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Movie Star Presence

July 11, 1999|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the past several months, the cast and creative team of the WB sitcom "Movie Stars" have been twiddling their thumbs waiting for the network to schedule the comedy.

A year after the sitcom about married superstars (Harry Hamlin and Jennifer Grant) raising three children in a Malibu manse was announced as a midseason replacement, the series is seeing the light of day.

"I'll believe it when I see it [on the air]," says Hamlin in a mocking tone. "I ain't holding my breath."

But Hamlin can actually breathe a little easier. Not only is the WB premiering "Movie Stars" on Sunday, it's "double pumping" the comedy, meaning the network will air an episode Sunday and Monday throughout July. The eight episodes will then repeat in August. If the series does well enough, the WB will bring it back as a midseason show.

"The series has been such a long walk," says Mark Benninghofen, who plays Todd, the bitter, younger, Juilliard-trained brother of Hamlin's Reece. Todd, who is still waiting to catch his big break in the movies, works as his brother's assistant and spends all of his free time playing poker with the brothers of superstars John Travolta, Sylvester Stallone and Patrick Swayze.

"If I was 24 and hanging on for this [series to air] it would kill me," says Benninghofen. "'But I'm not. I'm 38. But I've learned a lesson. You just don't say anything until it's on. I have probably given out six starting dates for the show."

The WB, says creator and co-executive producer Wayne Lemon, has tried different scenarios for the series. "They love the show," he says.

Originally, Lemon says, the series was set to launch in January, but the network feared it would end up splitting its attention with the now-defunct teen comedy, "Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane."

After the series was bumped from a March and then an April start, the WB scheduled it for the summer.

"I think we have a shot," says executive producer Jonathan Axelrod. "I think we are the only show premiering that week."

Axelrod, the son of famed screenwriter-director George Axelrod ("The Manchurian Candidate," "Breakfast at Tiffany's"), says the series was born out of his experience of going to high school in Beverly Hills with the kids of movie stars.

"It was the kids of the Sinatras, the Lancasters and Ernie Kovacs. I got to know them as parents, not as movie stars. Dean Martin would take [son] Dino and I out to get ice cream at Baskin-Robbins in Beverly Hills. I saw Dean Martin as a parent."

Series star Grant also grew up with two movie star parents--Cary Grant and Dyan Cannon. "She lived the paradigm in a really big way," says Hamlin, who has known Grant for years. "So she's really comfortable in that setting."

"Movie Stars" marks the return to series TV of Hamlin since he left the classic NBC legal drama "L.A. Law" in the early '90s. Though Hamlin is known for his dramatic roles, he actually began his film career in the 1978 comedy, "Movie, Movie."

"That set the hook for my career," he says of the satire directed by Stanley Donen. "I'm still riding on that movie. I think the reason my career has lasted as long as it has is because I built a bit of a head of steam with that film. Ever since then, I've been trading on that but playing dramatic roles, which has been fun."

Axelrod says they read hundreds of actors to play Reece. "But when they walk into a room, if they don't appear to be movie stars, it doesn't matter [how good their reading is]. When Harry walks in a room you know he's there. The WB doubted his ability to do comedy and we didn't even know, but he gave a reading and floored everybody."

"Movie Stars" would have been too inside for most TV audiences a decade ago, but the landscape has changed in the past 10 years with the rise of "Entertainment Weekly," "Access Hollywood" and E! Entertainment Television, as well as the proliferation of such magazines as Entertainment Weekly.

"There is a tremendous awareness of the business," says Axelrod. "I mean, think about it--people in the Midwest this morning were buying Disney stock because they know how much 'Tarzan' grossed."

Though "Movie Stars" is a comedy that's set in Hollywood, just as with the current Showtime series "Beggars and Choosers" and the upcoming Fox comedy, "Action," Hamlin believes the show is actually a "Father Knows Best" for the '90s.

"Father Knows Best," he says, was a seminal series for him when he was a youngster. "It was so saccharine and very tame by comparisons to our show, but the issues are the same, just brought into the '90s."

"It's about a dad struggling to do his best and his wife struggling to do her best to be as normal as they can because they came from a normal background," Lemon adds. "I think viewers will watch a show where they pull for the family and they root for the family."

"Movie Stars" airs Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. on the WB. The network has rated Sunday's episode TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with special advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language) and Monday's episode TV-PG-L.

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