NEW YORK — Actress Elaine Stritch was trying her best to transform a routine situation-comedy scene into a madcap moment. But with the time pressures to produce a quick laugh, she was up against great odds.
"Comedy takes time; it doesn't just happen," Stritch said during a break from a grueling day of camera-blocking a segment of "The Ellen Burstyn Show," which is part of ABC-TV's new fall lineup.
"It takes time to work out a laugh, to bring reality to a situation," Stritch said. "And it also takes time to get to know and trust the people you're working with, and to have camaraderie and fun.
"But there are awfully good people involved in this series and, hopefully, in time, we'll all start marching to the same drummer."
The half-hour weekly program being shot in ABC's mid-Manhattan studio here stars Burstyn as Ellen Brewer, a successful Baltimore author and teacher. She lives with an extended family consisting of her daughter, her grandson and her youthful, free-wheeling, fun-loving mother, Sydney Brewer, played by Stritch.
The show will be seen Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., following Lucille Ball's new comedy series, "Life With Lucy." Both premiere Sept. 20.
"I'm having to do a lot of adjusting to my (acting) process," said Burstyn, the Oscar- and Tony-winning actress of the method school, who's been absent from a television series for nearly two decades--since she appeared in "The Doctors," a daytime soap opera.
"I'm used to getting all the mechanicals down and then acting. Here, by the time we have the mechanicals down, we're on! But we're flexible; we'll adjust," she added. "After all, it's the ultimate challenge to do good work within these kinds of limitations."
It was Burstyn who developed and sold the idea for the new series to ABC. "I like to work and to have a say in what I do, and there's no wider audience to reach than the television audience," she explained. She said that she now has "input" rather than "control" of the project.
"I wanted to do a show about a woman who has accomplished what the women's movement said she should," Burstyn said. "She's now unmarried, and wishes she weren't, but that's OK--she's found an extended family from the pieces of her nuclear family that remain. In other words, I wanted to put together a show that would have room for content--one in which I could deal with some of the issues that concern me--and yet be funny."
In real life, only a few years separate Burstyn, in her early 50s, from the 60-year-old Stritch. In fact, Stritch said she had secretly hoped network executives would reject her for the role because she was too young. However, noting that "we're actors ," Stritch said she and Burstyn could adjust to the license being taken with their characters' ages.
It's the artistic compromise that Stritch was resisting the other day on the set. "Really, I'd rather work at McDonald's than do work in front of the camera that's wrong," she said.
"We are two actresses trying to make comedy, with reality and substance--and with five days (to prepare a weekly segment), it's almost impossible," said Stritch, who is something of a Broadway legend for her starring roles in Noel Coward's "Sail Away" and Stephen Sondheim's "Company" but who has been largely absent from U.S. television for the past 20 years, since she played Peter Falk's secretary in "The Trials of O'Brien."
"There is a lot of fear in television," she observed, referring to the network pressure to make a series a quick success.
Stritch pointed out that she recently completed five years of starring in a comedy series for British television, "Two's Company," which had twice the time of a similar American series to prepare each segment. She also adapted and starred in a British version of "Maude."
Stritch wasn't alone in expressing frustration over time pressures. Los Angeles-based TV producer Ron Frazier, brought in to help guide the New York technical crew into the new realm of sitcom (crews here are more accustomed to shooting news, sports and soaps), said the unit was just beginning to develop "a technique."
Series executive producer-director Norman Steinberg, who is returning to the medium after 10 years' work in films, referred to these first weeks of production as "a period of adjustment."
"What's painstaking about this process is that we're all going for quality, and the (television) system fights that," Steinberg said.
"We are all going through this period of adjustment together," he continued. "On the one hand, we have people here who are unused to television, who usually don't get a chance to be on, and on the other hand, they have to adjust. It's just a bit dehumanizing in terms of art."