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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

This Time, 'The Defenders' Will Hold Court on Showtime

September 01, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG

From "Marty," "Days of Wine and Roses" and "Dragnet" to "Mission: Impossible" and the just-released "Leave It to Beaver," theatrical movies have been doing television for decades.

So it's only appropriate that TV should copy TV too.

In a sense, it's done just that, cannibalizing itself through the years like no other entertainment medium. "The Fugitive," starring Harrison Ford, for example, was a successful feature-film remake of Quinn Martin's ABC hit of the 1960s that itself became a prototype for scores of man-on-the-lam series.

Now it's Showtime, in association with Paramount, making some of us happy by again drawing on the past with a series of movies reinventing that scintillating old CBS legal series, "The Defenders"--with E.G. Marshall, now 87, reprising the idealistic attorney he introduced in 1961. This time, though, no love interest.

"The Fugitive" gave life to a concept that will surely resonate on TV into the next millennium. How curious that Reginald Rose's "The Defenders," which arrived as a regular series just two years before "The Fugitive," resonated so fleetingly. And no one quite knows why.

Although widely celebrated, and enormously bold and cutting-edge on legal and moral issues for its time, "The Defenders" seems to have quietly vanished from the U.S. airwaves after ending its prime-time run in 1965. While "The Fugitive," "Mission: Impossible" and other classic series ultimately headed for long, fruitful runs in syndication, "The Defenders" essentially retired to storage.

"These 132 hours of television were sitting in the vaults back East some place," said Stan Rogow, executive producer for the Showtime "Defenders" movies--the first of which airs Oct. 12. A second one has also been shot, Rogow said, and scripts are being written for two more.

An attorney himself, Rogow said that "The Defenders" is "the show that made me go to law school." He had been asking for years, "Why can't we make 'The Defenders?' " only to be told there was a "rights problem." As it turned out, Paramount, where Rogow had a TV development deal, held three-sevenths of the TV rights, he said, with Rose, the show's creator, retaining the balance.

Rose, who lives in Connecticut, is no stranger to Showtime: A successful new version of his durable play, "12 Angry Men," ran on the pay-cable network two weeks ago. He is listed as a co-writer and consultant for Showtime's "The Defenders."

Although Showtime liked the notion of "The Defenders" as a sort of TV-movie franchise, Rogow said he was turned down by the major networks when he pitched it to them as a new series. Still in their minds, apparently, were the O.J. Simpson case and lingering public attitudes about the law and defense attorneys.

"No one was interested because it was about a defense lawyer," said Rogow. "It was the networks' perception that the public wanted to see shows about people being put behind bars."

What has the United States been missing all these years? When it comes to "The Defenders" series, something quite special.

It began as a Rose-written play on "Studio One" in 1957, and, when turned into a series four years later, still retained an aura recalling TV anthologies of that era. "The writers and the actors were all people in New York at that time doing 'Studio One' and 'Playhouse 90,' " said Rogow. "It had a stature and tone to it, and nothing like that is done anymore."

Not quite like that, anyway, even though today's prime time has no shortage of quality legal series, led by NBC's "Law & Order."

"The Defenders," though, was about a small law firm consisting of the widowed veteran Lawrence Preston (Marshall) and his son, Kenneth, a recent law school graduate, played by Robert Reed. With Reed now dead, Beau Bridges assumes second chair in the Showtime movies as Preston's younger son, and Martha Plimpton is the firm's third member, playing Kenneth's daughter, a former prosecutor.

They have a lot to live up to. There were no shiny suits in the original. Instead, both Prestons wore their ethics proudly and had high principles.

The casts often included actors who went on to become big stars, and the scripts were personalized and intimate. In addition, what distinguished "The Defenders" was its courage in embracing a range of controversial topics--from abortion, mercy killing and political blacklisting--rarely addressed by the timid TV entertainment of that age.

What's more, their cases sometimes ended as ambiguously as issues do in life. And unlike Perry Mason, the Prestons were fallible in the courtroom, losing on more than one occasion.

"I remember one episode," said Rogow, "that started with Dustin Hoffman throwing a ball against a wall. There was a racket upstairs, and the camera pans up there, where Ruth Roman has gotten into an argument with her husband. She shoots him, and the Prestons defend her. They tried the abuse excuse--this was only 1961--and they lost. At the end of the show, she goes to the gas chamber."

Controversy typifies the Showtime movies, too. "The Defenders: Payback" finds the Prestons defending a father, played by John Larroquette, who shoots down a man who assaulted his daughter. The second movie has a cop killing a suspect, raising the question of whether the shooting was police brutality or self-defense.

In addition to substance, "The Defenders" still has Rose, who reads every script, Rogow said, and knows better than anyone what the Prestons are about. Rogow recalls hearing from Rose about a line of dialogue that he didn't like. "He said, 'Lawrence Preston wouldn't say that.' " How did Rogow respond? "I said, 'OK.' "

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