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'Can't Take It With You' Takes To Tv

September 11, 1987|BARBARA MILLER

Christopher Hart fondly remembers those rainy Saturday afternoons in Pennsylvania, when family friends visiting for the day were compelled to entertain themselves within the warm, dry interior of his parents' 18th-Century colonial farmhouse.

"My father would bring out play books and all the guests would act out the various roles," Hart said, smiling at the recollection. "I always seemed to get the non-speaking parts."

Among the plays performed at their Bucks County residence, he recalls, was "You Can't Take It With You," the 1936 social satire co-written by Hart's playwright father, Moss, and George S. Kaufman, the Harts' neighbor. That was the younger Hart's introduction to the Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It wouldn't be his last.

After years of abstaining from any works connected with his parents (Hart's mother is actress and television personality Kitty Carlisle), Hart has come full circle--from producing his father's plays for the stage to resurrecting the classic comedy for television, his current project. The syndicated "You Can't Take It With You" series will air Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. on KNBC-TV Channel 4, beginning next week.

Unlike the scores of high school and college drama students who have appeared in "You Can't Take It With You" (the play was recently named as the most-produced work in high schools throughout the country), Hart only slightly remembers auditioning for a role at school in New York.

"I think I didn't get it because the desire just wasn't there," he said.

After a period that Hart refers to as "my re-examining-my-roots years," he has become more comfortable with involving himself in works by his father, who died when Hart was 12.

Earlier this year, Hart, 39, produced "Light Up The Sky" at the Ahmanson Theatre here. In 1983, the bespectacled, bicoastal Hart resurrected "You Can't Take It With You" for Broadway.

"I began thinking at the time that this was such a wonderfully timeless classic, that the characters were so vivid, I figured, 'Why not try it?' " he said.

"Try it" meant on television. Between the time he decided to go ahead and the final casting, there were two major steps: the formation of Harps Productions, an ensemble of executive producers that includes Hart, Sidney Smith, Pamela Rosser and G. Laurence Patterson, and the acquisition of two veteran talents, producer/writer/director Hal Kanter, 68 ("George Gobel Show," "All in the Family") and actor Harry Morgan, 72 ("MASH," "Dragnet")--a duo whose mutual admiration extends far beyond medial praise.

"My intrigue multiplied enormously by the fact that Harry was going to do this," said Kanter, taking a break from a writer's meeting in his office on the KTLA lot. "The part of Grandpa Vanderhof was really written for him. It just took 50 years for him to mature into it."

Said Morgan, "I'm real high on Hal. Probably wouldn't have done it if he wasn't associated."

The series, which also stars Lois Nettleton, Richard Sanders and Teddy Wilson, is based on Kaufman and Hart's original play in which three generations of one family live under the same roof--Grandpa Vanderhof's. Kanter describes it as "a screwball comedy with eccentric people who have eccentric notions."

In addition to its productions on Broadway and school campuses across the country, there was a 1938 Academy Award-winning film version of "You Can't Take It With You," which starred Lionel Barrymore and Spring Byington and was directed by Frank Capra.

"We've maintained the basic varieties of the play," said Kanter, who wrote the pilot episode. "Most things are just as applicable today as they were in 1936."

Changes have taken place though, such as the location of the Vanderhof/Sycamore residence. Once around the corner from Columbia University, the locale is now Staten Island, which Kanter said gives it the sense of community the producers sought.

Also the oldest, married daughter in the play is now teen-ager Essie (Heather Blodgett) in the series, leaving Alice (Lisa Aliff) as the older sibling, and the stage role of Mr. DePinna has been reformed as a combination of characters in the persona of Mr. Pinner (Wilson), Paul Sycamore's (Sanders) partner in the inventing business. The original play also was heavily laden with political overtones and class struggle, Hart said.

"Those things are still with us, but they're not as important in people's daily lives anymore," Hart said. "Some of the changes have made our lives a little easier. I mean, I couldn't imagine coming up with a new Tennessee Valley Authority joke every week."

Said Kanter: "Most of the changes we've made were to pander to TV's belief that you have to have young people in the cast to attract young people in the audience, which will be the group controlling the sets at this time."

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