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The Revenge of Successful Sitcoms : The TV shows of Tom Miller and Bob Boyett are often maligned by critics, but their rewards are in the ratings

TV'S IMAGE MAKERS: First in an occasional series on the people who create what you watch on television.

January 14, 1990|STEVE WEINSTEIN

But Boyett says a sitcom cannot deliver a lecture every week--"sometimes you want to stop talking about East Germany and gossip about Zsa Zsa Gabor." But every now and then, even though critics lambaste sitcoms for trivializing such issues by wrapping them up too neatly, he feels a "strong responsibility" to sneak in a positive message.

"It would be irresponsible to have that amount of people watching you and never do something that would make a little difference."

Neither Miller nor Boyett is married and neither has any children of his own. They do have dogs, Chinese shar-peis. Miller's is named Billy, for Billy Wilder. Boyett has a whole brood. One is called Spielberg, another is named Lucas, which might provide a clue about which slice of the audience pie these guys are out to conquer. Another dog, a pup named China, runs around their offices on the Lorimar lot in Culver City.

But besides the dogs, they truly do try to make "families" of the people they hire for each show. At the start of the weekly table readings of the scripts for both "The Hogan Family" and "Full House," both men greet their casts and writers with enthusiastic hugs and inquiries about their kids, their mothers, the condition of their tonsils.

"These are two old-fashioned nice guys," Tartikoff says. "They have a tremendous degree of passion that goes far beyond the millions of dollars they can make if the show stays on the air. They like what their show says and they are involved. They are not absentee landlords."

Miller and Boyett read every draft of every script for all four of their shows. They attend rehearsals, story meetings and tapings. They are in their offices all day, every day.

Miller, Boyett says, gets up at 3 a.m. each morning to make script notes for his respective writing teams. They are rich, having made a fortune off the syndication of "Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley" and other shows, but they don't lead a glamorous Hollywood life style. Both wear tennis shoes around the office. They say they don't take vacations.

Still, they repeatedly insist on giving credit for the success of the shows to the people who write the words each week. Jeff Franklin heads up "Full House." Chip, Doug and Bob Keyes oversee "The Hogan Family." William Bickley and Michael Warren take care of "Perfect Strangers" and "Family Matters." Get it, family matters.

Miller, who wrote for "The Odd Couple," "Nanny and the Professor" and "The Brady Bunch," created "Happy Days" at Paramount back in 1974 with Garry Marshall and Edward Milkis.

Boyett, who was a development executive at Paramount, joined Miller and Milkis a few years later for a string of hits, including "Laverne & Shirley" and "Mork & Mindy" and helped make superstars of such unknown actors as Penny Marshall, Robin Williams and "Bosom Buddies' " Tom Hanks. In the 1978 season, they owned four of the five top-rated programs on television.

They also dabbled in movies, producing "Silver Streak," "Foul Play" and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." Miller says that in a few years, when they can no longer endure the frantic pace of four weekly television shows, they'd like to return to feature films. "I don't want to do PG all my life," Miller says.

As the half-hour comedy supposedly bit the dust in the early '80s, Milkis left to pursue his own projects and Miller and Boyett moved to Lorimar, home of "Dallas," "Knots Landing" and "Falcon Crest," to develop and produce hourlong dramas for the first time. "Comedy was supposedly dead and we had four projects under way for what they were calling 'warmedies,' " Boyett remembers. "Then, three weeks after 'Cosby' hit the air, all three networks came to us saying, 'Comedy is back,' and we just abandoned those hourlong projects."

Miller calls their current run at Lorimar their "second great phase." Their network sitcom output is equaled today only by the team of Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, producers of "Cosby," "A Different World," "Roseanne," "Grand," scheduled to debut Thursday, and the recently canceled "Chicken Soup."

But the path to their current success hasn't been as smooth as it might seem. Ironically, their first "family" at Lorimar, "Valerie," starring Emmy Award-winning actress Valerie Harper, split up in one of those full-fledged, irreparable tempests that destroy so many real-life families these days. In the fall of 1987, at the start of only the show's second full season, Harper abruptly left the series in a vicious contract dispute with Miller and Boyett that eventually landed her a multimillion-dollar court victory.

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