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Why She's Keeping a Day Job

Television: Oscar winner Helen Hunt's sticking to sitcom reflects state of female roles in film.

April 01, 1998|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TV, or not TV?

For Helen Hunt, despite winning a best actress Oscar last week for "As Good as It Gets," it made sense--and more than 2 billion cents, based on her estimated $1-million-per-episode salary--not to give up her day job on the NBC sitcom "Mad About You."

For George Clooney, star of "Batman and Robin" and "The Peacemaker," continuing to make the rounds on "ER" no longer seemed a practical use of his time, given the opportunities that beckon.

With numerous actors moving back and forth between feature films and television, from the "Friends" cast to the young stars of such TV series as "Party of Five" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," perceived lines between the two appear to be blurring. After all, people now watch videos on 50-inch TV sets, and see movies on tiny megaplex screens.

"There is no real difference between TV and films. . . . They're all just software," said Chris Barrett, president of Metropolitan Talent Agency.

The question of how to resolve doing both thus rests on a variety of factors, ranging from financial and creative considerations to logistics in balancing the two, which can differ markedly for a sitcom star compared to an actor in a weekly drama.

Though money is obviously a significant part of the equation--including the fact that top male film stars earn more than female counterparts--the dearth of quality roles available to women in features has become an issue as well.

Even Hunt--seemingly a red-hot commodity in feature circles on the strength of her latest movie and "Twister"--said in a January interview that she's encountered few film parts equal to what she gets to do each week on "Mad About You."

"Most movies are about boy meets girl, and arguably that's the least interesting part of the story: They met," said the actress, who has a hand in producing the TV show and recently directed an episode. "We're getting to do work and explore issues in a way you never could in a movie."

Going a step further, manager Joan Hyler calls Hunt's decision "a referendum on the lack of roles for women" in feature films.

"I think it's a brave, pragmatic and very correct move for her [to stay with the series], given what I know about the paucity of roles for women with any dynamism to them," said Hyler, whose management firm represents such actresses as Diane Lane, Jane Alexander and Alyssa Milano.

A past president of Women in Film, Hyler contends that the emphasis on high-octane special-effects movies that will appeal to the youth market and sell well abroad has "really conspired to reduce opportunities for women to be in films. What serious actress really wants to play the lead in 'Eraser'? . . . The number of scripts that have great roles for women is so limited that the quality of her work is better in her show."

NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield--one of those made happiest by Hunt's return--maintained there is often more range, choice and opportunity for actors in television.

"This is just another reason to eliminate that stigma that used to exist about doing television," he said. "There's a lot of agents this week saying, 'Hey, hey, hey, look at Helen Hunt.' "

Those agents also want their clients to garner the largest payday possible, however, and except for rare cases such as "Seinfeld," "Mad About You" and "Home Improvement"--where stars can negotiate enormous deals in later seasons--the fattest paychecks come from feature films.

From that perspective, an attraction like Bruce Willis (who continued on ABC's "Moonlighting" for a brief time after "Die Hard" launched his movie career) or Clooney can make far more--and work considerably less--doing a single movie than toiling an entire year on a TV series.

Clooney--whose screen time on "ER" has already diminished--will leave after completing his initial five-year contract next season. Because of the large ensemble cast, even if he were willing to return, the producers couldn't pay what NBC did to keep Hunt and Paul Reiser or the "Seinfeld" gang for another year.

Sitcom stars also possess more latitude scheduling movie roles during production breaks. Performers like Hunt, "Home Improvement's" Tim Allen and co-star Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and "Frasier's" Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce have all fit movies in during their hiatus time, just as Ted Danson and Kirstie Alley did while making "Cheers."

By contrast, drama series such as "NYPD Blue," "ER" and "The X-Files" shoot from mid-July through April, leaving a smaller window of free time for outside projects.

Risa Shapiro, an International Creative Management agent whose clients include Rosie O'Donnell and "The X-Files' " David Duchovny, noted that the time commitment the latter's Fox series entails makes scheduling movies difficult.

" 'ER' is an hour show also, but there's many, many leads on that show, [so] they can write people out for a few weeks," Shapiro said. "If they wrote out David or Gillian [Anderson] for three or four weeks, it would hurt the show."

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