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Danson With Lilliputians : NBC VERSION OF JONATHAN SWIFT'S SATIRE EXPLORES ALL OF ITS CHAPTERS--FROM LIFE IN FARAWAY LANDS TO TROUBLE BACK HOME

February 04, 1996|NANCY MILLS | Nancy Mills is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles

LONDON — His tangled brown hair hanging past his shoulders and his clothes mussed and dirty, Ted Danson is hiding in an English stable. He has a crazed look in his eyes, no doubt put there by the eight strange years that his character, shipwrecked doctor Lemuel Gulliver, has spent in Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, and the land of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos.

Peering out between the legs of a horse, Danson sees a lantern and then the woman carrying it, Gulliver's wife (played by Danson's real wife, Mary Steenburgen). At first he is afraid to speak to her. Is he really back home in England, or is this just another of his hallucinations?

NBC's two-part movie of Jonathan Swift's adventure-satire "Gulliver's Travels," which airs Sunday and Monday, may be the role that allows Danson to move beyond his insouciant "Cheers" image. "It's an incredibly brilliant script," he says. "That's what drew people of this caliber--Mary Steenburgen, Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Alfre Woodard, James Fox--not my name. I wouldn't work with me if the material wasn't any good."

Tugging at his breeches, he despairs of Gulliver's plight. "Poor old Gulliver! I'm only a third of the way through his journey, and boy, does he get put through the mill. He's always being victimized. He wasn't the happiest of men. This isn't a light and cheery story."

But it's a colorful one. Shot in Portugal and England, this version of "Gulliver's Travels" presents the entire book, not just the best-known Part 1, which is set in Lilliput. "The spirit is as close to the wild humor of the book as we could make it," says producer Duncan Kenworthy, the man behind the surprise film hit "Four Weddings and a Funeral."

Swift wrote about talking horses (Houyhnhnms), an immortal people (The Struldbruggs), a flying island kept in the air by magnetism and a sorcerer who can conjure up historical figures. Although some think of the book as a children's adventure, it is "a dark, biting examination of humankind," says Simon Moore, who adapted the story for television. "The targets of Swift's satire--our pomposity, our blind belief in law and social standing, our dependence on military might and government institutions--are just as relevant today as they've ever been.'

Although in the novel Gulliver is an Englishman, "We cast Ted because the most important thing with Gulliver is that he be an Everyman," Kenworthy says. "We didn't want him to have an English accent. He's an outsider. We needed Ted's qualities. He's fantastically sympathetic and likable and has a sense of innocence about him."

Adds Danson: "Sam Malone was an Everyman. So's Gulliver. My job is taking the audience by the hand and saying, 'Come with me. I'm like you. Let me show you these bizarre things.' I don't threaten people. I often think it's much more interesting to be threatening, angry and dark, but I don't do that. I tend to want people to be at ease.'

Written in 1726, Swift's book presented Gulliver's adventures in episodic form, somewhat as a travelogue. The NBC movie, on the other hand, presents his adventures as flashbacks, with Gulliver as the storyteller. "I arrive babbling about Lilliputians and giants and am obviously quite insane," Danson says. "My house and medical practice have been taken over by Dr. Bates [Fox], and he's in love with my wife.

"She keeps hoping Gulliver is still alive. Mostly out of his desire to win Mary over, Dr. Bates has me committed to Bedlam Hospital. My attempts to prove my sanity are interwoven among my memories of the different lands.

"Swift wrote about bedlam, and he himself ended up in bedlam, mentally ill. At the end of the book, it's very doubtful whether Gulliver will reenter society," Danson says. "In our project, we end on a note that he will. Also, if you have a boy and a girl, you must do boy-girl or it's very unrewarding.'

There is no romantic plot line in "Gulliver's Travels," although there is a strong love between the Gullivers, which gives them both the courage to deal with his long absence and eventual hospital confinement.

"They haven't romanced the hell out of the piece," Steenburgen says. "I think the script has been hugely respectful of the book."

Searching for similarities between herself and Mary Gulliver, Steenburgen explains, "I've also come to a point in my life where I've resented people who make unkind judgments about others. It's very prevalent now--pointing and name-calling. I especially responded to the journey Mary goes through and how she finds her voice in his defense. I do think you spend your life finding your voice. As someone raised in the South, I had a lot of caution about being seen and not heard."

Danson and Steenburgen married shortly after the completion of "Gulliver." Of their life together, Danson says, "It's a great dance. Mary's masculine side and my feminine side get along fantastically and vice versa. We both like wearing pants, and we both get a thrill out of a garter belt once in awhile. I'm wearing a garter belt right now, by the way. It's very hard to hold up these [18th-century] stockings without one."

"Gulliver's Travels" airs Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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