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Wheelchair-bound Writer-producer : Nobody Ever Took His Dreams Away

August 15, 1986|MARK DE LA VINA | De la Vina, a journalism major at University of Arizona, is a Calendar intern. and

There isn't much that television producer-writer-director Rift Fournier hasn't done:

--He used to be a stringer for Variety, the show-business trade paper.

--At 24, he was the youngest delegate at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

--When he first visited Paris in 1971, he was accompanied by his friend Orson Welles.

--While filming a documentary about migrant workers, he lived with laborers in fields across the United States.

--During his "Jack Kerouac memorial period," he sold aluminum siding.

--And now, Fournier is the writer, producer, director and narrator of "Cover Story," a half-hour magazine-style profile of entertainers seen on Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 10 p.m. on the USA cable network. The show will be nationally syndicated for the first time to more than 40 stations this fall, and Los Angeles viewers will be able to catch it on weekends on KCBS-TV Channel 2.

But there is one thing Fournier hasn't done in the last 33 years.

"I've just never walked since I was 17 years old," explained the wheelchair-bound producer in his Los Angeles office.

Stricken by polio during his junior year in high school, Fournier collapsed one Sunday morning in 1953 when he climbed out of bed to answer the telephone. He never walked again.

But Fournier's inability to walk is something he hardly calls attention to. Moments after he's lit up a cigarette and immersed himself in recollections of his Midwestern upbringing or his recent experience at the Farm Aid concert with Willie Nelson, it's hard to remember the chair he sits in has wheels.

"I didn't know it was supposed to stop me from doing something," Fournier said. "You've heard the joke 'I never knew I was poor . . . ,' well, I never knew I was handicapped."

At 50, Fournier is a TV vet. His journeyman accomplishments include co-producing the initial syndicated version of "The Mike Douglas Show," writing episodes of "Highway to Heaven," "Charlie's Angels," "Kojak," and "Helltown," and writing, directing and producing an Emmy-winning children's series for NBC ("Go Show").

For the moment, Fournier is cutting back on mercenary work, and his principal interest is "Cover Story."

"I was working (as a writer-producer) at Time/Life (in 1975) and we wanted to do a television version of People magazine," he said. The eventual result was "Cover Story."

In its three years on the air, "Cover Story" has zoomed in on the likes of Bob Hope, Dolly Parton, Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson through its collage of monologues and firsthand accounts. There is no host--only 30 to 60 seconds of narration--and that allows the featured performer and his or her acquaintances to do the biographical tale spinning.

By adding a historical perspective to the "Cover Story" concept, Fournier has come up with "Face to Face," one of two new shows he has developed now at the "someone's-going-to-make-a-deal-with-me stage." "Face to Face" focuses on the lives of historical figures in a magazine-style format.

"So we could do Ben Franklin in Paris, only a Peter Boyle or a Richard Dreyfuss would physically be Franklin," he explained.

His other project, a police drama, is still in the pre-production stages.

Born in Wichita, Kan., in 1936, Fournier was named Rift after his parents squabbled over what they would call their newborn son.

By the time Fournier was 13, he had begun writing scripts and acting (he worked in the Omaha Community Playhouse, a launching pad for Marlon Brando, Dorothy McGuire and Henry Fonda). The recipient of a classical Jesuit education, he was a talented athlete as well.

Losing the use of his legs never impeded his non-athletic ventures, and after he was graduated from high school in 1954, he came here to attend Loyola University. Returning to Omaha in 1957 to transfer to Creighton University, his thoughts homed in on politics. In 1960, he was a delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, after which he abandoned any political aspirations.

"I wanted to be in the real theater, and not the theater of the absurd, and that's what politics is," Fournier said.

For several years, he drifted around the country doing odd jobs. He free-lanced for publications (including Variety), wrote jokes for comedians, worked in public relations and once wandered off to Cape Kennedy on a whim.

"I was sort of a beatnik," he explained.

The string of peculiar posts led to co-producing "The Mike Douglas Show" in Cleveland. He left the show in 1964 and became the program director at TV station WIIC in Pittsburgh. Trying to spice up the channel's morning show, he hired a trio of 300-pound dancers called The Beef Trust. He was promptly fired, he said.

After nabbing an assortment of other jobs, he and then-unknown cameraman Joe Pytka teamed up to make television commercials in 1967. Although they had an unorthodox habit of breaking from their commercial work to film documentaries, they had a highly successful career, bagging accounts with Chevrolet and AT&T among others.

But Fournier wanted to write more, so he and Pytka split up in 1971. Pytka went on to become a Clio-award winning director of commercials and Fournier switched to TV script writing.

While juggling his current projects, Fournier thinks about other mediums he hasn't touched. And given his past record, his thoughts of writing a novel and a play are likely to become reality.

"If you're handicapped, they say, 'You can't be president' or 'you can't be Francis Ford Coppola. You're a half person. Here, have some social security,' " he said.

"Handicapped kids are told they can't dream. Well, nobody took my dreams away."

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