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COVER STORY

Can We Talk? Joan Rivers Goes Prime Time on CBS

May 20, 1990|Jess Bravin

"I'd like to go to Williamsburg and do Lady Macbeth," the actress says intently. "I hope the '90s really bring ecology to the forefront," she adds, idealistically.

Is this Jane Fonda speaking? Meryl Streep? Precocious Drew Barrymore perhaps?

"And another thing no one ever wrote: If you love Joan, send her a dollar! Let her head hit the pillow happy for once."

That's right, it's Joan Rivers: aspiring Shakespearean, budding ecologist--and, as always, the gossip with the fingernails-on-chalkboard voice.

Her celebrityhood restored after a bruising period in the mid-1980s, Rivers now hosts her own syndicated daytime talk show, boasts of her surgically improved profile and makes her TV movie debut Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).

In "How to Murder a Millionaire," which co-stars Alex Rocco, David Ogden-Stiers, Morgan Fairchild and Telma Hopkins, Rivers plays a Beverly Hills matron possessed with the idea her husband is trying to kill her. Following a proven comedic formula, Rivers' character switches places with her maid, beginning a prince-and-pauper odyssey through Los Angeles' poorest neighborhoods.

While not exactly Stratford-on-Avon material, Rivers says the "How to Murder a Millionaire's" concept echoes the work of another British master, Alfred Hitchcock.

"This movie is 'Suspicion,' " she says, in reference to the 1941 thriller. "Except instead of Cary Grant carrying a glass of milk up those stairs, it's Alex Rocco with Diet Coke."

Admittedly, the role of an acerbic, self-conscious, insecure nag isn't much of a stretch for Rivers, who confesses to shredding the script's dialogue whenever possible.

As Irma Summers, ad libs came naturally to her. When Irma is accused of being insensitive because she wears a $79,000 fur coat, Rivers quickly snapped, in character, "Yeah, and I maimed every pelt personally." Script writer Mark Edward Edens seems to have taken the hint, Rivers said. "We haven't seen him since production began," she said.

Rivers' appearance in a spouse-killing comedy and a joke about suicide could come as a surprise to some, given her life's recent turns. In fact, Rivers might seem more apt as the subject of a TV movie than the star of one.

Her story has been exhaustively covered in the celebrity press: In two decades as a comedienne, the homely girl from Larchmont, N.Y., had plied her catty routines and indelible rasp into national prominence. As permanent guest host of "The Tonight Show," she sat a heartbeat away from America's comedy throne.

But her 1986 effort to wrest the late-night crown from Johnny Carson ended in personal--and very public--heartbreak. Fox's "Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" drew embarrassingly small ratings and was canceled after eight months. Edgar Rosenberg, the show's producer and Rivers' husband of 22 years, killed himself not long after.

Overnight, the woman whose routines regularly ridiculed Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Anne and other gossip sheet perennials replaced them as a People magazine cover tragedy. Her career seemed mortally wounded. Emerging from mourning, Rivers found herself assigned a plot in the graveyard of celebrities, "The Hollywood Squares."

Rivers, however, was unwilling to be a has-been. With her domestic life radically changed--21-year-old daughter Melissa "was all grown up; my husband was no more"--Rivers plunged into the show business party circles of Los Angeles and New York.

She soon found a better showcase for her shrewish persona. Instead of taking on Carson, her afternoon talk show targets "Geraldo." On the show she talks about herself as much as about her guests: Updates on such topics as Rivers' plastic surgery (she admits to a facelift, thinned nose and eye job) and her daughter's dating prospects are almost daily events.

Rivers, 54 (or "56 if you believe People magazine--but they lie," she insists), is proud of her daytime incarnation.

"I'm as good an interviewer as any," she says, comparing herself to Oprah Winfrey and other afternoon hosts. "People expect me to ask the tough question: Are they sleeping together?"

When asked a similar question herself, however, Rivers demurred. She said she had been seeing a gentleman but recently broke up with him. She's been occasionally dating, but asserts solemnly, "I don't think I'll ever marry again.

"Now watch," she adds, lickety-split. "I'll be married next week to a sailor."

While not cruising the docks, Rivers plans to publish a sequel to her 1986 autobiography, "Enter Talking," and to pursue a script she wrote herself, "Star Ladies," about five aging movie queens competing for a part.

In the meantime, though, she's happy to note that CBS executives, at least, believe she can still capture the attention of a prime-time audience.

Rivers feeds on that enthusiasm, promising to deliver Wednesday night's audience for the third-place network.

"People would be foolish not to watch it," she says, listing "How to Murder a Millionaire's" appeal:

"Brakes don't work, Jacuzzis explode," she crows. "All the things my husband used to try on me."

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