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Some Changes in the 'Promised Land'

Television: As the series moves to a new time slot opposite 'Friends,' and the show gears up for new plot twists, star Gerald McRaney is optimistic about its success.

October 16, 1997|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If it wasn't for the air-conditioning going full blast in the narrow trailer at the Raleigh Studio lot in Hollywood, interviewing Gerald McRaney would be somewhat of a strain. There is a lot of smoke in the air.

In khaki bush jacket and jeans, the strapping actor with sandy hair, sea-blue eyes, long legs and deep baritone seems the embodiment of a latter-day Marlboro Man. He's also puffing away, a pack of Marlboros at his fingertips.

It's not quite the image one has of Russell Greene, the stalwart, do-the-right-thing family man he plays on CBS' "Promised Land," but then McRaney does not defend his habit. Nor does this well-known Republican, who campaigned for George Bush in 1992 and introduced Marilyn Quayle at the GOP convention that summer, denigrate anti-tobacco attitudes as being, well, politically correct.

"I'm addicted to the stupid things," McRaney says a bit sheepishly, then changes tone: "Was that the silliest thing you ever heard in your life? Those [tobacco executives] getting up before Congress and saying, 'Oh no, cigarettes are not addictive.' Please. Give me a break."

With the second season of "Promised Land" well underway in Salt Lake City, it's a rare appearance here for McRaney, who's doing promotional spots for the network. "I'll get to say 'Thursday' a lot," he quips. He insists he feels good about the show's new time slot, despite having to go up against NBC's "Friends" for the first half-hour.

"Back when I was doing 'Simon & Simon,' that was our night," he says easily. "I think there are enough people out there who want to watch something else and will tune us in."

McRaney may be right. In its first episode Sept. 25, "Promised Land" ranked 20th for the week, its highest rating ever. It has since dropped back to the mid-30s, but that is still better than the 58th it finished last season, when it aired on Tuesdays.

Created by executive producer Martha Williamson, who had been asked by CBS to do a series of her own after her success with the late-blooming "Touched by an Angel," "Promised Land" is an ode to and odyssey about family, community and country. It also has a strong moral and spiritual core.

With his family--wife Claire (Wendy Phillips), teenage son Joshua (Austin O'Brien), daughter Dinah (Sarah Schaub), mother Hattie (Celeste Holm) and nephew Nathaniel (Eddie Karr)--Greene has been on the road for a year now in an Airstream trailer, having been downsized out of a management job at a furniture factory.

Last week, the drama took on a new dimension when Claire told Russell that she is pregnant.

McRaney--who has been married to actress Delta Burke since 1989, and has three children from two previous marriages--says he was drawn to "Promised Land" because it's "about ordinary people. About a family of people sort of down on their luck, who hang together and have faith. And I hadn't seen any of that, on television, since I was a kid."

It was as Rick Simon, the cut-up older brother to Jameson Parker's conservative, clean-cut A.J. in the CBS light detective series "Simon & Simon" (1981-88), that McRaney made his TV mark. He then segued to the title role in the sitcom "Major Dad" (1989-93), as a Marine officer married to a liberal reporter and widowed mother of three young daughters.

Russell Greene, McRaney offers, is "like most people I meet. I travel the country a lot on my own time. Delta and I like to just pack up the car and on a whim, go somewhere. . . ." That's right, the car, he says, then quips: "If I had an Airstream trailer, she'd bring that much more luggage.

"Russell's not heroic, he's not vastly holy," McRaney continues. "He's just an ordinary, decent guy who's trying his best and loves his family and would rather be part of the solution than part of the problem. No big to-do about it. Just, 'Here I am. Somebody's got to do something. Might as well be me.' "

Says producer Williamson of McRaney: "He's clearly already brought the strong male force [to the role], but where Mac shines for me is when he's vulnerable--when he puts down the tough-guy image. . . . And Gerald has sitcom background. [Few] realize what a brilliantly comedic body language he has. He is a master of reaction."

With the economy booming now, Russell might have landed a job--and undermined "Promised Land's" premise. But as McRaney explains of the characters, "they have come to the conclusion that with their little piece of bad luck, there are other things to life besides the house with the roof on it."

Such as? "The value of your neighbors. They can be anywhere--from Mississippi," where McRaney was born and raised, "to Idaho." Being a Republican in Hollywood, McRaney insists, has not given him any grief. "The people who operate individually in this industry tend to have a liberal point of view. But I don't think any of the bankers who fund the industry care what your politics are as long as you make money for them."

But don't typecast McRaney. He's a staunch supporter of the National Rifle Assn. and its anti-gun control stance, has done public-service spots for it and would do so again. He's "virulently anti-abortion" but also "very pro-choice. I'm against it for any relationship that I might ever be in, but I would not take away a woman's right to have that option."

He reveals that backstage at the 1992 GOP convention, he told Marilyn Quayle that he thought that Vice President Dan Quayle went after the wrong character when he attacked the fictional Murphy Brown for having a baby as a single mother. "Here's this woman who decided to do the right thing, to have the baby and bring it up right. What about [the man] who took a powder?"

But Russell Greene, notes McRaney, is "probably about as apolitical as you can get."

* "Promised Land" airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on CBS (Channel 2).

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