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A Long Way From 'Hill Street's' Beat : Betty Thomas Struts Her Comic Side in Directing First Feature, 'Only You'

January 02, 1992|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OXNARD — You've written this movie script--a slight, playful, romantic comedy. None of the studios want to make it, but an independent film company has agreed to bankroll it on a very modest budget. You just need a director.

Garry Marshall would work. Or even his sister Penny. But since you can't afford their multimillion-dollar salaries, you agree to meet with Betty Thomas.

"In all honesty, I said, 'It's . . . Lucy from "Hill Street Blues." This chick is going to direct my comedy?' " admitted Wayne Rice, producer and screenwriter of "Only You." "I thought she was going to come in in this cop uniform and hit me with the stick. And in she comes in purple tennis shoes and those pants that you can fit Volvos in. She starts swearing like no one you've ever heard. And she's hilarious. I didn't know that she was from Second City. I didn't know that she'd performed with Bill Murray. I just knew her as that cop."

"Hill Street Blues' " Lucy Bates was perhaps the world's most famous female cop for 6 1/2 years, busting criminals, settling terribly unsettling domestic brawls, watching her partner get shot and killed on the dark, bloody streets. Thomas, the actress who played Lucy Bates with an unrelenting seriousness, is serious about her new career, too. Only this time, as a first-time director, she is serious most of all about making her audience laugh.

Thomas is a cutup, the class clown. She covers her 6-foot-plus frame in colorful, baggy, quirky clothes. She drives a Winnebago. She sprinkles every sentence with chuckles, self-deprecating witticisms and four-letter words.

When reminded of the dramatic, tear-jerking image most people have of her from "Hill Street," she muses, amazed: "I know. I know. How did that happen? Where did I go wrong? I don't know anyone from Second City who got into drama."

"She's a nut. She's a lunatic," said Andrew McCarthy, who has starred in "Pretty in Pink," "St. Elmo's Fire" and "Weekend At Bernie's," and has the lead in "Only You."

"I didn't know that she was funny. She really has this zany or ridiculous outlook on life. That makes it fun to be around her, but what makes her a unique director is that she doesn't care where a good idea comes from--if it's the prop guy or a grip, it doesn't matter. She has no ego. And that's unusual for most directors."

"You work with her once, and you say, 'OK, I'll jump off this building for you,' " said Brian Benben, the star of HBO's comedy series "Dream On," which Thomas has directed nine times in the past two years. "She's real smart. She's extremely sensitive, and she makes you feel confident. And she's so tall. You don't want to cross her."

Thomas is doing "Only You," a comedy originally titled "Love Stinks," about one man's hapless quest for the perfect woman, in part because the producers needed a woman director to counter the reaction of the many women who called it "sexist" when the script made the rounds at the studios, Rice acknowledged. "We didn't want it to be just a male chauvinist movie," said Morrie Eisenman, president of PRO Filmworks, the independent company that produced the film.

"I lucked out a bit on this movie because they decided after hiring a man that they needed a woman's perspective. Whatever that means. I remember someone made the comment, 'If there is such a thing as a woman's perspective, we don't know what it is because we haven't made enough films to find out what it is yet.' I do think that's true."

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