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A Modern Stone-Age Fantasy : When other kids were getting in trouble, Brian Levant made movies and watchedTV. Now the child of television has a dream project. He's directing John Goodman andElizabeth Perkins in the big-budget, live-action film "The Flintstones."

March 18, 1993|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fred Flintstone's pal Barney Rubble is squatting on the ground trying to rub two sticks together when he suddenly looks around and puts the sticks down.

"It's finally happened, Betty," Barney laments. "I've become my father."

As Brian Levant recounts the line of dialogue, he lets out a laugh.

"Now, that's a different joke than a man just riding a dinosaur," he says.

Levant uses the joke to illustrate the levels of humor he will attempt to mine for children and adults when he directs "The Flintstones." The big-budget, live-action film from Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment goes before the cameras in mid-May. Based on the Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, the movie will star John Goodman as Fred, Rick Moranis as Barney and Elizabeth Perkins as Wilma (Betty has yet to be cast).

For Levant, who last year directed the hit canine comedy "Beethoven" (worldwide grosses of $142 million), it could justifiably be said that in making "The Flintstones" he has finally become his children.

How else do you explain a 40-year-old who proudly displays a 140-piece collection of Flintstones' memorabilia he has spent years assembling that includes a 1962 Fred Flintstone doll with green hair and a replica of Fred and Wilma's stone abode with a slab roof that when removed reveals a cereal bowl?

Holding up a stuffed toy Brontocrane, he remarks: "I found this in a junk store in Arizona."

How else do you explain a 40-year-old who gets excited merely recounting how a few weeks ago he jumped into the driver's seat of a "Flintstone Flivver," a life-size vehicle with big rollers at both ends that will serve as Fred and Wilma's mode of transportation in the film?

"This was like the most fun you can have!"

So it doesn't turn on a dime. So you have to start it up with your feet.

"It's just wild!"

And that's just one of the crazy gadgets being created by the film's production wizards.

There is also the "LaSabretooth 5000" car (petrified wood chassi, stone fin, giant rubber band for an engine) and a host of animatronic creatures, including the Brontocrane, a sabertooth tiger housecat, Dicktabird office equipment and, of course, Dino, who will be operated by a human on all fours with leg extensions.

Levant said everything about 'The Flintstones' will be big.

Even Fred's closets.

"They're a little deeper because the hangers are carved out of stone."

Even Fred.

"We want (Goodman) to be big and loud and gruff and wear his emotions on his outside. To me, you can't imitate Fred Flintstone. Then you're doing a sketch. We need to bring Fred Flintstone to life and feel the full range of emotions with him so at the end of the movie you haven't had a snack--like a sketch on 'Saturday Night Live.' You've had a full meal."

He said the filmmakers even spent a half-hour one day trying to figure out what kind of door handle should go on Fred's front door.

If Levant sounds like a child romping through a giant toy store, well, he is.

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Levant said he knew he wanted to write for television from the days he watched "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

"You watched people sitting around a room throwing darts and making jokes all day," he said. "I said, 'Now that's a way to make a living.' "

As a student at Highland Park High School, Levant was one of the guys who were always walking around the schoolgrounds with movie cameras.

"When I was in high school, everybody was out doing drugs and I was staying home because I wanted to stay up for the Marx Brothers."

The irony would not hit him until years later, but the shows he watched after school would later have a direct impact on his life. At 3:30 p.m., there was Bugs Bunny. At 4, "Leave it to Beaver." That was followed by "The Flintstones" and then "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

"I did ("The New Leave it to Beaver"). I have a Bugs movie going. I'm doing 'The Flintstones.' And, when I first wound up here . . . my next door neighbor was Richard Deacon, who was on 'Leave It To Beaver' and 'The Dick Van Dyke Show."'

He met his wife, Alison, when she was 5 and he was in 5th grade. Today, they have three children "in the 'Father Knows Best' alignment" (boy in the middle).

Levant is so emersed in the television culture of his youth that, like many Baby Boomers, he instantly recalls the theme songs to popular TV shows. During an interview, for example, he proved he could hum the theme to "The Rifleman" and sang the lyrics to "Cheyenne."

He said he not only collects Flinstones' memorabilia, but has also stocked the shelves of his home with memorabilia from "Howdy Doody," "Popeye," "Leave it to Beaver" and "Pinky Lee."

In fact, Levant counts as one of his life's cherished moments working with Buffalo Bob Smith, the host of the "Howdy Doody."

"There was something about being around him that was so comforting," Levant recalled. "He asked me, 'How are you today?' And I said, 'Fine, Buffalo Bob!'--I actually called him Buffalo Bob!"'

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