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A Writer's Days of Reckoning : David McFadzean, co-creator of 'Home Improvement,' experiences self improvement as he gives back to the Christian theater that gave him a start.

November 05, 1995|Nancy Churnin | Nancy Churnin is a free - lance writer based in San Diego

CORONADO — They say you can't go home again. But try telling that to David McFadzean, who comes back again and again, if only to take an inventory of where and how it all began.

The executive producer and co-creator of the hit TV show "Home Improvement" returned to his roots only last month for the opening of his world premiere adaptation of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

McFadzean's roots are here, in the footlights of Lamb's Players Theatre, a Christian theater troupe for which he wrote six plays that served as the launching pad for a TV-writing career on "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement."

"I was the stone," he said gratefully of Lamb's. "And they were the chiselers."

McFadzean, 48, who now lives in La Can~ada Flintridge, was barely above the poverty line in 1979 when he drove his '56 Ford Galaxy to Lamb's original home in the San Diego suburb of National City--only to have his brakes give out on arrival, as if an omen of things to come.

Like other members of the company in its fledgling days, he and his then-pregnant wife, Liz, were expected to raise living expenses entirely from donors. It added up to a shaky $300 a month, $175 of which went toward a one-bedroom efficiency.

Now, McFadzean has become Lamb's benefactor, having recently donated $350,000--the theater's largest single gift--to help renovate a handsome 348-seat stage in downtown Coronado as the company's new resident home.

Sitting in a coffee shop adjacent to the theater, just a few blocks down from the Hotel Del Coronado, McFadzean talked about the pain and the joy of his formative years at Lamb's--and why he keeps returning over the years: sometimes to offer a new play; once, a few years ago, to direct.

'T o join Lamb's Players in those days, you had to be crazy," recalled Robert Smyth, the company's artistic director and one of McFadzean's best friends. "There wasn't money. From month to month you weren't sure how you would put food on the table. But it was a group of people with a vision."

McFadzean's Christian beliefs allowed him not only to fit in with the company--it's a force that drives him still, he said--but also to weather what came to be the greatest crisis of his and his wife's young marriage.

Having joined the company in September, 1979, David and Liz McFadzean suffered heartbreak only three months later, when the baby she was carrying--their first child--was born dead. (The couple have since had a son and daughter.)

"You sit there as a Christian," McFadzean said, "praying, 'Lazarus, wake up.' . . . It changes you forever."

The experience inspired his first full-length play--his first adaptation of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (the current show is yet another adaptation)--because of the novel's themes of tragic loss and undying love.

The unflagging emotional support the McFadzeans received from their corps of friends at Lamb's bonded the couple as much to the company as to one another, the playwright said. And it remains, as much as any creative link, what makes the couple think of the theater as a warm extended family.

After six years at Lamb's, McFadzean took a teaching job at Judson College in Elgin, Ill., largely to carve out more time to write.

The next year, McFadzean's former college roommate and now co-producer, Matt Williams, who had seen independent productions of two plays McFadzean premiered at Lamb's--"Oklahoma Rigs" at the Kennedy Center and "Deep River" in New York--called to tell him he was writing a pilot and would like him to take a look at it.

The pilot was the fabulously successful "Roseanne," and despite McFadzean's lack of television experience, he was the first person Williams hired for his staff. A year later, they formed Wind Dancer Productions along with writer Carmen Finestra.

"I tend to get a lot of the focus and the limelight for the company," Williams said. "But I cannot emphasize enough that I wouldn't be, and Wind Dancer wouldn't be, half as successful without David. And when we brought in Carmen, it cemented the mix. Every idea is bounced off David, run by David. My true anchor and right hand is David McFadzean."

For Williams, McFadzean's strengths are both personal and professional. As a writer, McFadzean has the professorial voice that keeps asking if the story lines make sense. As a friend, Williams calls him the kind of person he can count on to "guard my flank."

"When the building is on fire, you want him next to you," Williams said. "He is one of the most moral and honest people on Earth. His spiritual base comes out as a rudder. When you sit down with him, he will say, 'Is this fair?' That doesn't mean that he can't wrestle dark and difficult subjects. But the key is to say things with humor and humanity and a great story."

Of course, no guard could forestall a showdown between producer and star on the set of "Roseanne." Both McFadzean and Williams left the show after 13 episodes, their departure blamed on creative differences with the temperamental actress who inhabits the title role.

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