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Creating Work for TV's Higher Ground

June 01, 1993|RICK DU BROW

TV or not TV . . .

ANOTHER WORLD: The three Amy Fisher movies on ABC, CBS and NBC this season defined the path that the networks have taken in drama.

Thus the higher ground that cable TV often offers viewers and creators has become increasingly noticeable.

At the moment, for instance, screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald has three projects in the works at the TNT cable channel--an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," starring John Malkovich; "Zelda," an original work with Natasha Richardson as the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald; and "Alexander the Great."

"Heart of Darkness" and "Zelda," both two-hour movies, are scheduled to wind up production this month. The script for "Alexander the Great," a four-hour miniseries, is expected to be finished by August, says Fitzgerald.

"They're planning to go into production in Egypt, Greece and Turkey in the late fall," says the writer.

Fitzgerald, 44, of Pacific Palisades, is a son of the late poet, scholar and Harvard professor Robert Fitzgerald, who was widely known for his translations of such classics as "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."

"Part of the reason they came to me for 'Alexander,' I believe, is that I've lived with the classics," says Fitzgerald, who studied history and literature at Harvard. "They were read out loud to us as children."

Fitzgerald, who wrote the screenplay for John Huston's 1979 film "Wise Blood," believes that cable "is probably the one place where good literary adaptations can be developed" on a regular basis these days: "That's partly because it's so expensive to do these things now for the big screen."

Cable, he says, is "not as restricted by its history as the networks are. I don't think any particular formula has become entrenched in the way cable makes films. They're not caught up in how many miniseries, movies and series there are. The networks seem to be caught in some kind of rut."

He adds: "I don't think cable television is in that kind of bind. And they know there's an audience out there that's become very savvy--a literate audience that's growing. I suspect that they'll be doing a great many more projects like these."

Says Fitzgerald, who was born in New York City and brought up in Italy: "I ended up writing screenplays purely by accident. I never learned how you're supposed to write one. I just believe that stories are at the heart of all of it. If I tell a bad story to my 5-year-old daughter, she just stops paying attention, and I think the same thing happens with audiences."

END OF THE LINE: Even television is looking at its prime-time sleaze and violence with a jaundiced eye. NBC has a planned telefilm, "Witness for the Execution," which the network describes as follows:

"With the battle for big television ratings at an all-time high, (a) program executive has to come up with a blockbuster pay-per-view event the whole country will want to watch. Her solution? A live execution. But as millions of people around the country are signing up to make her event the most lucrative in broadcast history, (she) begins to question whether the death-row prisoner . . . is really guilty."

Would it really matter? There's always a sequel.

The execution-on-TV idea isn't exactly new. And back in his 1976 film "Network," the visionary writer Paddy Chayefsky, seeing TV's inability to hit bottom, had a broadcast executive sarcastically suggest an "Execution of the Week" series.

IN CHARACTER: It was pure Ed Sullivan in a weekly Saturday night rerun of his series on KCBS-TV Channel 2. There he was, introducing a taped segment of the Harlem Globetrotters doing their stuff to "Sweet Georgia Brown" and noting that they were going to the Vatican to see the Pope. "Let's have a nice hand for them," said Ed, as witty as ever.

THINKING ALOUD: Wouldn't it be something if, by next year, David Letterman, who's moving to CBS, is joined there by both Garry Shandling--who reportedly is being sought to follow him with his own late-night show--and Roseanne Arnold, who has threatened to leave ABC in 1994?

MEETING OF MINDS: Well, let's see: In Fox's new fall sitcom "Daddy Dearest," Richard Lewis plays a divorced psychologist whose father (Don Rickles) moves in with him. And in NBC's new fall sitcom "Frasier," Kelsey Grammer plays a psychiatrist with a broken marriage whose father (John Mahoney) moves in with him. Welcome to TV.

IN THE WINGS: Armistead Maupin's delightful "Tales of the City" is being adapted as a six-hour TV miniseries, with Olympia Dukakis starring as a "colorfully exotic" San Francisco landlady. It is scheduled for airing on PBS next spring but will premiere this fall in England.

BULLETIN BOARD: Milton Berle sits for a two-part interview tonight and Wednesday on NBC's "Later With Bob Costas," following the Letterman show.

NO RUSH: Fox is holding for mid-season a new sitcom called "Monty," starring Henry Winkler as a conservative talk-show host who has a best-selling book. Now there's a novel idea.

RAID: NBC News President Andrew Lack, only briefly in the job, has swiped one of TV's best producers from ABC--David Bohrman, who created the innovative overnight series "World News Now." Bohrman will be the No. 2 executive on Tom Brokaw's nightly NBC news and also handle special events.

BEING THERE: "We stick to the back roads, where Kansas still looks like Kansas and Georgia still looks like Georgia."--CBS' Charles Kuralt, writing of his "On the Road" pieces.

Say good night, Gracie . . .

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