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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : 'Mad About You' claims John Pankow as a cousin ready to go the distance


Devoted fans of "Mad About You" are fond of personally identifying with the hit sitcom's symbiotic couple, Paul and Jamie Buchman--but how many of them have their own Cousin Ira?

John Pankow's role as the single New Yorker musician-on-the-prowl gives Paul Reiser's character a comedic confidante, providing an edge to the comfortably edgy Buchman banter.

Danny Jacobson, the NBC show's executive producer and co-creator, says that he was looking for Ira to be Paul's best friend, but with a brotherly feel. Ira didn't exist, Jacobson points out, until midway into the first season, when Jamie says to Paul: "Let's talk about your cousin Ira's band at our wedding." Ira was born.

Says Pankow of the musician who never seems to get gigs: "He tends to think he's as cool as the Fonz, but (he) is as deluded as Barney Fife. There's no malice in that man, though. I find that appealing, since I am as malicious as the day is long."

Pankow says he knows exactly why "Mad About You," which is airing its second-season repeats this summer, often wins the ratings war with "The Simpsons" in the 8 p.m. Thursday time slot.

"It's because the relationship between Paul and Jamie Buchman (Helen Hunt) is such a universal one. That's why it's not unusual, he adds, for fans to tell him that their relationship is just like the Buchmans.

At Pankow's "Mad About You" audition, he played a scene without a script opposite Reiser, who is also an executive producer. "We just worked a scene out together as we went along," he explains. "From the very beginning, as soon as I met him, I just feel a real kinship with him. It's not like we hang out off the set, but we're crazy about each other. It's very familial working for him. I know that sounds mushy, but it's true."

After guesting on the latter part of the first season, he was made a regular last fall for the second season.

"John's one of these actors who, the more you give him, the more you want to give him," says Jacobson. "Everytime he walks in the door, the actors love him and the audience loves him. He plays this single guy as a real guy. He does a scene as gracefully as Roberto Clemente used to throw someone out at home plate. It's such a capable cast. There's little they can't deliver. And John, he really, really likes the work."

Pankow considers it all a blessing. "I gotta tell you," he says. "Having been on my share of sets, this one is almost without stress. There's a lot of harmony and you go to work and you laugh a lot and you have a good time. This is a show you absolutely don't have to apologize for."

He's so fulfilled by it, he adds, that he's about to try his hand at writing. "I'd like to write," he says. "Maybe not for the show, but for myself. I just want to see what I come up with and bang out a couple of spec (sample) scripts, that, if they're really worthy, maybe I'll just submit them."

Pankow was born in St. Louis and raised in Chicago, one of nine children. He always wanted to be an actor. Trained at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and the St. Nicholas Theatre, he starred as Mozart on Broadway in "Amadeus" and was in "The Iceman Cometh" and "Serious Money." In 1985, he won his first screen role in "To Live and Die in L.A." More feature and television roles followed, including a recurring role as a Manhattan neighbor to Blair Brown on "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd."

"Mad About You's" schedule has allowed Pankow to spend time and travel extensively with his wife, Kristine Sutherland, also an actor, and his daughter, Eleanore, 3. Last month, he spent two weeks shooting "Cop Land" at the Sundance James Mangold June Film Lab at the Sundance Film Institute. Currently on a road trip on the East Coast with wife and daughter, next month he returns to Los Angeles for "Mad About You's" third season.

Pankow says he's "heard talk of Ira taking over (his father's) sporting goods store, which might be interesting, but I'd like to see Ira with his band again." Maybe he will.

"Mad About You" airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on NBC.

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