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Striking the Right Chord : CBS sitcom gives Moore a chance to act and play

April 11, 1993|JOE RHODES | Joe Rhodes is a regular contributor to Calendar and TV Times

It is only a 10-minute break, a momentary pause in a 13-hour day on the set of "Dudley," Dudley Moore's new CBS sitcom, just long enough to reposition the cameras and set the lights and get everything ready to rehearse another scene.

There are stagehands moving furniture and adjusting props, extras milling about, waiting to be told just where they should stand. Other actors--the ones with speaking parts--study their peach-colored scripts, silently mouthing lines while the stage manager, communicating through a headset, talks to the director in the control booth, repeating the transmitted instructions. "Can we move those chairs downstage?," he says. "Farther? Farther? OK." Someone bangs away with a hammer.

Moore, seemingly unnoticed, makes his way behind the cameras and onto an unlit set, his character's New York penthouse apartment. There are bookshelves, a terrace, glassless windows overlooking a painted-matte view of the city. And there is a grand piano, a Steinway. He sits down in the dark and begins to play.

No one--not the extras or the crew or the stage manager with his headset--turns to look. They go on with their business as if they don't hear the music, gentle improvised jazz, floating across the room. They listen without looking, turning down their chaos just enough to hear the sound. They smile to themselves but never turn around, as if to face the music would somehow make it stop.

"I don't know," Moore says, asked why no one seems willing to make eye contact with him when he plays. "Maybe they think they would discourage me."

Not likely. As much as he enjoys acting and the steady-work possibilities that a successful series might present, the piano is still his life's blood. It is no accident that after a decade of turning down offers to star in his own sitcom, the one he finally took cast him as a successful pianist and composer, a bachelor father trying to raise a troubled teen-age son.

'It would be essential for me to have an instrument nearby, even if it weren't part of the show, says Moore, who in addition to the two grand pianos on the "Dudley" set has an upright piano in his dressing room. "It's wonderful actually. I can sit down and just go into a sort of meditative trance and play."

After a lifetime of trying, Moore finally may have found the balance between music and acting he has always sought. He has been playing piano nearly all his life, mostly jazz when he was younger, but concentrating on classical music in recent years. American film audiences, who knew him only as the impish comedian of "Arthur" and "10" were surprised to see him showing up in Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, sharing stages with the likes of violinist Itzhak Perlman and Sir Georg Solti, conductor of the Chicago Symphony.

"I always want to do music when I'm acting and I want to act when I'm doing music. That seems to be the norm for me," Moore says. "It's sort of like these are the two women in my life--music and acting. And I can't choose between them. Actually, think how many times I've been attracted to the idea of a threesome in film: '10," 'Arthur,' 'Mickie and Maude,' 'Lovesick.' That's probably no coincidence."

Lured by the prospect of semi-predictable working hours and a regular parking space, Moore told CBS last year that he was ready for a shot at the small-screen life.

Susan Beavers, whose credits include writing for "Newhart," "Golden Girls" and "Empty Nest," came up with the premise that stuck. Moore plays a good-hearted but vaguely irresponsible pianist whose ex-wife, played by Joanna Cassidy, shows up with the couple's 14-year-old son, a problem child in desperate need of a father figure. "He's a mildly clueless sort of guy," says Moore, who thinks the part may suit him as well as anything since the lovable billionaire drunk in "Arthur."

In some ways, Moore thinks his working style may be better suited to TV than films. "I've always preferred the immediacy of television," he says. "And I like the pressure of knowing you have to get the show done every week. I don't like the hours--I was in here last Friday at 9 a.m. and didn't leave until 3 the next morning. I was really punch drunk--but I like the pressure."

As much as he's drawn to this series because of the 35-minute drive from his home to CBS' Hollywood Studios and the ability to schedule concert performances around the show's shooting schedule, Moore also turned his attention away from movies for another reason: It's no secret that his last few feature films (say, for instance, "Blame It on the Bellboy") have been something less than successful. Good parts are hard to find, particularly for 5-foot-2, 57-year-old Englishmen.

"It would be nice to find another 'Arthur' or '10' but I sort of despair of ever finding anything that would really be right for me, apart from this show," he says. "If you're a small guy, there's only a certain amount of things you can do. You can't really be taken seriously, it seems. You can't even take yourself seriously. You see yourself in a shop window and you think, 'Christ, I'm not really that small, am I?' So I don't know what will happen. I don't know if the public will latch onto this or not. We'll just have to wait and see."

"Dudley" airs Frida y s at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.

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