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On View : The Parent Clash : ABC'S 'THUNDER ALLEY' MINES LAUGHS OUT OF A GENERATION GAP

March 13, 1994|TED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A gruff but lovable grandpa, his daughter and her three sometimes-sassy kids all live under one roof in the new sitcom "Thunder Alley," but star Ed Asner insists the show won't get too cute.

As Lou Grant might say, "I hate cute."

"I hope to be the first one to throw up if it gets that way," says Asner.

As retired stock car racer Gil Jones, he spars with his divorced daughter Bobbi (Diane Venora) when she moves in with her three tykes (Kelly Vint, Lindsay Felton and Haley Joel Osment).

It might sound like family sitcom formula, but the show's creators (the team behind the mega-hit "Home Improvement") insist they are breaking the mold by pitting baby boom parenting vs. its 1990s counterpart. With kids, Gil lays down the law, no questions asked, while Bobbi shows compassion and understanding.

"Kids and parenting seem to be a central obsession of the '90s," says Matt Williams, the fortysomething executive producer of the show along with David McFadzean and Carmen Finestra. "There are worlds of differences in how we raised our kids and how our parents raised us. This seems like rich territory that I don't think gets explored in a sitcom."

To start off, they didn't want a grandfather who dotters in a rocking chair and sounds like a crank.

So they looked to aging Indianapolis stock car racers Al Unser and Johnny Rutherford. Williams and the other producers visited them last summer.

"They all said that stock car racers were the most egotistical guys on Earth," Williams says. "Johnny Rutherford said, 'We honestly believe we can do anything.' "

Likewise, Gil will enjoy the occasional thrill, and he will still interact with racers as the owner of Thunder Alley Garage, a repair shop for sports vehicles.

"He will be a vital, honest and sexy character," Williams says. "We love the idea of this guy as a sex symbol."

When it came to finding their Gil, however, the list was short. It had to be a guy who was comfortable with kids. James Garner, who sped around in a Firebird on "The Rockford Files," was offered the part but turned it down.

"He was upfront: He didn't know if he wanted to do a series with a bunch of kids in front of a live audience," Williams says.

Asner also was on their short list. With "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Lou Grant" under his belt, he had no regrets taking the part.

"It's funny because of the way I drive," Asner says. "According to most people, if I became a stock car racer, I'd be dead. But that's show biz."

He didn't have trouble slipping into the role. Asner describes Gil Jones as a "touch of (Jackie) Gleason, a touch of Lou Grant, with wit and sensitivity."

"He's a more down-home boy (than Lou Grant)," he says. "But Lou Grant always talked to the jocks and was seen with them. Gil Jones is the ex-jock ... Lou Grant risked death for the Army in Europe, Gil Jones did it for a living."

So far, Asner likes the show's wit. Among Gil's words of wisdom to his daughter: "Parenting is not fun. Betting your will against theirs. And remember, they're waiting for you to die, and you're waiting for them to move out."

It's dialogue the 64-year-old actor hopes will come to match the quality of his previous shows. He won three Emmys for playing Lou Grant on CBS' "Mary Tyler Moore" in the 1970s. He won two more Emmys after he continued the role on the same network in the hourlong drama "Lou Grant," from 1977 to 1982.

But he says he lost roles in the early 1980s. Asner believes network executives axed "Lou Grant" because of his politically charged tenure as president of the Screen Actors Guild and his opposition to U.S. policy in El Salvador. He believes that producers became skittish about hiring him.

"There certainly was not an organized blacklist on me," he says. "It was just gut reaction and cowardice."

His worked picked up in recent years, with a starring role for a season on "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill" and a recurring role on "Hearts Afire." But he still bristles when people think he was a rabble-rouser.

"There's nothing I hate more than people coming up to me now and saying, 'Hey Ed, staying out of trouble?' "

Producers and actors on "Thunder Alley" don't care about his politics. On the set, Asner is the old pro.

"Ed knows it in his sleep," says Jim Beaver, who plays Leland, Gil's eccentric chief mechanic, who carries a pet rat on his shoulder. "He's an angel, an absolute professional."

Venora, whose credits are primarily in stage and film, looked to Asner for help to adjust to the fast pace of a sitcom. "Thunder Alley" is Venora's first major role after she cut her workload for several years to raise her daughter, now 14. Although a single parent herself, Venora says she's not 100% like her character on the show.

"You'll see parents (like Bobbi) at shopping malls, where their child will say, 'I don't want to leave' and they will say, 'Well, let's talk about it.' I would just pick up the child and go."

On the show, the battle of the generations most times will be a draw, Venora says. Just not without some chuckles. And, with the kids there, is it really possible not to go warm and cuddly?

"There will be people out there who say it's too cute already," Asner says. "How mean can you be seen in contrast to the kids? But it's ... inching your way forward in creating the mold. Practice makes perfect."

"Thunder Alley" airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.

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