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On The Set : 'Paradise' Found : BOCHCO'S 'BYRDS' PLANTS DRAMA AND HUMOR IN A LUSH SETTING

February 27, 1994|SUSAN ESSOYAN | Susan Essoyan is a Honolulu-based writer and frequent contributor to the Times

HONOLULU — In the shadow of Diamond Head's volcanic crater, Hawaiian actor Ray Bumatai shakes his head as he mutters his lines: "The guy was a real S.O.B."

"Put more feeling into it," prods a producer. Bumatai obliges, so much so that he forgets to abbreviate the expletive.

"Cut!" The camera crew bursts into laughter.

Such language won't make it into the newest television series by Steven Bochco Productions, creator of "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue." Nor will it feature the "buns and guns" that help distinguish those productions. The one-hour family drama "The Byrds of Paradise," premiering this week on ABC, showcases a softer, quieter side of the award-winning Bochco.

"I'm very interested to find out if viewers will, in effect, put their money where their mouths are," Bochco muses later. 'We're all hearing so much about violence and sex and language in TV programming, and the fact that there's nothing for families to look at. Well, here it is. Here's one."

The new show stars Timothy Busfield, of "thirtysomething" fame, as Sam Byrd, a Yale University ethics professor who brings his three children to Hawaii to start a new life after his wife is murdered. The story draws on conflicts inherent in that upheaval: the move, the loss of a parent, growing up with Dad, fitting into a new environment.

"What I like about it is that it doesn't insult your intelligence," says Bochco, executive producer. "We have found a way to be complex without being boring, entertaining without being silly." Unlike earlier Hawaii-based series such as "Magnum, P.I." and "Hawaii Five-0," "The Byrds of Paradise" draws on Hawaii as more than a breathtaking backdrop. Executive producers Charles Eglee and Channing Gibson deftly weave Hawaii's rich culture into their scripts.

The pair, affectionately known as Chick & Chan, spent months getting to know a side of Hawaii few tourists see. They traveled the length of the islands, interviewing such diverse characters as an onion farmer on the tiny island of Molokai and the chief of police on the Big Island of Hawaii.

"Instead of just going around and getting on and off of buses and looking at waterfalls, we got to talk to people that are real people," says Eglee. "Once we got outside the membrane of tourist Hawaii, we found this incredibly fabulous culture in which we can bounce our characters."

The series is set in a rural Hawaiian town, where Sam Byrd has taken a job as the headmaster of a private school. The part seems tailor-made for Busfield, a real-life father of three who considers parenting "a major deal in my life."

"This is a piece I feel very natural in," says Busfield, founder of Fantasy Theatre, the official children's theatre of California. "I feel like it's a place where I can do my best work."

He is the anchor for the show and brings an infectious, goofy spirit to the set. "It's impossible to be in a bad mood around him," says Seth Green, who plays his older son.

Busfield moved his own family to Hawaii for the filming and has high hopes for the series.

"These are real-life problems that I think are universal," he explains during a break between scenes. "It's a real drama with a spin on it, a lot more humor. I think this has the potential to reach a total audience. It's been a while since there's been a 'Bonanza.' I'd like to see parents sitting with their kids, watching the show."

The show features a large ensemble cast, a Bochco trademark. Green, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Ryan Sean O'Donohue play the Byrd children. Elizabeth Lindsey is dean of students, and Arlo Guthrie appears in a recurring role.

Local actors Robert Kekaula and Lani Opunui-Ancheta, the Byrd's housekeepers, give the show a genuine Hawaiian voice--and some only-in-Hawaii touches.

"She's always coming up to me, saying, 'Wear this all day will you?' and sticking little leaves in my pocket," chuckles Busfield, referring to Opunui-Ancheta's efforts to bring the show luck, Hawaiian-style. "In New York, I wouldn't let anybody put something in my pocket. In New York, you don't even talk to people. In L.A., it's, 'Where is my BMW?' Here, you are what you are."

The show is filmed on Oahu, Hawaii's most developed island, so the cast and crew must trek to remote spots to get the exquisite scenery they need. The Byrd family home is set at Kualoa Ranch on the windward side of the island. Its front yard spills into the ocean; its back yard is the verdant, pastoral vista featured in the stampede scene from 'Jurassic Park.'

"My skin tone is better off in London or the Scottish clouds," the redheaded Busfield concedes, "but I love Hawaii. There isn't a person on the Earth who wouldn't love the air here, the trade winds. ... If you're in Michigan, it'll make you feel five degrees warmer just watching the show!"

\o7 "Byrds of Paradise" premieres Thursday at 8 p.m. on ABC.\f7

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