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Without Their Anchor

As the 'NewsRadio' cast deals with Phil Hartman's death, the coping can be seen in the season opener.

September 23, 1998|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"NewsRadio" returns to the NBC lineup tonight without its best-known cast member, Phil Hartman--a loss that is still hanging over the production several weeks into filming new episodes.

Some actors and producers of the comedy, set at fictional news radio station WNYX in New York City, still find it too painful to speak about Hartman, who was killed May 28 by his wife, Brynn, who then committed suicide.

"I'm sorry, I just can't really talk about this," executive producer and creator Paul Simms said last week as he sat in his shadowy office at Ren-Mar Studios in Hollywood. "Ask me about anything else and I'll talk my head off. But not this."

At first there was speculation about how the sitcom would continue without Hartman, who played egotistical news anchor Bill McNeal, often the quirky center of the show. And when producers announced this summer that former "Saturday Night Live" star Jon Lovitz would join the cast, there were more questions about how the comic actor would fit into the well-established troupe.

But in the weeks since the show has resumed filming, the cast and crew have bonded more closely, resolved to rise above the tragedy. And Lovitz has been embraced by the "NewsRadio" company.

Said Josh Leeds, one of the show's executive producers, "This has gone a lot better than any of us imagined. It has been emotional but not difficult. Jon has really clicked with the cast, and this represents a whole new chemistry for us."

Besides, Hartman's presence will still be felt. In tribute to the late actor, a laminated magazine cover with Hartman's smiling face has been placed in the office of WNYX news director Dave Nelson (played by Dave Foley).

"I don't think Phil's spirit will ever leave us," said Vicki Lewis, who plays the sassy secretary Beth. "It just feels like he's here every day. He was a father to all of us, and 3 1/2 years is a long time to be with someone so special."

Lovitz also said he is enjoying the new gig, although he has mixed feelings about his participation.

"Phil was one of my best friends," Lovitz said in an interview. "I really didn't want to do this at first. I didn't want to seem like I was profiting off of my friend's death. It was very hard emotionally. But they kept asking me and they said, 'If you don't do it, what if we get the wrong guy?'

"I felt it was an honor that they were asking me, and I thought how I would feel if someone else came on. I didn't want to replace him. I want to honor Phil. I don't care what the critics say. What's important is that I'm Phil's friend, and I want a friend of Phil's on the show."

He said he has been welcomed by the cast. "Everyone has been so nice, and I don't feel out of place. What's happening now is really figuring out who the character is."

Said Lewis: "We have a well-oiled machine here and we were worried about what was going to happen without Phil. But when we heard that Jon was coming in, there was a sigh of relief. He's just so funny."

Lovitz will portray Max Louis, a news personality who's been fired from 37 places before he lands at WNYX. Lovitz said that Louis, another in his gallery of "likable jerks," will make his first appearance in the second episode, Oct. 7 (the show is preempted for baseball playoffs next week).

Hartman's death is dealt with in bittersweet fashion in tonight's season opener, "Bill Moves On," written by Simms. When the episode begins, the staff at WNYX is just returning from a memorial service for McNeal, who has died of a heart attack. The grief of the employees is evident, and much of the same feelings were felt by the actors.

"The first week back was not a fun week by any stretch of the imagination," Lewis said. "I just cried my eyes out. We really had to work through our grief, and we went through the most cathartic part in front of the audience. It was very strange, like they were taking part in this bizarre voyeurism. In many ways, we didn't want to let go of Phil and Bill."

Lewis added, "But because of this, we're all a little closer now. We all loved each other before, but we're very, very tight now."

For Lewis and other cast members, Hartman's death was the biggest of a series of struggles the comedy has had, particularly the lack of strong media reception and the numerous time-period changes by the network.

"We've always had this precarious position," she said. "It's just par for the course. We've been through everything and we're still standing. We're extremely proud of the show we do, and I would rather be on this show and have integrity than be on a No. 5 show with stock characters and boring jokes. Phil was always telling us that."

Simms said that carrying on in the grand "the show must go on" tradition has resulted in new possibilities for "NewsRadio."

"This has infused the show with new life," he said. "We have a whole new chemistry. The addition of Jon's character, who is a stranger to this group, helps us discover new facets of the characters we have. Our continuing goal is to distinguish ourselves from all the other office sitcoms. We've always wanted to be like a live-action cartoon, where the semi-possible can happen."

Due to Hartman's death, Simms said, "NewsRadio" can now deal with more emotional moments that might have been avoided in the past: "There's less hesitation about that now. We've always tried to avoid that. But it seems less forced now, and there's plenty going on now on this show that's not fake."

*

* "NewsRadio" airs Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC (Channel 4).

How has TV historically handled sudden departures? F4

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