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Jolly Good Shows : American Series Television Takes On a British Touch

November 04, 1990|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was 1964 when the Beatles kicked off the British Invasion of America by English rock groups. Today there's a British invasion of another sort-actors from Great Britain are popping up in major roles on American TV series. Not that there haven't been British performers on American TV before (David Niven, Ronald Colman, Judy Carne, Angela Lansbury, Ray Milland, Joan Collins and Lesley Ann Down, to name a few). But more and more today are leaving their homeland for greener pastures stateside.

Edward Woodward has just begun his second series on U.S. television, the CBS comedy-mystery "Over My Dead Body." Woodward received four Emmy nominations and became something of a thinking woman's sex symbol for his role as Robert McCall in the 1985-89 CBS series "The Equalizer."

Before that he was primarily known here as the star of the Australian movie, "Breaker Morant," although he worked 40 years in Britain as a stage, TV and film actor and a best-selling pop music singer (he has made several albums).

Woodward never anticipated a second career in America. "Once you get to your 50s, you expect bigger and better things in your own country," he said, "but (you) don't expect to go overseas and make that kind of impact."

After "The Equalizer" was canceled, Woodward wasn't interested in doing another series. But CBS persisted, making him a deal he couldn't turn down.

"My wife and I have a 7-year-old daughter," he said. "It's OK to move her around from school to school and country to country when she is of this age, but by the time she is 9, that's when all the exams and levels start in British education." So CBS and Universal Studios have agreed that if "Over My Dead Body" is a success, the series would be filmed in London after Woodward's daughter turns 9.

Woodward still isn't accustomed to the hectic work schedule on TV even after two series. "The most successful series I was ever involved with in England...we did six episodes to start," he said, "then we did 13 the next year. Then I went to work with Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre for two years. Then I went back to the series. So over seven years I did 41 episodes," about the equivalent of two years of a U.S. series.

Though Woodward didn't lack for work in England, that wasn't the case for actress Amanda Donohoe, who is joining NBC's "L.A. Law" later this month as a hotshot attorney who becomes an associate at the law firm of MacKenzie, Brackman, Chaney, Kuzak and Becker.

Though she starred in British art house films, Donohoe made the move to Los Angeles earlier this year because of the waning British film industry.

"It's grinding to a standstill," she said. "There's not enough work for an established actor. I was working in all forms of the medium, but you can't get any further. America seemed the next obvious choice."

Still, she found no work until she met with "L.A. Law" executive producer David E. Kelley in June. "My name doesn't generate any financial support," she said. "I needed a platform and 'L.A. Law' was the perfect kind of starting point in America."

Donohoe is confident she made the right choice. "I don't find working much different here," she said. "The weather is much better and the beach is beautiful. I just love the old studios. I love driving to work every morning." Marina Sirtis, the half-human/half-alien Deanna Troi on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," moved here because she felt stifled in her native country. "I came over to test the waters," she said. "I got a job on 'Hunter,' about 10 days after I arrived. I thought I had made the right move. 'Star Trek' didn't come until six months later. I was going to have to go back to England. I had no money and my visa was running out."

Born to Greek working-class parents, the classically trained Sirtis was passed by for starring roles in Britain. "I was kind of exotic-looking and that narrowed it down," she said. "I was working a lot, but always the supporting actress, never the girl-next-door."

Living and working here has been a refuge for Sirtis. "Every working- class person loves L.A," she said. "Everyone is welcomed because of who they are and try to achieve, not because of how much money they make. Until you've lived in England and experienced the wrong end of the class system, you don't know this."

Scottish comedian Billy Connolly was about to do a one-man show in London's West End when he got a call from Michael Elias, one of the executive producers of "Head of the Class," to replace the departed Howard Hesseman on the ABC sitcom. "I have never been interested in television," he said. But the producers gave him a veddy good financial offer.

"The whole point of the exercise is to get myself a platform (in America) and go with it," he said. "I had been working in America over the years, but no one knows I have been born yet. It's a huge place. I have done 'David Letterman' six or seven times and played Carnegie Hall and all of those things."

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