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On View : The Acting Curve : FOUR OF THE 'WINNETKA ROAD' CAST EXPLAIN WHAT LED THEM TO THE SHOW

March 20, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The decision to travel down "Winnetka Road" was an easy one for four of its stars.

Ed Begley Jr. loved the script of the new limited series on NBC. So did Catherine Hicks. Meg Tilly was intrigued with the fact she could be creatively involved. Eddie Bracken was dying to have a TV series experience after working more than 50 years in movies and plays.

The ensemble comedy-drama from producer Aaron Spelling takes a rather tilted, offbeat look at the relationships among young adults and their families in a wealthy Midwestern suburb. Begley's nerd Glenn Barker has left his wife Jeannie (Hicks) and two kids for an aerobics instructor. Tilly's George Grace is a mysterious photographer married to a wealthy older man. And Bracken's Father Burke is a blind priest who dispenses wisdom and comfort to the residents.

"There's no distinction now for me between TV and films," says Begley, who played Dr. Erlich on the Emmy Award-winning series "St. Elsewhere" and is currently appearing in the feature film "Greedy."

"You see Robert Duvall and Anjelica Huston doing TV. You see people of that ilk doing material they think is compelling, whether it is big screen or small screen," he says.

Begley also happens to be friends with the series' creator/co-executive producer John Byrum, who wrote and directed the controversial films "Inserts" and "The Razor's Edge" and was co-creator and executive producer of the CBS series "Middle Ages" and the ill-fated "South of Sunset."

"He's a great writer," Begley says with enthusiasm. "I was just happy to be part of it. It's funny stuff. There's some laughs and some pathos. It dares to be different."

According to Hicks, Jeannie and Glenn are based on Byrum and his ex-wife. "His expression comes through us," Hicks says. "He is friends with his ex-wife, that's why he writes it well and it's funny."

Ten years ago, Byrum directed Hicks in "The Razor's Edge," which starred Bill Murray. Hicks recalls that she didn't think Byrum liked her.

"It was my first film, so I was very nervous," she says. "I think they just pitied me, so I was surprised when he, through my agents, insisted I come in (to audition). I'm sure he didn't write her for me, but I was very much on his mind. He rooted for me to get the role. Even these days, if you are good you need someone rooting for you because it's not only on merit. There are so many people looking for work."

"Winnetka Road" marks Tilly's first TV series. The lithe actress received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for the 1985 film "Agnes of God" and also has appeared in "The Big Chill" and "The Two Jakes."

Tilly, who doesn't even own a TV, wasn't looking to do a series. "People would say to me, 'Oh, you don't want to do (TV).' I had been offered quite a few. But they offered me this one and I really liked the script. I heard that John Byrum was a real great guy to work with."

She met with the producers at lunch and was impressed with Byrum. "John started saying, 'How I work is that I really like for actors to be creatively involved. If you have any ideas, I will incorporate them into the stories.' I was sitting there listening to him and thought, 'Why hasn't anybody told me about TV before?' It's so weird. You just accept these things that people tell you you don't want to do. You are like, 'Wait a minute, this sounds great.' It was great."

Tilly, whose first novel, "Singing Songs," will be published this June by Dutton, even got to write the fourth episode. "I'm really grateful. John was like, 'Wow. Give me your ideas.' So I started writing down all of these ideas so I couldn't forget them and he said, 'Why don't you write a script?' So I wrote a script. He was so encouraging."

Bracken's daughter encouraged her famous father to accept the role of Father Burke. "When the opportunity came up to do 'Winnetka Road,' my daughter was living in Winnetka. Ill. When she heard about it, she said, 'Oh, you have got to take the part.' "

And Bracken wanted to do a TV series. Though the actor has starred in some of the greatest movies ever made, including Preston Sturges' "The Miracle at Morgan's Creek" and "Hail the Conquering Hero," he had never been a regular on a TV show.

But most of all, Bracken was intrigued with the idea of working for Spelling. Back in the late '40s, Sturges opened a restaurant-dinner theater in Hollywood called The Players. "We did 'Room Service' there," Bracken recalls. "I played it for 18 weeks for nothing, just so Sturges could catch up on some of the debts he had. I was doing a couple of pictures at the time, so I had to back out. So as a result, we had to put on a new show and a young lad came in with his girlfriend. He was a stage manager and he wanted to do 'Quonset Hut,' which was Garson Kanin's play. Sturges and I agreed that it would be a good show to do. That was the beginning of a guy named Aaron Spelling."

When Bracken met with Spelling about his part, he wasn't even sure the man behind "Dynasty," "The Mod Squad," "Charlie's Angels," "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place" would remember The Players. But, Bracken reports, "The greeting was just wonderful. He called me his hero and said, 'We will argue about the money, but the part is yours if you want it.' "

"Winnetka Road" airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. on NBC (preempted this week).

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