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TELEVISION : The Dawning of 'Evening Shade' : How the producing team of Harry and Linda Thomason lured Burt Reynolds and other movie heavyweights to a sitcom

February 17, 1991|DAVID WALLACE | David Wallace is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creator, frequent writer and co-executive producer of CBS' "Evening Shade," refers to the half-hour series about life in a fictional small town in Arkansas as "hick television." To her and to her husband and partner, producer/director Harry Thomason, both Arkansas born, that is a compliment. "She considers herself a hick, and that's how we met," Harry recalls. "She walked into my office and said, 'I hear there's another hick here!' She uses that term in a loving sense."

But the actors whom she and Harry assembled to portray the town's amiable, eccentric characters are anything but hicks. They constitute just about the glitziest gathering of talent that has ever drawled dialogue--or, for that matter, has ever been seen regularly in a television sitcom. The result has had critics in ecstasy and sent ratings climbing since the show went on the air last September--not to Top 20 status but at least to the point where the show often wins its Monday night time slot.

"From the get-go," says Burt Reynolds, the show's star, co-executive producer and chief talent gatherer, the plan was to seek a dream cast drawn from film and theater as well as television. Former box-office champ Reynolds, at 55, is essaying his first sitcom. Charles Durning and Michael Jeter, both of whom won Tony Awards (Broadway's highest honor) last season, are regulars. So are Elizabeth Ashley (another Tony winner), Hal Holbrook (who has won five Emmys), Ossie Davis and Anne Wedgeworth.

The only sitcom veteran besides Wedgeworth is Marilu Henner, who appeared in "Taxi" for five years.

"My agent called completely out of nowhere," Henner recalled. "He said that Burt Reynolds and Linda Bloodworth wanted to see me the next day. We met and talked about the idea and they told me who was in it. I said, 'I can't believe it. Every week these people are going to be on the show?'

"After the meeting," she said, "I called my agent on my car phone and said, 'Don't let this one get away!' "

How such a dream cast was assembled for a sitcom is a story of unusual determination to seek the very best, strong network backing, stronger personal relationships and plain luck.

Linda and Harry Thomason, who also oversee CBS' "Designing Women," had been planning a half-hour show set in a small town named Evening Shade for more than a year. There are actually two tiny towns in Arkansas named Evening Shade--the name was suggested to the Thomasons by Hilary Clinton, a close friend of theirs and wife of the state's governor, William Clinton--but the show is really based on Linda's memories of growing up in Poplar Bluff, Mo.

Harry recalled: "We were desperately trying to think of a cast for this show. . . . Linda does things a little differently; she gets the cast and then writes the show. So Jeff Sagansky (president of CBS Entertainment), Howard Stringer (president of the CBS Broadcast Group), Linda and I sat down on the floor in our office at Columbia and went through the (Screen Actors Guild) catalogues. We couldn't come up with anybody.

"Finally, Linda said, 'What we need is somebody like Burt Reynolds,' and Sagansky said, 'Let's get him.' Howard said, 'You don't really think he'd do a half-hour show?' Jeff said, 'Let's call and ask.' "

What they didn't know then, but soon found out, was that Reynolds was looking for a sitcom in which to star.

A veteran of more than 40 films, he had returned to television in 1989 in a detective series called "B. L. Stryker," but by early last year it was clear that the show had not caught on. Reynolds began considering other options.

"I had always heard that people were kind of stunned I had never done anything with a live audience (most sitcoms, unlike dramatic series, are filmed before a studio audience) except 'The Tonight Show,' " the actor commented recently during a week of interviews on the "Evening Shade" set at Studio City's MTM/CBS studio. "I kind of agreed with that."

Did the negative connotations of working on a sitcom worry him? "Yes, they did," Reynolds added, "but I thought this might be the last stop for me and so I've got to take all the bad and the good and the ugly and learn something."

He met with "three or four" writer-producers whom he thought could deliver a quality project for him, then winnowed his choices to Linda Thomason and Hugh Wilson ("WKRP in Cincinnati," "Frank's Place").

"It was Hugh or Linda right to the last moment," Reynolds recalled " . . . I swung towards Linda because it sounded like she was talking about me--me at this time in my life--when she talked about the character in 'Evening Shade.' It wasn't me in terms of how or what most people seem to think of me, though. I said, 'What kind of character do you see me doing?' and she said, 'Well, I've always felt that the kind of parts you should play and the kind of parts you'd be wonderful in are the parts Jimmy Stewart would play.'

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