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TV Veteran Tom Patchett Tries Life as a Playwright

June 20, 1989|DIANE HAITHMAN | Times Staff Writer

New playwright Tom Patchett has only one major fear about the debut of his play "Wolverines."

"I don't want people to say: ' "ALF" Producer Writes Play,' " Patchett said.

In some ways, the production of "Wolverines," which will enjoy a limited run of workshop performances at the Tiffany Theater Thursday through July 9, is a playwright's dream: The writer completes his first play and then--instead of having to wait for financial backing from a producer--takes a chunk of money out of the bank, hires the actors, rents the theater and puts on the show himself.

But Patchett, 48, also worries that this improbable formula for his theatrical debut may destroy his chances for a fair critical reaction to the play.

Unlike most novice playwrights, Patchett has had a pretty good day job during recent years: He has worked as a writer and producer on such TV series as "The Carol Burnett Show," "The Bob Newhart Show," "The Tony Randall Show" and "Buffalo Bill," co-wrote the films "The Great Muppet Caper" and "The Muppets Take Manhattan" with then-partner Jay Tarses and, most recently, is the co-creator and co-executive producer of NBC's popular comedy series "ALF," about a furry, wise-cracking alien who lives in suburbia with a human family.

Though his successful TV career has made his dream of presenting "Wolverines" possible, Patchett's nightmare is that his play might fall prey to unfair criticism because (a) he's footing the bill and (b) the theater world tends to frown on television writers.

"There's a danger of (critics likening the production to) 'Let's put on a play in your uncle's barn'--I mean, I'm renting a theater and saying, 'Isn't this going to be great?' " Patchett said uneasily. The play is directed by Dennis Erdman, who directed the recent Tiffany Theater production "How the Other Half Loves," and is produced by Stephanie Hagen, an associate producer of "ALF."

Patchett, who continues his television career as partner with Kenneth Kaufman in the 6-month-old Patchett-Kaufman Entertainment production company, winces when he reveals the price tag for 12 performances of "Wolverines," a tragicomic tale of festering family resentment set in the snowy woods of Patchett's native Michigan. "I think production is going to cost in the neighborhood of $40-$45,000," he hedged during a conversation at the new company's Culver City headquarters.

"Actually, it's going to cost $80,000, " he admitted a few seconds later. "It just sounds like so much, I couldn't say it--I'm sorry."

Patchett, who majored in theater at college in Michigan, also worries that his TV credentials may poison critics against the play. "If I'm going to make it as a playwright, I've got a lot to overcome, including my career in television," he said.

"Maybe it's in my imagination, but I've seen reviews written (of TV writers' plays) where it's just excessive, the criticism. And it has nothing to do with television--either the play works or it doesn't. Either it's sitcom-y, or it isn't.

"I'm not going to worry about it, but I don't want to mislead people. I don't want people to . . . expect to see an episode of 'ALF'--or something that is not realistic, that doesn't have any grit or shock or 'language'--and say: 'This isn't our kind of show, dear--we'd better go.' I think (the play) is quite unlike what people would expect me to write about. That's what I like about it. I wanted to do something that was grittier than you're allowed to do on television, to see if I could."

"I waited a long time to write a play at 48," Patchett mused. "If I had started this 20 years ago instead of trying to get a career going as a money-making writer, I might have written my 10 plays by now. But there is something called the golden handcuffs; you (make money) so you can do what you want to do later, and then you never do it."

Though Patchett is proud of his play, he seems torn between wanting the outside world to see the play and warning that it is still a work-in-progress. He refuses to call the Tiffany production an "opening," prays that the critics won't show up, and hopes the play will eventually be workshopped at a venue such as the Manhattan Theatre Club or the Long Wharf Theatre before he calls it finished. "I'm looking for a stamp of legitimacy from the theater world," he said.

"You sort of lose an objectivity, in a way (by writing for television)," Patchett continued. "Even if you can think up funny things and put them in a situation that is palatable for television, you wonder if it's real.

" 'Wolverines' is familiar territory to me. I know the atmosphere, I hear the voices, I've heard the cliches. . . . I really don't think I've told any sitcom lies in this and I'm sort of depending on the truth to carry it. If I'm going for a cheap joke here and there, I hope it sticks out like a sore thumb so I can get rid of it."

Patchett hopes that "Wolverines" will launch the playwriting career he wishes he'd begun at 25, but he also has no plans to give up on TV. Among Patchett-Kaufman's current projects are "Working Girl," a comedy for NBC based on the feature film, starring Nancy McKeon. The network has ordered 12 episodes, although the show has not yet won a time slot on the schedule. Patchett also continues as "ALF" co-executive producer with Bernie Brillstein.

"I like the excitement, I like the people, I like the deals, I like the laughs, the comedy--it's wonderful," Patchett said of his decades in television. "I don't think I'll ever just go to the beach house and write plays. I'll always write them--I'll just be able to dictate them to somebody else."

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