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On View : Stephen King's Summer Stories

July 14, 1991|GREG BRAXTON | Times Staff Writer

A first-run summer TV series with "Golden Years" in the title sounds like the perfect tonic for those summer rerun doldrums. Viewers armed with lemonade and munchies might expectedly tune in hoping to see nostalgic images of days gone by.

But put Stephen King's name in front of that title, and viewers might not know what to expect. Will "Stephen King's Golden Years" find the best-selling horrormeister sitting on the porch of his Bangor, Me., dwelling, discussing the wealth he has accumulated with his fiction and screenplays? Has the creator of "Carrie," "Cujo" and "Christine" finally gone soft?

Take heart, King fans. There is no cause for misery.

While not exactly a horror story in his usual vein, CBS' "Stephen King's Golden Years," the author's first venture into network-series television, promises some of those same psychological King-like elements that have endeared him to millions of readers worldwide.

More importantly, King is taking this one personally, reversing his usual practice of staying detached from films and TV projects based on his work.

King serves as co-executive producer of what he called his "original novel for television." He wrote the first five episodes, including the two-hour premiere, and he outlined the final two episodes. (He even appears in one episode--the fifth--in a cameo as a bus driver.) He is very pleased with the result.

"I feel good about it," King said in a telephone interview. "Sometimes I have reservations in my heart about these projects, I have some questions about actors or sets. But I think this is good and original."

It is King's personal involvement that co-executive producer Richard Rubinstein believes will place the series a cut above most films of King's works. With notable exceptions ("Stand by Me" and "Misery"), most theatrical adaptations of King's work have been critical and popular disappointments, put together by filmmakers unable to transfer King's imaginative vision from the page to the screen.

"There's no team of writers," Rubinstein said. "This is Stephen's story. He's being allowed the freedom to play it out in his fashion." He said the show will have appeal for fans and nonfans of King.

What's more, the series doesn't really have a conclusive ending, a la ABC's notorious "Twin Peaks." If "Golden Years" strikes gold with viewers, King and Rubinstein hope to continue the story into next season.

The pair previously worked together on "Pet Sematary" and "Creepshow," two of the more commercially successful King-spawned films. The screenplays for both movies were written by King; Rubinstein produced.

The series centers around Harlan Williams (Keith Szarabajka, who had a recurring role in CBS' "The Equalizer"), a 70-year-old janitor at a top-secret government lab in Upstate New York. Injured one day in an explosion at the lab, Williams is exposed to a combination of mysterious chemicals that cause him to gradually get younger.

The results have a dramatic effect on his relationship with his loving wife of 50 years, Gina (Frances Sternhagen). But worse, the couple is forced to flee when the lab authorities and the government--who believe they have found the key to the fountain of youth--try to get their hands on Williams.

The series also stars Felicity Huffman as the head of security at the plant who grows attached to the couple and tries to protect them, and Ed Lauter as the general who runs the secret lab.

Rubinstein characterized the show as "a thriller with a real fantasy theme." He called it a mixture of "The Fugitive," the successful on-the-run '60s series, and "Firestarter," another King bestseller about a little girl who could mentally cause people to burst into flames.

King called his concept "strange TV. It's a love story about two people in their 70s who are still in love, still sexually active. It's 'seventysomething.' "

He added that "It feels wonderful to write a real novel for television. I was galvanized by 'Rich Man, Poor Man.' I like long stories with lots of plot and lots of character. And I always wondered if people would watch a novel for television that was just that--not an adaptation like 'Winds of War.' "

But even King's reputation and following didn't stop the networks from initially running scared from "Golden Years," which sat around for many years: "They wanted adaptations, but no one wanted to try an unknown commodity. After I wrote a certain amount and saw no one was interested, then I just let it sit."

It wasn't that the networks didn't want him, King said. They did, but as host of a horror anthology series. "They wanted me to play America's best-loved bogyman, to come out each week and say, 'I'm Stephen King. Come with me while I scare the hell out of you.' " He declined.

King said he is happy he waited for this opportunity to do his own kind of television his way. "It's something original, but it also has the sense of the familiar. I believe people who come to it will stay with it."

"Stephen King's Golden Years" premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS, then moves to its regular time period Thursday at 10 p.m.

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