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A Comedy of His Own : Jay Thomas Waited and Got What he Wanted: a Show that he Can Lead


Jay Thomas says when he won an Emmy for his role as Jerry Gold on CBS' "Murphy Brown" he thought he would be inundated with offers for work.

It didn't work out that way.

"I was waiting for the calls to come in," he says. "I thought I'd be offered a movie of the week, my own show. I finally got a call. It was for 'Circus of the Stars.' I ate fire and laid on a bed of nails."

Thomas figuratively has been eating fire and lying on nails for a long time.

On "Murphy Brown," he was for a time a suspect in the pregnancy and out-of-wedlock birth that drew the criticism of Vice President Dan Quayle. On "Cheers," he was waitress Carla's ill-fated hockey-playing husband, Eddie Lebec. His only starring role came in ABC's "Married People," which he says was a successful show the network removed to make room for a flop.

Thomas hopes the call he's been waiting for is the fall CBS comedy "Love and War," in which he and Susan Dey play a couple who alternate between those two extremes.

The show was created by Diane English, who also created "Murphy Brown." It has an excellent time slot of 9:30 p.m. on Mondays between "Murphy Brown" and "Northern Exposure."

"This is a new league for me," Thomas says. " 'Married People' was a good show, but this show has really been ballyhooed. It's already been sold in Europe. It's a little scary."

In the new comedy, Thomas plays newspaper columnist Jack Stein, who has a unique talent for offending every reader. The first show opens a few minutes after a reader pops him in the nose for saying Americans can't make a decent toaster-oven.

Dey, formerly on NBC's "L.A. Law," is Wally Porter, an upscale divorcee who buys Stein's favorite working-stiff watering hole. Most of the show takes place in the Blue Shamrock bar.

"She's 20 minutes out of divorce court and my whole intention is to get her into bed," he says. "This guy is a big talker and sticks his foot in his mouth occasionally.

"I don't think Jack and Wally will ever get married. We're not even thinking now about having a baby. We are going to sleep together a lot. Dan Quayle is going to hate this show."

Thomas is frequently cast as a New Yorker, but was born in Texas and raised in Louisiana. He has never played a Southerner.

"People always mistake my New Orleans accent for New York," he says. "My dad's a WASP, my mother's Italian, and I was raised a Catholic. I have little formal theater training."

He worked as a comedian in a New Orleans French Quarter strip joint when he was 16. He went to college in Florida. After working on radio stations in the South, he moved to New York to become an actor. Mostly he worked in radio, becoming a top disc jockey in New York and later in Los Angeles, where he still works mornings on KPWR/106.7.

He says he has put on hold a plan to produce a television pilot he had written with his writing partner, Perry Lang. Thomas would play a disc jockey.

"Long before 'Love and War' came up, Diane English told me not to make another deal without talking to her," he says. "I didn't know what to make of that. Nobody was making me any offers. So I worked on my own pilot.

"I look at this as a business. No one was putting me in a starring role. It gets old playing guest roles. When this came along I dropped the pilot."

His writing partner, Lang, wrote and directed the movie "Little Vegas." Thomas starred in the film with Michael Nouri, who plays Susan Dey's out-of-work former husband she has to support on "Love and War."

Thomas says he hopes his new series will lead to more movie roles.

"It's funny, but you have a better chance of going from a sitcom to the movies than from drama," he says. "It used to be the other way around."

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