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Profile : Long on Laughs : Her Chambers of Comedy Now Includes a Spring Sitcom

April 04, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Danny Jacobson, the executive producer of Shelley Long's new CBS sitcom "Good Advice," knows the secret to her comedic success.

"First of all, she's funny," explains Jacobson, who co-created the series. "She is serious about her comedy and her craft is flawless. It's the reason why Roberto Clemente was such a great baseball player. He just loved doing it. He was like a kid getting paid."

And, Jacobson says, so is Long. "She is like Roberto Clemente," he says. "You put her on stage. You give her a script. She makes it fun. She makes it funny. "

But Long, relaxing in her tastefully decorated bungalow at Culver Studios, confesses she never set out to be a comedian. "When I thought about becoming an actress, I didn't imagine playing one role for the rest of my life," she explains. "Nor did I imagine concentrating on comedy. The comedy was something of a surprise for me."

Though a great fan of comedy, "a great admirer of comedy," Long says, "I didn't know if I could be effective doing it."

Long has proven to be more than effective. For the last decade, she was the clown princess of comedy in such features as "Night Shift" and "Outrageous Fortune." She left an indelible mark on television playing the irritating, irrepressible Diane Chambers for five seasons on NBC's long-running "Cheers." Last month it was announced Long will return in her Emmy-winning role for the final episode of "Cheers" on May 20.

Though Long has been concentrating on dramatic TV movies recently, "Good Advice" proves her comedic skills haven't lost their luster. Long is in top form as Dr. Susan DeRuzza, a prominent marriage counselor and best-selling author who discovers that her husband (Christopher McDonald) has had several extramarital affairs. Treat Williams co-stars as Jack Harrold, an unmarried divorce attorney with whom Susan shares offices.

Long, an only child, grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., the hometown of the famous '30s screwball comedian Carole Lombard. From an early age, Long saw comedy as a way of dealing with life, "a way of having fun. I thought about acting early on, certainly performing. I loved to sing, and singing was another way-of-life kind of choice. I just pursued whatever performing opportunities came my way."

Long smiles. "Actually, I have been quoted as saying one of my first memories (was) when someone asked me what I would be when I grow up, I said I would be a clown," she says. "But (a clown) is different to a kid. A clown is someone who has fun and is silly. I was fascinated by them."

Long got her first big acting break during her senior year in high school as Mama in "I Remember Mama." "I told my speech coach, I was hoping for something a bit more romantic, maybe 'Romeo and Juliet,' " Long recalls with a laugh. " 'Mama' turned out to be a memorable role and experience. A real stretch, as we say in the business."

At Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Long appeared in productions of "A Man for All Seasons" and Ibsen's "Ghosts." She got her first taste of making audiences laugh during her sophomore year as Scarlett O'Hara in a musical-comedy satire of "Gone With the Wind."

"By accident, during one of the performances or rehearsals, the wig moved," Long says. "People laughed, so I just played it. It became an asset to the character. That was a real positive experience for me to feel that I could be silly and have fun and still do it in an organized way."

After college, Long encountered difficulties obtaining acting jobs. "I looked awfully young," she recalls. "At the same time I was so tall, so I couldn't get away with playing real young people. But I wasn't mature enough (looking) to play a woman in her young 20s, which is actually what I was."

So Long, who had always been interested in writing, began scripting educational film strips for the Encyclopedia Brittanica and became co-host of a Chicago magazine show, "Sorting It Out."

"I was on camera as co-host," she says. "I would do my own stories. I would edit my own pieces." And she got to create characters. "I was a singing waitress. And I got to be a clown. I did a story on being a clown."

She also managed to find time to act in industrial films. It was while making a short film with three performers from Chicago's famed Second City comedy troupe that Long discovered she had a knack for improvisation. "We did some improvising as we were doing (the film)," Long says. "One of the (performers) suggested to me that it would be fun to take an improv course."

Long decided to act on his suggestion. "I did it on a lark. Maybe that's the best way for one's career to take a major swing. As a result of taking that class, my teacher thought I would be a good candidate for the resident (Second City) company. It was beyond even my wildest dream that I would ever be asked to audition for that company."

She auditioned for Second City and was offered a job. "It scared me a lot, but I decided to go with it," she says. "That decision turned me into the direction of comedy."

"Good Advice" airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. on CBS; repeats of "Cheers" air weeknights at 7:30 and 11 on KTLA and XETV.

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