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Dobie Gillis Movie Worries Feminist

March 05, 1987|RANDY LEWIS | Times Staff Writer

A planned TV reunion of the 1960s sitcom "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" promises to find the starry-eyed Dobie running his father's grocery store and married to the would-be girlfriend of his college days, Zelda Gilroy.

That could be good news for fans of the show who might have wondered how the zany characters would adapt to the 1980s, but the scenario worries activist attorney and longtime feminist Sheila Kuehl.

"I'm a little concerned," said Kuehl, who, using the stage name Sheila James, portrayed the brilliant, scheme-hatching Zelda in the popular series that ran on CBS from 1959 to 1963. (The show was revived once before in an unsuccessful 1977 series pilot.)

"When I talked to (Dobie Gillis creator) Max Shulman, I asked him what Zelda's doing in the '80s, and he said she's taking care of the family. I said, 'Yes, but what is she doing professionally?' He said, 'Nothing.' It will be as if the women's movement never happened."

A CBS-TV spokesman said that the reunion movie is on the network's production schedule, but is "in the very early stages" and has no air date assigned. Kuehl said, "It supposedly will happen some time this year."

Kuehl, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1978 and is an associate professor of law at Loyola Law School, still speaks fondly of Zelda, who was one of the first intelligent and articulate women characters in a television comedy series.

In fact, after Kuehl worked on the legal defense committee for Ginny Foat, former California president of National Organization for Women, Foat was quoted in a daily law journal praising Kuehl as "a combination of Zelda, the '60s and a Supreme Court justice."

So it's no surprise that Kuehl hoped Zelda would be revived as a working mother to incorporate the dramatic social and professional changes for women that activists such as Kuehl helped bring about since the 1960s.

"I think it may be the wrong choice," said Kuehl, who, as current president of the Women Lawyers Assn. of Los Angeles, was in Orange earlier this week to address a lunch meeting of the Orange County Women Lawyers Assn.

"Maybe it is meant to be a reflection of the dashed hopes of so many people. Dobie was the dreamer and had high hopes for love but ends up married to Zelda. Zelda was always trying to think up ways to make Dobie successful, but he ends up at the grocery store. That set up the 'tragic flaw' element that Max built into the relationship between Dobie and Zelda, so maybe it would work in that respect."

Because the "Dobie Gillis" series paralleled the outside world of the late '50s, "Zelda had no thoughts of channeling her ambition into her own career," Kuehl said. "She was the smartest girl in school, but her greatest wish was to make Dobie successful. For women of that time, the only possibility for achieving success was through a man."

Although it's been nearly 25 years since "Dobie Gillis" went off the air, Kuehl, 46, retains the sparkling energy that endeared Zelda to the show's fans, whose ranks included many of the 60 or so women lawyers who attended her talk. (After one woman complimented Kuehl on her speech, saying, "We need more energy like yours down here," Kuehl instantly responded, "We need more energy everywhere--you create some.")

While she agrees that television's images of women have improved since the era when Zelda used her brains only to compete for Dobie's affections with the vacuous-but-beautiful blonde played by Tuesday Weld, Kuehl said: "It's changed to some extent, but not to the extent that it reflects reality. It's like the way TV treats sex: There's an awful lot of sex, but very little pregnancy. That's just not reality."

As both a lawyer and a former actress, she generally likes "L.A. Law," she said. "It shows little of the day-to-day business of most lawyers. But the women, I'm afraid, are pretty much realistically portrayed. There's one woman who has just been made a partner, and she thinks that the way to make it to the top is to make the kill better than they (men) do. Unfortunately, that's the way a lot of women see it."

Yet despite reservations about the minuscule number of women directors working in television, Kuehl expressed optimism that women writers are helping illuminate the public through TV movies about "serious societal problems such as rape, wife battering and incest. Those subjects couldn't have been approached in Zelda's day."

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