In deepest San Fernando Valley not long ago, inside Webb Stage, a one-time factory remade into a TV studio, Brian Benben lay on top of Mimi Rogers under the covers.
They awaited director John Landis to instruct them what to do. Landis, whose normal energy is cyclonic, was summoned by an assistant. The couple was ready for him.
Landis darted onto the set, checked it over, scrutinized the lighting, measured the camera angle, wondered if everybody was comfortable (they were), then joyfully pronounced everything "Poi-fect!"
He called for the lovemaking to commence for an episode that will launch the second season of "Dream On." A cult of fans adore this adult-comedy series on HBO, which returns tonight for 14 new episodes.
Those fans will be pumped by the news that the first episode--an hour vs. the normal half-hour because there is so-o-o-o much to tell--is called "The Second Greatest Story Ever Told." As devoted viewers will know, the second greatest person is Richard, whom we have never seen but is perfection personified.
More on him later. For now, suffice it to say that the plot centers on the making of a movie of Richard's wonderful life, "The Richard Stone Story."
And to tell this incredible story, executive producers Landis (who directs on occasion) and Kevin Bright hired a starry cast in addition to regulars Brian Benben, who plays the perplexed New York book editor Martin Tupper, and Wendie Malick, his edgy, breakaway wife Judith, who moved on to marry this amazing Dr. Richard Stone.
So Tom Berenger is cast as obnoxious movie star Nick Spencer, who in turn plays Richard. Rogers (reunited with Berenger from their stylish hit film "Someone to Watch Over Me") is Julia Montana, a likewise obnoxious movie star who in turn plays Judith.
The even more likewise obnoxious TV director, the legendary Sir Roland, is performed by David Bowie. ("I've known him for years," Landis said, "and I told him it was a really funny part. David is a desperate closet comic.")
Landis inserts some cameo players, too, including Sylvester Stallone--who just did the lead in the director's comedy, "Oscar"--playing himself. He's jealous, he says, because he wanted to play Richard.
The series, and especially this episode, is about shifting realities, usually from the point of view of Martin, whose "normal" neuroses often play off Richard's saintly attainments: that is--Richard runs a shelter for the homeless, turned down a Grammy award for his album of original folk songs, won two Nobel Prizes, saved twin boys and their dog from drowning and administered CPR to all three, sang the National Anthem at a Mets game, sewed Judith a nice blouse, gave William Styron an idea for the third choice that Sophie could have made, inspired doctors who assisted in the Armenian earthquake, was honored for his work on Chernobyl victims, did groundbreaking prenatal heart surgery in Paris, started the program "Palms for the Crack Babies" and, while vacationing in Greece, talked himself out of a hostage crisis and thus saved his tour group and the Parthenon.
Back to Martin: Benben, who said that in his New York theater days he was often cast as "things that crawl out when you move the cupboard," acknowledged that "I think there's some measure of neuroses (in Martin), but to me it doesn't seem neurotic--maybe that's a commentary on something."
For this occasion, reality was tricky. Creators and co-executive producers Marta Kauffman and David Crane, who wrote this script, recalled that writer Craig Hoffman came up with the concept of an actor playing a Richard surrogate "and we can have the nightmare of Martin's life playing out again"--thus the idea for the play within a play.
For example, Mimi Rogers' Judith swoons over Berenger's Richard in the "movie": "I love the way your eye catches the moonlight and I love the way you saved those schoolchildren during that tornado ... "
One of the gimmicks of the series is that Martin, a 1950s child of television, frequently flashes back in his mind's eye to an old TV memory. These quick scenes are taken from Universal Studio TV archives and inserted into the show. (For this trip, Landis used video bits that starred Eva Gabor, Yvonne De Carlo and Ricardo Montalban--and then cast them in current cameos, spinning off their old television roles.)
Martin also flits off into occasional fits of fantasy. During the love entanglement, Martin imagines Berenger's Nick Spencer at his bedside, commenting to Martin in the middle of the action that "I really like your work ... course I did something similar to this in 'The Dead Are Silent,' only I got an Academy Award nomination for it."
Martin's secretary Toby (played by Denny Dillon), who always finds reason to give her boss a shot, also suddenly appears at the bed and suggests that Julia is not paying full attention to Martin's ministrations: "Give the lady a break. Who would you rather fantasize about, a 34-year-old book editor with fallen arches or Nick 'I want to bite your bottom lip' Spencer."
Martin's wife, suddenly appearing at the bed, mulls the question and votes for Nick. So do others hanging around the bed, including two topless girls and a large grotesque monster beast from the deep from a horror movie shooting in the next studio. It is not Martin's finest moment.
But Landis called "Cut!" and gave the whole crew several whoops.
"Dream On" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.