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Commentary : Television: The Ultimate Screen Test

August 31, 1986|MORGAN GENDEL

In my younger days, my friends and I used to play "Big Screen/Little Screen." The idea of the game was to cast the TV series version of a major movie with the appropriately smaller-than-life stars.

Example: "The Graduate," as a TV series, would star John Ritter as Benjamin (the Dustin Hoffman role) and Shelley Hack as Elaine Robinson (the film's Katharine Ross). Or try this one: "All the President's Men--The Series," starring John Rubinstein as Carl Bernstein (Hoffman again), Jack Warden as Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) and John Ritter as Bob Woodward (Robert Redford).

There was no real way to score points, but you'd aim for an occasional "Oh, perfect!" when you really hit one on the nose, getting a rough physical match spiced with that special goofy TV charm.

I've been thinking about this stupid game again lately, because recent events convinced me that, were it played today, the game would have to be turned around and called "Small Screen/Tall Screen."

It's TV now that is being mimicked, dissected, drawn from and ultimately aimed at by movies and their makers. Television in the '80s is the spawning ground of pop culture and the place to which, after some brief floundering in theatrical exhibition, most projects swim upstream before they die.

The latest such event, for me, is the feature film "Manhunter," made by "Miami Vice" executive producer Michael Mann and based on the Thomas Harris book "Red Dragon."

"Who would you cast as Sonny Crockett if 'Miami Vice' became a movie?" Why William L. Petersen, of course, star of "Manhunter." Like Johnson, he's meticulously unshaven, rarely smiles and wears some mighty snappy duds. "Manhunter," for that matter, mirrors "Vice" in its story structure, its documentarylike cinematic phrasing and its intense, stylish voids.

Then there came reviews about "Howard the Duck." An odd-looking, wise-cracking extraterrestrial with an earthly sense of hipness? Try "ALF," whose commercials for an upcoming fall NBC series now adorn the small screen. ALF--that stands for Alien Life Form--looks like a cross between a collie and an anteater and talks like Groucho Marx doing David Letterman. Howard may have predated ALF as a concept, but I'm willing to bet dinner for two at The Times commissary that ALF will be a household name long after Howard is duck soup.

"Dragnet--The Movie"? Try Dan Aykroyd in the Jack Webb role--a TV-star-turned-movie-star playing a character made popular on TV. And don't laugh; it's really happening.

Comparing any of these new films with their TV counterparts, unfortunately, is like trying to compare apples with other apples.

Movies like "Howard the Duck"--most movies, for that matter--are being programmed more or less for TV audiences. That's where they'll end up--via videocassettes, cable, pay-per-view and network TV broadcasts. And those audiences are exactly what executives like Steve White, the new movie production chief at New World Pictures, ultimately must look at. White was previously in charge of made-for-TV movies at NBC. His TV-style efficiency is valuable to a production company that wants to control costs and is satisfied with a TV style of scope and grandeur. White follows Jeff Sagansky, another former NBC exec who heads movie production at Tri-Star Pictures, as one of the new young film execs who transferred their skills directly from TV-land.

A lot of this is not necessarily new. Movie stars like Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood and Sally Field all kicked around TV for a while. Studio moguls Michael Eisner and Barry Diller were both fresh from ABC's ranks when they began their long successful run at Paramount.

What's different today is the overwhelming emphasis on TV and the corresponding devaluation of movie magic. "Who will play Bruce Willis on the big screen?" Why Bruce Willis, of course. He doesn't have to become a movie star like Redford or Eastwood. He will be one--instantly--when his following from ABC's "Moonlighting" follows right to the movie theater for his upcoming film "Blind Date."

It's the Tom Hanks syndrome. Any argument as to whether Willis is (a) larger-than-life or (b) just perfect when viewed on a 19-inch screen is moot. Like Hanks' "The Man With One Red Shoe" or "Volunteers," both now frequently telecast via pay-cable, "Blind Date" is destined to be seen by most people via TV. Against a backdrop of bad lighting, screaming kids and ringing telephones, even if the film stinks, it will be just fine.

And back to Diller and Eisner for a second: When Diller went to 20th Century Fox (now Fox Inc.), he made one of his primary tasks the orderly construction of a new TV network, with its foundation a pack of newly purchased TV stations. When Eisner went to Walt Disney Productions (now the Walt Disney Co.), he proclaimed his first order of business the restoration of the "Disney Sunday Movie" to the airwaves--and to its former glory.

TV, TV, TV.

No wonder "Aliens" is a box-office cruncher and Sylvester Stallone a mega-million-dollar sensation. They're true big-screen phenomena, not merely a TV-raised executive's idea of how to bring a TV-style story produced by TV-trained talent to a TV-saturated audience--which will eventually see the finished product on TV.

So who will play the key roles if "Aliens" makes it to TV? Easy. Lindsay Wagner in the Sigourney Weaver role and, as the lovable synthetic man . . . John Ritter.

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