9 P.M.]

Tuesday, March 24

Why Planes Go Down. Gruesome footage. Cool. [WYNW, 5, 9 P.M.]

Famous beheadings on Guillotine. Cool. [Discovery, 18, 9 P.M.]

Jimmy Breslin goes on Al Franken’s new sitcom, Lateline. [WNBC, 4, 9:30 P.M.]