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Neil Simon's Suite Deal

With a hand from Kelsey Grammer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and other network stars, the writer checks in again with 'London Suite'--as a TV movie.

June 16, 1996|David Gritten | David Gritten is a regular contributor to Calendar

LONDON — With a film crew crouched round her, Julia Louis-Dreyfus sits alone at a table in a hotel bar. As cameras roll, she starts fishing an olive from her drink with a cocktail stick. Behind her, through a window, traffic hurtles down Park Lane, on the eastern edge of Hyde Park.

At last she extricates the olive, but drops it on the carpeted floor. Horrified, she searches frantically for it beneath the table. "Aaaaaaand cut," director Jay Sandrich says as everyone chuckles at Louis-Dreyfus' antics.

This will be a scene in Neil Simon's "London Suite," a two-hour TV film from NBC comprising four separate but intercut stories--in the vein of Simon's stage play "Plaza Suite" and his film "California Suite." They all take place in a 24-hour period in various suites in a London hotel. The film will air during this year's November ratings sweeps, and features several of the network's biggest series stars: Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards from "Seinfeld," Kelsey Grammer from "Frasier" and Jonathan Silverman of "The Single Guy."

The Louis-Dreyfus scene may be a tiny piece of physical comedy, but there's a significant element in it. It's not the olive, nor the cocktail stick. It's the cars behind her, which are real traffic, not stock footage.

And this bar isn't some replica of a London watering hole, realized by a cunning set designer. It really is a hotel bar: the Terrace Room of the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane. With 453 bedrooms and 142 apartments, the Grosvenor House is one of the biggest hotels in London.

For an entire month, the cast and crew of "London Suite" have commandeered parts of the Grosvenor House to shoot the film, as well as going out into London to shoot exteriors. Viewers can expect to see scenes shot at genuine locations including Horse Guards Parade, Heathrow Airport and Bond Street (arguably London's upscale shopping mecca).

"I like the smell of real things," said "London Suite" producer Robert Halmi Sr. "This is a real hotel. People are walking through the lobby. It feels unique. Even the best designers can't make a sound stage more real. If there's a scene with a London cabdriver, you can't fake a character like that. It's best to get the real London, so I always wanted to shoot here."

Halmi, the producer who has helped bring prestigious, big-budget fare such as "Gulliver's Travels," "Lonesome Dove" and "Gypsy" to network TV, approached NBC with the idea that Simon should adapt his stage play "London Suite" for television, with NBC series stars in key roles.

"It was an easy sale," said the Hungarian-born Halmi, who does not hide behind false modesty. "My reputation in the business is pretty solid, and when I suggest something, people are sometimes scared to turn it down. Things like 'Gulliver's Travels' are event television, not run-of-the-mill movies of the week. I don't do those. So people pay attention to me. And in this case, Neil Simon and this cast created an attractive package."

*

Well--yes and no. It's certainly true that Halmi has a splendid track record for creating television events that a large proportion of Nielsen families want to see. It's equally true that no American playwright in recent years can touch Simon's ability for writing commercial and critical hits; he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for his play "Lost in Yonkers."

Yet there is some risk involved. Simon has had a series of setbacks lately; his "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" and the musical version of his play "The Goodbye Girl" failed to take Broadway by storm. "London Suite" itself was the subject of controversy last year when Simon opted to open it off-Broadway; when it did open, critics were less than enthralled and it ran for only six months. At the time, Simon called it "a questionable play."

It's also the case that Simon's name does not necessarily strike a chord with a mass TV audience. His TV adaptation of his play "Jake's Women," starring Alan Alda on CBS, was warmly received by reviewers, but failed to deliver ratings gold last March. The same network has delayed the transmission of another adapted Simon play, "The Sunshine Boys," with Woody Allen and Peter Falk, which is now scheduled to air this fall.

"Yeah, I know," Halmi said. "It's unique to take a play which didn't work on stage and do it different for TV."

The phrase "do it different" is understatement. Simon, who was on the set here for all but two days of the monthlong shoot, actually ditched one of the four stories that was in the stage version of "London Suite" and wrote another for the TV film, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus in mind.

"We did the play in Seattle and it was received well," Simon recalled. "But in New York, one of the four pieces didn't work so well. It was about a businessman who absconds with a writer-client's money.

"They didn't laugh at it off-Broadway and, while some of the other pieces went well, what happened was I was rewriting under pressure. We had a week of previews, so I didn't have time to write another story.

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