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Abc's New Stars Try To Twinkle

January 11, 1986|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

Corporate shakeups, like the one going on at ABC Inc. as new owner Capital Cities Communications moves in, typically do not affect those at the bottom rungs of the company ladder.

ABC Chairman Frederick S. Pierce is out and John B. Sias in at 1330 Avenue of the Americas, New York; but on the fourth floor the same mail clerks are still at work. That being the case, the most unconcerned players at the new Capital Cities/ABC Inc. have got to be the network's New Stars for Tomorrow, 12 actors and actresses who received an average of about $8,000 each for a one-year contract. Their fee lasts only a few months and their positions only a few more, making them easily overlooked and therefore relatively stable.

But the idea Thursday evening at the Century Plaza Hotel, as the Class of '86 was unveiled for visiting press, was to showcase these eager young hopefuls. Introduced via wide-screen video screen tests reminiscent of "Star Search," the members of ABC's Talent Development Program, as its officially called, were presented as the potential Ann Jillians and Emmanuel Lewises of seasons to come.

In return for getting an exclusivity on their services as series regulars, ABC acts as a superagent of sorts, videotaping screen tests and nudging the young stars--the oldest is 34--toward the producers of the network's series and pilot projects.

Meanwhile, the potential new stars are free to get work wherever they can--commercials, stage, film, even for another network, as long as they limit the latter activity to guest appearances. Once they are hired, their development contract is fulfilled--they get to keep the $8,000--and they negotiate series or pilot deals as any other actor would.

ABC acknowledges that $8,000 is barely enough for a cleaning deposit on a Los Angeles apartment, for those who have to relocate here, and a few new outfits--not to mention a steady supply of hair grooming aids.

But consider the benefits. Alumnae of the four-year-old Talent Development Program read like a Who's Almost Who in show business: John James and Emma Samms ("Dynasty"), former "Bosom Buddies" Tom Hanks and Donna Dixon, Ted McGinley ("Happy Days" and "The Love Boat"), Jillian ("It's a Living"), Lewis ("Webster"), and about five others.

Of the 50 or so actors who have been in the program, the ones who have made it represent a success rate of about 22%. Plus, the ones who don't get hired by the end of the year get to keep their videotapes.

Or, they might stay back a year, if ABC still believes in them.

Lewis, James, Samms and Dixon were among the graduates who showed up at the Century Plaza Thursday to demonstrate how much better-looking and self-assured Old New Stars are compared to New New Stars, now that the former have earned 50 times or so the ABC fee.

To an untrained reporter's eye, the True Stars among the New Stars are McKinlay Robinson, who just this week moved here from Canada, where she guested with Toronto's Second City, and Sinbad, a stand-up comic and actor who came to ABC's attention via the syndicated "Star Search" show.

Not coincidentally, those two were the only ones who survived a press presentation of screen tests--without eliciting wisecracks from the press. (Olympic swimmer Steve Lundquist, now an aspiring actor in the ABC program, was a particular victim of under-the-breath jibes, which essentially suggested that acting ability and a neck were both missing from his clip.)

Robinson received the lone round of applause for her screen test, a 14-second soliloquy from "Lovers and Other Strangers" and one of the few that was intended to be funny. (Others that inspired laughter: an overacted scene from "Death of a Salesman" and a French-accented tear-jerker that began, " Oh, Meekee , pleeeeese! ")

Sinbad actually performed live, ad-libbing some pretty funny remarks. Actors, he said, often lie to themselves about why they didn't get a part, as in "I was the wrong height for that one." At which point he looked toward little Emmanuel Lewis and said with mock arrogance, " . . . Cause I was up for your part and they wouldn't use me, man!"

In true Hollywood tradition, Sinbad denies ever having a last name. He has his family trained accordingly, too, his wife referring to herself as "Mrs. Bad" and introducing the couple's eight-week-old daughter as "Baby Bad."

But he does admit to being 29 and to having been booted out of the Air Force on the grounds that he was "immature, irresponsible and a bad influence on other young men."

Robinson, 27, attended an ABC audition in New York and was spotted by ABC's vice president for casting, John Crosby, a former agent with ICM. "They made me an offer that day," Robinson said, and her agent even negotiated a moving allowance with the network.

"They know they want to use us," she said. "They just don't know what for."

By Friday, they thought they knew: She was invited to test for the role of Ellen Burstyn's daughter in the latter's sitcom, now in development.

Will the penny-pinching of Cap Cities jeopardize the Talent Development Program? No, said Gary L. Pudney, ABC's senior executive in charge of talent, "it will continue ad infinitum." As Crosby later pointed out, the cost of the program--under $100,000 total for all 12 actors' salaries--compares with about $5 million each network typically spends developing pilot scripts for new series each year.

Still, as one critic observed after scanning a podium filled with attractive faces and pinup bodies, neither Dustin Hoffman nor Robert Duvall as young actors would have been snapped up by ABC.

Then again, as ABC's Crosby pointed out: "Neither has starred in a television series, either."

Perhaps the New Stars program was best summed up by visiting TV critic Marc Gunther of the Detroit News. "It seems to me you could find these people in any restaurant," Gunther said. "Why don't they hire some writers?"

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