‘Newman!’ Have We Got a Sitcom Idea for You!

Wednesday, June 23

Wayne Knight, who played Newman on Seinfeld , went on Late Night With Conan O’Brien the other night, flacking his starring role in the play Art at the Royale Theater on West 45th Street. He told Conan– jokingly , of course–that he was not bitter that the other Seinfeld cast members now had boatloads of money, while he, the fifth banana, did not get in on that cushy deal. And he said something else, too–that when he was a struggling stage actor, he made a living by working as a private investigator. He said he didn’t carry a gun–that was for the other guys in the office–but he did do some surveillance work.

After we had a laugh at the mental image of Mr. Knight–”Newman!”–hiding behind a potted plant as he spied on some businessman out on the town with some floozy, we got to thinking. Hey! Not a bad idea for a TV show! An out-of-work actor who does P.I. work on the side? Now, we don’t like to get into the business of trying to develop TV shows. God forbid! (In fact, that’s what got one of the last NYTV guys in some pretty hot water around here. But that’s just between you and me.) Our interest here was purely theoretical, out of simple curiosity, not greed. Anyway, we tried calling Mr. Knight, but he has a pretty good team of publicists protecting him. So we did what any self-respecting, or even self-loathing, private eye would do: We staked him out at the Royale Theater.

There he was–”Newman!”–with a goatee, signing autographs for tourists. NYTV asked him about the detective work.

“I had done Broadway and nothing was happening, and this was over a five-year period of time while doing other acting jobs,” he said, as a woman grabbed a pen right out of our hand and motioned that Mr. Knight should sign her playbill with it, which he did. “Whereas some people would go on unemployment, I would go back to work as a P.I. So I would do a gig and then come back to my job as a private investigator–and there was an office and I could see the Empire State Building and I had a fake name.”

And what was the fake name?

“Nicholas Rome,” Mr. Knight said. He added that he didn’t mind snooping so much. (Somehow, we figured that.) “Basically, the thing was, you were playing roles,” he said. “Young actors were doing it because they liked pretending they were somebody they weren’t.”

Good idea for a sitcom, right? Picture it: down-and-out Broadway actors getting into hilarious trouble. It could be Rent meets Matlock !

The mere mention of this as fodder for a TV show flustered Mr. Knight considerably. Finally–reluctantly–he said that he had been thinking along the same lines. In fact, he said, he’s developing that show right now. But he didn’t want to talk about it. Loose lips sink development deals. Off he went–”Newman!”–into a waiting Town Car. [WPIX, 11, 11 P.M.]

Thursday, June 24

The Late Shift : late-night wars on the late movie tonight on Channel 7. This movie just keeps getting better. [WABC, 7, 1:40 A.M.]

Friday, June 25

R Unlike other ex-child stars, Willie Aames, who played Tommy Bradford on Eight Is Enough , is not on crack or dead. He’s … Bibleman!

Mr. Aames played the son with the floppy hair who was always dipping his toes into the taboo pool (falling in love with a hippy-drippy single mother or getting drunk and waking up, hung over, to the stern words of Dick Van Patten). Then he went on to play Buddy Lembeck on Charles in Charge . Then, about 10 years ago, Mr. Aames found God and has since returned to show business as Bibleman, a purple-and gold-caped crusader battling against the forces of the devil in the form of characters such as Gossip Queen, who spreads all kinds of nasty things about people.

When faced with a foe, he spews out Scripture. The epic battle takes place, for now, on video cassette. Mr. Aames was “unavailable” for comment. (Yeah, right! Like he couldn’t pick up a phone!) Eight Is Enough is always on the air. [WPXN, 31, 5 P.M.]

Saturday, June 26

Have you seen those commercials for MTV that end with one disgusting-looking guy spanking another disgusting-looking guy’s bare fanny–so that a red mark is left on the cheek, outlining the MTV logo? Funny stuff, right? (Sure, in a kind of a Farrelly brothers-knockoff way.) Well, the guys in that one are supposed to be Finns. They’re called the Jukka Brothers. And guess what? The Finnish Consulate is not pleased with the MTV take on Finland. Tuula Yrjola, in charge of cultural affairs for the consulate, thought nothing of the commercial until it hit her that the guys in the ad were speaking Finnish. Ms. Yrjola told NYTV: “I was very disbelieving of what I saw and I said we better investigate. And then we looked into it. Some of the staff called MTV and asked if they were serious about portraying Finns in this way.”

The answer was Yes. “We really didn’t have an agenda to go after the Finns,” said Allan Broce, MTV’s senior vice president for marketing.

Jamie Barrett, a creative director with Fallon McElligott, the firm that helped come up with the $5 million campaign, said he didn’t expect the ads–which were shot in Sweden, with three Finnish actors and one Swede–would provoke anybody. “It was just supposed to be far away from here,” he said. “If MTV is a place you can go and sort of stay in touch with what’s cool and new out there, what if you took it to the logical extreme? Would it work for four brothers in the middle of nowhere? Maybe it got a little crazy from there.”

Ms. Yrjola said she realizes all she can do is keep trying to show New York that Finns are sophisticated. “Really, we’re not going to declare war on MTV,” she said. [MTV, 20, all day long.]

Sunday, June 27

The Bowery Boys , nearly four hours of them. Funny. [Turner Classic Movies, 82, noon.]

Monday, June 28

Actor Delroy Lindo talks with Spike Lee about everything in Delroy Lindo on Spike Lee . [Independent Film Channel, 81, 8 P.M.]

Tuesday, June 29

Quincy, M.E. helps a cop who shot an innocent bystander. Why are you watching this? [A&E, 16, 3 P.M.]

Wednesday, June 30

Dick Wolf is getting back to work this week, starting production on his new show, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit . Pretty soon you’ll see his cameras all over town. “We’ll be taking up plenty of alternate-side-of-the-street parking,” Mr. Wolf said. The new, hourlong drama is a spinoff of Law & Order , which stars Sam Waterston and takes the audience through the law enforcement process, from the beginning of a criminal investigation to the end of the trial. The new show will deal more with the cops’ side of things, Mr. Wolf said, though it will have occasional visits from the regular Law & Order crew (and is to also feature Homicide ‘s Richard Belzer). [WNBC, 4, 10 P.M.]

Thursday, July 1

CBS president Les Moonves should have plenty to gloat about. His network drew more viewers than any of its competitors this year, finishing the 1998-99 season in first place for the first time since 1993-94. But there he was, at the Metropolitan Club cocktail party on June 16 for Dan Rather’s new book– Deadlines and Datelines (Christ, nobody’s actually going to read this thing, are they? I mean, people aren’t idiots , are they?)–griping about the general lack of praise CBS has won for its victory.

“We aren’t getting the proper credit we are due for winning,” said Mr. Moonves. “We won this season in total viewers!”

CBS drew 13 million viewers a night–just a hair more than NBC–but it came in fourth in terms of viewers between the ages of 18 and 49. The average CBS watcher is 51 years old. Advertisers seem unaware that, these days, 51-year-olds are out there spending dough, lighting up doobies, having picnics, swinging, the works. Have you seen a 51-year-old lately? This is an argument NYTV has long been making–and Mr. Moonves agrees.

He said, “I feel like it’s almost Madison Avenue that’s behind the times.” Right. “The fact is we’re operating under rules that are 30 years old and anybody who considers a 50-year-old today to be the same as a 50-year-old 30 years ago is crazy .” Right. “I don’t know about you, but when I was 18 years old, I didn’t have too much money, I drove my father’s used car and had $200 in the bank.” Right. What he said. See “book author” Dan Rather doing the news on CBS at 6:30 P.M. [WCBS, 2, 6:30 P.M.]

Friday, July 2

Jim Jensen banged his formidable hands down on his wrought-iron deck table in a nearly weeping rant, punctuating each fourth word with a loud, clanging thud.

“It was so much fun to do it right,” he said. “We were doing it the way it was supposed to be done and people liked what we did and it was satisfying. Honest to God it was! There was nothing in the world I would rather have done than what I was doing. Jesus ! I mean, really !”

What Mr. Jensen did right for the better part of 32 years was tell New York City its news from behind the anchor’s chair on WCBS’s Channel 2 News . That’s why Spike Lee hired him to play himself for the newscast scenes in Summer of Sam , which opens today.

“I was the voice, and the face, of the news in New York,” Mr. Jensen said as he sat on his deck overlooking First Avenue the evening of June 21. His 16-year-old dog, Brandy, walked by and lightly snapped at a stranger. “He’s a kind old guy,” Mr. Jensen said by way of apology in his gravelly newsman’s voice. “He just doesn’t know what’s going on anymore.”

Going back to work behind a television news desk, even if it was a make-believe one, got Mr. Jensen thinking about the old days, when television news was serious. Before a new generation came to Channel 2 and asked him to leave in late 1995.

He has begun writing his memoirs, which will focus on his life in the news and his struggles with alcohol, drugs and the 1979 hang-gliding death of his son, Randall, at age 26. He spends his days writing in an Upper East Side office.

“I was a really lucky young man. I had people I worked for who were in the news business who cared that they were in the news business,” he said. And what about the people in the news business now?

“I feel sorry for these kids today. They’re working for people who don’t give a damn. They don’t take the stuff seriously … it’s serious business, informing the public. It’s no joke, you know. Oh God,” he said, waving his arm, marked with a “64” gold cufflink that symbolized the year he started at WCBS.

“I’ll put it to you this way. When we were doing the Spike Lee movie and we were doing what was called program interrupts, which meant we would interrupt a program to put on these news broadcasts, and that was very much the way it was,” he said. “We would interrupt. And not with some herky-jerky piece of information, but done very carefully and not done in a way just to scare people. Just to say that this, this … I won’t even say ‘monster,’ because we wouldn’t say that. Yeah. ‘We have evidence and indication that the killer that someone labeled the Son of Sam has struck again in such and such location and we will have more information on this on our 11 o’clock broadcast.’ No crazy news. No crazy hollering.”

At 72, Mr. Jensen is still robust (so robust that he has a 22-month-son, Noah, with wife Rachel Gordon, 48). He still has his trademark hair–dark gray on top with shocks of white on the sides–though his face is more weathered now.

He said he thinks he has it in him to get back behind an anchor’s desk one day. “If I were able to bring together some of the old hats that I worked with for years in a good newsroom, which has a budget and the dedication by management to do it correctly, we could repeat what we had done in the 70’s,” he said. “We’d give the station the ratings they want and the money they want. It’s still possible, because I think people want to have quality news. You think people wouldn’t want to watch Walter Cronkite again?”

But then he thought more about it. “It’s not going to happen.”

On the way to the door, Mr. Jensen and his wife showed a reporter a framed Spiderman comic strip from 1980. It featured drawings of Mr. Jensen’s face on a television screen, telling the city that bandits were on the loose and Spiderman was nowhere to be found. Mr. Jensen is not identified by name in the drawings.

“They didn’t have to say who it was,” his wife said. “It was instant recognition.”

Channel 2 has improved its newscast from what it was a couple years ago–but it still ain’t Jensen. [WCBS, 2, 6 and 11 P.M.]

Saturday, July 3

Kids in the Hall . Two episodes in a row. Funny! But go outside, do something with your life. [Comedy Central, 45, noon.]

Sunday, July 4

The Wild Wild Western film festival starts out with Wild, Wild West episodes and continues on with High Plains Drifter , Fistful of Dollars , For a Few Dollars More and more. [TNT, 3, all day (catch it in progress).]

Monday, July 5

& Forrest Sawyer has landed … on a tropical island. He’ll stay there for a month and contemplate a television news career that spanned 12 years at ABC. But while he worked alongside correspondents like Ted Koppel and Diane Sawyer, Mr. Sawyer found himself bouncing from fill-in job to fill-in job. When it came time to renegotiate his contract in late May, he demanded a brand-name show he could call his own. (Hey! Didn’t ABC already give him that, more or less, when he was the lead anchor of that Monday night newsmagazine flop, Day One ?) And he also wanted a guarantee that he could replace Mr. Koppel, if and when Mr. Koppel should ever, God forbid, etc., etc., etc. But ABC wouldn’t meet those demands. Mr. Sawyer, who makes in the low millions (ha!), walked.

“He didn’t have a home there,” said his agent, Arthur Kaminsky. “He certainly deserves permanent marquee status.” For now, he said, Mr. Sawyer will rest up on that tropical island. “He basically lived in the mud for a month [in Albania, for Nightline ] and then came back and did the twister series,” said Mr. Kaminsky. “This guy needs some beach time.” So do I, bub! [WABC, 7, 11:35 P.M.]

Tuesday, July 6

Over the past 18 years, Ralph Begleiter was the CNN correspondent who made sense of U.S. foreign policy crises. In all, he figures he logged 2 million miles flying for the network. He covered the Gulf War, the end of the Cold War, the Middle East peace talks and the arms control summits between the United States and the Soviet Union. But now, he’s packing up the car and moving to Newark, Del., to teach a journalism class at the University of Delaware. With foreign policy stories falling out of vogue at all of the American news outlets–replaced with the blanket coverage of Monica Lewinsky, etc.–he said he figured it was time to hang it up.

“Over time I could see the trend and the trend was to move away from covering international affairs,” he said from the Maryland home he will soon be departing. “I had a good experience with CNN, great assignments. It’s the trend that has bothered me. I see this economic trend with the ratings, with stories like O.J. and Monica … For me, I just didn’t fit in anymore,” said Mr. Begleiter. [CNN, 10, all day.]

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

One of the most difficult things to pull off in a movie is having a character talk directly to the audience, looking into the camera lens as they do. The suspension of disbelief for the rest of the film is heavily imperiled by so blatantly breaking the fourth wall and including us, the usually unacknowledged watchers. Whereas the device has widespread and easy currency in the theater–from the Greek’s chorus to the Elizabethan’s, from Georges Feydeau’s farcical asides to Thornton Wilder’s stage manager in Our Town –the movies being a far more realistic medium, I can only think of four instances when this has worked with complete success: In the very first musical comedy, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (1929), Maurice Chevalier brilliantly, wittily, aristocratically, made the audience complicit in his romantic indiscretions and self-justifications–repeated similarly in the Lubitsch-Chevalier One Hour With You (1932). Michael Caine managed smoothly to make his misogynist working-class antihero, Alfie (1966), equally effective in his confidences to the audience. And then there’s Spencer Tracy as the amusingly long-suffering title character in Vincente Minnelli’s delightful and human 1950 comedy of the middle-class, Father of the Bride [Sunday, June 27, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 8 P.M.; also on videocassette] .

While Chevalier and Caine played their narrative moments sprightly standing, Tracy sits exhausted in an armchair, taking off his shoes, pouring confetti and rice out of them as he recalls the nightmarish events that led him there–his beloved only daughter’s taking him through engagement and a huge wedding–making him confront as well the terrible, implacable passage of time. Tracy was always magnificent at underplaying, throwing things away, which is how he makes believable and true so many of the slightly exaggerated though entirely typical crises in this tale of an “average family.” The veteran star’s technique was never to learn his lines absolutely cold, but to know them just well enough that he could search for the words in a spontaneous way, making his readings excitingly fresh. He always insisted on taking himself out of some scenes so that the audience wouldn’t get tired of him. (Some of today’s stars could use that kind of savvy.) Tracy got one of his nine Oscar nominations for best actor for this (he won twice), and the movie also received nominations for best picture and best screenplay (tightly constructed by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett from the best seller by Edward Streeter).

The bride in the title is played by Elizabeth Taylor at perhaps her most breathtakingly beautiful, shot just before the first of her eight marriages. In fact, her initial wedding–to hotel heir Nicky Hilton–was conveniently timed to publicize the picture. Her movie husband is played by straight arrow Don Taylor, who’s likable but innocuous enough to make Tracy’s natural antipathy to him understandable and eventually transient. And former siren-bad girl Joan Bennett is splendidly mature as the sensible mother of the bride.

Minnelli’s direction never lets the farcical aspects get out of hand, walking a perfect line between comedy and sentiment that’s sometimes heartwarming without ever becoming mawkish–a delicate balance to achieve and maintain. This is true, too, of the charming 1951 sequel, Father’s Little Dividend [Sunday, June 27, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 10 P.M.; also on videocassette] , which has the same cast, screenwriters and director, but in which Tracy was for some reason instructed to play his on-camera narration not into the lens but just off to one side–a very poor decision–especially since it all worked so well the first time. Otherwise, in this entertaining installment, Tracy’s lovely daughter causes him the even greater indignity of making him a grandfather. Both pictures come from a seemingly long ago time in America when a family could still be loving without being sappy or neurotic. ‘Newman!’ Have We Got a Sitcom Idea for You!