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Parenting a TV Series : NBC's Brandon Tartikoff Bought 'Parenthood' as a Series Even Before It Became Last Summer's Surprise Box-Office Hit

August 19, 1990|DANIEL CERONE

It doesn't require a programming genius to turn a hit movie into a TV series. Upcoming fall movie-inspired series such as NBC's "Ferris Bueller," CBS' "Uncle Buck" and ABC's "Baby Talk" ("Look Who's Talking" on the big screen) tease networks with the promise of ready-made audience shares.

But it does require programming instinct--and a lot of old-fashioned faith--to base a TV series on a film that isn't even finished yet.

"Parenthood," NBC's new ensemble comedy starring Ed Begley Jr. in the paternal role played by Steve Martin, was signed, sealed and delivered as a TV series before the film ever hit theaters last summer.

"Way before it came out in theaters," producer Brian Grazer emphasized. "The majority of the time, networks wait and see if you have a hit."

NBC is showing the pilot of "Parenthood" Monday at 9 p.m. as part of an unusual plan that will preview eight of its nine new series before the fall season actually starts in September.

Grazer and director Ron Howard are producers of both the "Parenthood" film and TV series for their company, Imagine Entertainment. Grazer said former NBC Entertainment boss Brandon Tartikoff asked to see an unfinished version of the film more than a year ago.

"Brandon is encyclopedic about movies and television," Grazer explained. "He follows movies as they get made, and he was curious about 'Parenthood.' When he saw the rough cut he loved the movie, saw the potential in it as a TV series and ordered it then, which was pretty bold."

Bold, indeed, because at that time nobody really expected the warm, adult sleeper to take the box office by storm, raking in almost $100 million in theaters.

"Summer movies usually have to be more high concept--somebody blows up an airport, or a crazy uncle comes to visit," said Lowell Ganz, who co-wrote the movie and pilot episode of "Parenthood" with his partner, Babaloo Mandel. "We didn't know if the punch was there to get people into theaters."

"Parenthood" the movie was about parents' conflicting expectations of themselves and their children. The film (which is airing this month on Showtime cable) spent a short time in the oddball life of an extended family, consisting of Martin, Mary Steenburgen, Rick Moranis, Dianne Wiest, Jason Robards, Tom Hulce and a soap opera-size supporting cast.

"To be honest, we struggled severely writing the film because it seemed that the material was more appropriate for a weekly series," Ganz said. "Nobody was excited about going to the bank and getting $21 million to make the film until they heard Steve Martin was involved. In the industry, we need to have that drawing card, the meal ticket, the glue."

NBC's drawing card is Begley, who starred for the network in "St. Elsewhere" from 1982 to 1988. Begley was cast as Gil Buckman, neurotic father to a 10-year-old boy with an identity crisis, an 8-year-old daddy's girl and a 4-year-old who bangs his head against walls for no apparent reason.

What remains to be seen is whether Begley can produce for NBC the way that Martin did for Universal Pictures.

"I think the specter of Steve Martin looming over the TV series is something that people behind the scenes worry about more than the audience does," said Ganz, who was story editor of the movie-based TV series "The Odd Couple." "Audiences are more adaptable than we give them credit for. I don't think they come with that baggage."

"There's no big pressure to be like Steve Martin," Begley said. "Our dietary habits and shoe size are similar, but that's about it. We're just going to try to do the film justice."

Ron Howard took time from his film schedule to be on the set for the pilot. But now the new team is on its own. Lowell and Ganz's involvement in the series will be as consultants. Ty King, former story editor for "Newhart," was hired to head a stable of TV writers. The show's real future depends on how well the new team can maintain the quality of the original.

"I've done TV shows before where you start out with one producer you really love and then the next season it's musical chairs," said Maryedith Burrell, who plays the weary single mother of a rebellious teen-age daughter and Angst -ridden son (Wiest's role in the film).

"As long as the writing stays true to the excellence in the film and in the pilot, I think we have a lot to bring to TV," she continued. "This is a character-driven series. We can resist the temptation to give somebody cancer or something, because we have more lives to deal with, and more people to explore."

In a way, "Parenthood" the series is the ultimate movie sequel that continues week after week. Jayne Atkinson, who took over Steenburgen's duties as Gil's wife, put it simply: "After you watch the movie 'Parenthood,' you want to see those people again. I did."

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