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TELEVISION : It's a Control Thing : There is a long history of TV stars assuming producer titles, but today more and more of them are taking on new duties; for some it means more money or opportunity, for others it's about being in charge

April 11, 1993|MICHELE WILLENS | Michele Willens is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles

A former producer of the "Delta" series recalls one particular production meeting during which the star of the ABC show--who also happens to be one of its producers--was so exhausted she put her head on the table and would only lift it occasionally for odd comments.

"She simply is not a producer," says the former staffer, "though I can appreciate her wanting to be heard and taken seriously. I can only tell you I would never go into another series with the star lined up as a producer."

Well, he may have a hard time finding work. Networks and studios are giving TV stars producing titles like Santa hands out candy canes. Aside from Burke, whose show returned with major changes last Tuesday, there are a record number of performers now producing (or executive producing) their own shows: Burt Reynolds ("Evening Shade"); Carroll O'Connor ("In the Heat of the Night"); Gerald McRaney ("Major Dad"); Angela Lansbury ("Murder, She Wrote"); Jerry Seinfeld ("Seinfeld"); Paul Reiser ("Mad About You"); Roseanne and Tom Arnold with their his-and-her series ("Roseanne" and "The Jackie Thomas Show"); Linda Lavin ("Room for Two"); Garry Shandling ("The Larry Sanders Show"); Craig T. Nelson ("Coach"); Andy Griffith ("Matlock"); David Carradine ("Kung Fu: The Legend Continues"); David Hasselhoff ("Baywatch").

And then there are all the television movies produced by stars such as Victoria Principal, Donna Mills, Treat Williams, Bruce Boxleitner, Marlo Thomas and Cybill Shepherd.

For some of these actors, producing is a new challenge to take up, the way other actors do with directing. For some--particularly middle-age women--it's a way of making sure someone is creating roles for them. For others, it's simply a title accepted for ego, money or prestige--a concession to be won from the increasingly less powerful networks, which are willing to give more to get what they hope is star-power insurance. If that means offering a production deal or letting the stars serve as one of multiple producers on their series, so be it.

For all of them, however, producing provides an additional way to exercise more control over their fate as performers. Even when done in conjunction with others, as nearly always is the case, it gives them input into the creative process at every point--from shaping the characters and scripts in the writing phase to hiring the directors to sitting in the editing room putting the final program together.

"That's my name and my face up there, and I think I've come to know what the audience wants from me," says Burke. (Apparently not what they saw in the first "Delta" last fall: This time she is back as a brunette.) James Garner's company co-produced "The Rockford Files" but he let others take charge with "Man of the People" last season--resulting in a rare dud for the popular actor. "They didn't understand me or what I do best," he says now.

"For me, the producing just gives me a voice in the collaboration," says Cybill Shepherd, who has produced several TV movies. "Had I had the producer credit on 'Moonlighting,' I never would have allowed Maddie to marry that wimpy guy on a train."

There is precedent here: Desi Arnaz virtually invented the sitcom through his Desilu company, and Lucy was the creative force behind her later shows. Danny Thomas oversaw a phenomenally successful company. But somehow, it felt simpler then.

"Desi didn't ask for the term producer but he accepted it, because he was trying to protect Lucy's interests and he managed a large enterprise," says veteran producer Sheldon Leonard. Leonard partnered with Thomas in the company that produced shows like "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "Gomer Pyle" and "I Spy." But he points out that Thomas never took a producer's credit or a fee, not even on his own series.

Nowadays, having the credit is important: "It gives me some respect from people who wear ties," notes Craig T. Nelson of "Coach."

The folks least happy about this trend are your old-fashioned, no-strings-attached producers, who feel this is yet another group stealing their titles. Writers on TV shows for years have been seeking more control over their work by demanding titles such as producer, story editor and script consultant.

"Our question is, are the stars genuinely functioning as producers or is it just titular?" says Leonard Stern, head of the Producers Guild, which is formulating a list of 26 requirements producers should meet before earning the title.

"By the same token, is someone else performing those functions and not getting the proper acknowledgment? We're concerned that all this increases budgets, leads to a proliferation of credits and diminishes what a real TV producer is."

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