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Absolutely 'Cybill' : SHEPHERD'S NEW SERIES IS BUILT AROUND AN ACTRESS WHO COULD BE HER

January 08, 1995|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If fall is the time for networks to learn their lessons, winter is the season to make a few repairs.

That may involve a production company abandoning ship ("Blue Skies") for "A Whole New Ballgame" on ABC, keeping some of the cast intact and bringing on a star name. Or starting over from scratch, banking on familiar faces: There's Delta Burke on CBS reviving an old character in a new city ("Women of the House") and Cybill Shepherd on the same network trying something fresh and personal in "Cybill." And look, isn't that Eldin from "Murphy Brown" mixing it up with Generation X'ers as the owner of a bike messenger service in Manhattan ("Double Rush")?

If you're the adventurous Fox network, though, you go beyond retro for a refigured Sunday night and introduce "Get Smart"--with the same Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 playing their real age.

Over the next three pages is a look at three shows that arose from the midseason shuffle.

It's been a long day for Cybill Shepherd on the set of her new CBS comedy series, aptly titled "Cybill," which bowed last Monday after "Murphy Brown."

Shepherd, 44, is lying down in her trailer, stifling several yawns. She's been rehearsing as well as filming for the better part of the day. And, in less than three hours, she'll be filming in front of a studio audience.

"Last time we did a show we went until 2 in the morning," she says, with yet another yawn.

It's been 10 years since Shepherd, who is executive producer of "Cybill," teamed with then-newcomer Bruce Willis in the innovative ABC detective series "Moonlighting."

'Cybill" creator and executive producer Chuck Lorre ("Grace Under Fire") hopes Shepherd's new series also will push the conventions of the genre.

"I am hoping to create a show that is appointment television, something I would want to run home and see and hope the audience agrees," he says.

The slightly naughty, bawdy comedy finds Shepherd playing 40ish Cybill Sheridan, a working actress in Los Angeles. She's been divorced twice and is the mother of two daughters. Tom Wopat plays hubby No. 1, professional stuntman Jeff Robbins. Dedee Pfeiffer (Michelle's younger sister), is oldest daughter Rachel, who is conservative, married and pregnant.

Alan Rosenberg ("Civil Wars," "L.A. Law") plays ex-spouse Ira Woodbine, a neurotic novelist; Alicia Witt plays their brooding 16-year-old daughter, Zoey. Christine Baranski rounds out the cast as Cybill's best friend, Maryann, a rich divorcee and alumna of the Betty Ford Clinic. Several popular movie and TV stars also will be making cameos in the show.

Executive producer Jay Daniel, who worked with Shepherd for four years on "Moonlighting" and with Roseanne for five years on "Roseanne," contacted Shepherd about returning to series TV.

"I saw Candice Bergen accepting an Emmy and thought, 'Why isn't Cybill back on TV in a series? She should be.' " So he called her and pitched the twice-divorced mother of three the idea of doing a sitcom based somewhat on her own life. "Because a 40ish career woman, two ex-husbands, a teen-age daughter who is heading down the road to womanhood, there is gold to be mined there," Daniel says.

Shepherd says she had been approached by CBS about four years ago to do a series, but wasn't ready to return to a weekly show. Daniel's concept, though, interested her.

"The idea of trying to do something that hasn't been seen before and dealing with issues of aging and a woman being in her prime, feeling really that you are at your peak and the best in your life," Shepherd says. "But in our culture women are not treated like this.

The two worked on the concept and took the idea to ABC, CBS and NBC. "We actually got a commitment from all three networks for 13 episodes," Daniel says. They ended up with Carsey-Warner Company ("The Cosby Show," "Roseanne," "Grace Under Fire").

Once Shepherd and Daniel hooked up with executive producers Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach, Chuck Lorre came on aboard to create the show.

Lorre was intrigued with making Cybill an actress but not a star. "I thought Los Angeles would be a great place to put it because it is an incredibly exciting city," Lorre says. "I thought it would be a character in the show. The city could peak through the curtain every once in awhile. I didn't want to make fun of L.A."

Nor did he want to make the series too "Hollywood" for audiences. "I tried to reassure everybody that the show would not be about show business," Lorre says. "It is about a woman who is in show business, but it is about her friends and her husbands and her love affairs and raising her children. The universal theme is 'Oh, God. I am going to be a grandmother.' Not, 'I am having trouble finding an agent.' "

Lorre's main job was to make sure he captured Shepherd's own voice for Cybill. "She is an incredible lady," he says. "She's vibrant, exciting and she has her own mind. She let me spend time with her during the summer. I just tried to write a character that would really fit her like a glove."

Shepherd feels a real kinship with the small-screen Cybill. "I've had a great good fortune," she says. "I don't want to diminish the fact I've worked very hard and tried my utmost to be ready for the opportunities when they came knocking. But two things happened in my career that didn't happen to my character: one is 'The Last Picture Show' and the other is 'Moonlighting.'

"I know what it is like to be Cybill Sheridan. I did the second guest-starring role on a 'Fantasy Island'. There was a period in my life before 'Moonlighting' that the only job I could get was regional theater. I know what the rejection is like because you never stop being rejected in this business."

Lorre believes "the audience is going to fall in love with her all over again just like they did in 'Moonlighting.' It is easy to fall in love with Cybill Shepherd. She is a nice lady."

"Cybill" airs Mondays at 9:30 p.m on CBS.

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