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The Action At 'E.t.,' Coming Up Next . . .

February 16, 1986|DEBORAH CAULFIELD

It's taken more punches than Rocky, more flak than Rambo. It's been parodied endlessly on "Saturday Night Live" and accommodated comics in need of one-liners.

It's a guilty pleasure within the show-biz community--no one except publicists ever admits to watching it (like nobody ever voted for Nixon, right?). But it's a bona-fide hit everywhere else.

"Entertainment Tonight," America's No. 2 syndicated TV show (behind "Wheel of Fortune"), is broadcasting's foremost source of show-biz news and not-so-news.

It runs weekdays on 160-plus stations. "Entertainment This Week," the weekend version, is broadcast even wider--to 18 countries, including Australia, Colombia, Hong Kong, Italy, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Yugoslavia.

Its debut in 1981 spawned new slang as critics strained themselves for just the precise vitriol: "Newzak" and "Infotainment." It was "a publicist's dream." Even publicists had a joke: "If you open your refrigerator door, 'E.T.' will come cover it."

In the pilot show, Robin Leach, who now hosts "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," reported that he had "heard" about a white-slave trading ring operating in Hollywood: "Starlets are being hired by unscrupulous talent agents for nonexistent movies in the Mid-East, but it's an out-and-out ruse to provide sex for the sheiks."

In another story in the pilot, actress Jacqueline Bisset was the target of the probing question, "Do you fear growing old?"

Her revealing answer: "Well, I'm not thrilled about it. . . ."

There was the brief period when celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson (recalling Sybil the Soothsayer in "Network") revealed what the stars had in store for the stars.

Four producers, five co-hosts and countless staffers later "E.T." (which it instantly adopted from Steven Spielberg's extraterrestrial) has become--as they say in the biz--Big. It has many imitators but no competition, and seems destined to become a national institution. These days, with less froth and more news, even the most acerbic "E.T." critics have softened. Several said the show is pretty good. For what it is.

Calendar paid a visit to the reigning queen of schmooze news.

What's the latest disease to turn into a TV movie? Find out in a minute.

'Any interest in Lina Wertmuller? She's got two films coming out and she'll be in town in a couple weeks. . . ."

"But you can't understand her."

"Yeah. . . . Yeah, she's foreign."

"We could get Dino De Laurentiis to translate. . . ."

"E.T." staffers sat around a large conference table, discussing pitches from Hollywood's massive publicity machine.

Once a week, "E.T." segment producers meet with producer Jack Reilly, news director Gary Herman and weekend producer Stu Crowner to discuss the so-called "soft news" side of the show. From this session will come interviews, behind-the-scenes pieces and other features for Reilly to arrange around the real news.

Crowner ran the meeting fast and loose. At times, it could have been a comedy routine.

Pete Hammond, in charge of film features, talked about a pitch to interview Michael Anthony-Hall.

"He's got a new project, a dramatic feature that he'll do at the same time he's doing 'Saturday Night Live,' " Hammond explained. "I don't know if he quite understands how time-consuming 'Saturday Night' is."

"Well, if he isn't using coke now . . . he will be," someone retorted.

Laughs all around.

Producer Suzanne Roth was next up: "I only have one thing," she said, wincing at the anticipated reaction her "thing" will draw.

"I got pitched on 'Television's Greatest Hits,' which features 65 TV theme songs."

Sniggers began.

Crowner asked, "What would we do?"

Roth paused. "Well, that's what I told the guy . . . that it wasn't very visual."

This brought down the house. As inside jokes go, pitching a record album to a TV show is like suggesting a story with no words to a writer.

Roth explained that the gentleman who pitched the album was a former Harvard law student who spent a quarter of a million dollars (his own) buying the rights and now was doing a booming business selling them out of his home. The laughter stopped. Roth's story would be assigned.

Crowner didn't let segment producer Jane Ebell utter a word before asking, "Any diseases?"

"Yep," she answered. "Here we go."

The giggles already had started.

"Marsha Mason, Kiefer Sutherland--Donald's son--and Ron Silver star in 'Silent Range,' that's the working title, but it seems to me I've heard. . . ."

Crowner interrupted, "Jane, they all sound alike."


Ebell (reading): "It says here 'the efforts of a psychologist specializing in Elective Mutism to cure a teen-age boy. . . .' "

Crowner (over raucous laughter) in disbelief: "Elective mutism? You mean they choose not to speak?"

Ebell had more.

"Another disease?" Crowner asked.

She mentioned a TV movie in production called "Slow Burn," which features Eric Roberts and Beverly D'Angelo.

Crowner: "Is that about burn victims?"

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