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COVER STORY

The Dr. Is In Again

May 16, 1999|MICHAEL P. LUCAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shots and hoofbeats echoed through the trees of a western movie ranch near Santa Clarita as a camera truck careened around the bend, followed by glamorous actress Jane Seymour driving a buckboard at breakneck speed with a company of mounted Mexican police on her heels, guns blazing.

Yes, the doctor is in.

Seymour's Michaela Quinn returns in "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The Movie" Saturday on CBS, picking up on the saga of the frontier woman and her world--a saga cut off in mid-arc a year ago when the network canceled "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" after six seasons, to the dismay of millions of loyal fans. And this time we find the early-day feminist physician dodging bullets more than examining troats.

"We've never had this much action in an episode," Seymour said when the shot wrapped and she met a makeup artist to be dabbed with another layer of dirt. "I keep thinking that Bruce Willis is going to climb out of the wreckage."

Willis won't be on hand, but series creator and executive producer Beth Sullivan said most of the show's cast was reassembled--the most notable absentee is town bartender Hank Lawson (hunky William Shockley)--for what she calls "strictly an action-adventure movie, a rip-roaring old western."

In turning what was called a period soap opera into a classic horse opera, the teleplay by Josef Anderson directed by Seymour's spouse James Keach, picks up the characters in 1877, a few years after we last visited Colorado Springs.

Dr. Mike's husband, Byron Sully (Joe Lando), is now the town commissioner, and he's at odds with a copper mining executive because Sully fears that the digging and smelting will pollute the town's water supply. When Mike's and Sully's daughter Katie (Kaile Zretsky), now 4, vanishes, it's clear that the miners had something to do with it. A rescue party of townspeople follows the trail into Mexico, where some of them are captured, some face a firing squad, some are rescued when a prison is blasted open and they all flee back to the states in a running gun battle. In un-Quinn-like fashion, quite a number of hombres bite the dust.

Amid the gunsmoke, however, Seymour promises drama and passion for loyal Quinn fans.

"We have an incredibly painful argument between Sully and Michaela about whose fault is it when Katie gets kidnapped," Seymour said. "And with [Michaela's daughter] Colleen away in Boston, I wouldn't be able to dress without help, so we have a sequence where Sully has to put my corset on."

Recalling that great corset scenes worked well in "Gone With the Wind" and "Titanic," director Keach, a big man who cut a Hemingway-like figure as he strode through the woods in his wide-brimmed hat and leather coat, --pointed out other inspirations for the project.

"This picture is actually based on 'The Searchers,' " Keach said, noting the stylish John Ford-directed western starring John Wayne as a Civil War veteran who spends years tracking down a niece (Natalie Wood) kidnapped by Indians.

Keach's credits include directing at least 20 Quinn episodes and such turns as playing Jesse James--and sharing writing credits--in "The Long Riders," a Walter Hill-directed feature.

"This has action," Keach said, "but also romance, adventure, comedy, suspense and great drama."

That mix will be key to building a big audience for the $2-million-plus-budget picture, said Sunta Izzicupo, CBS senior vice president of movies and miniseries.

"Every time you do a piece of event programming you hope to invite in your core audience and you hope others as well--men, younger people, male and female," she said. "And this will cut a wonderful action promo."

While nobody is talking about reprising a series, Izzicupo said she favors bringing Dr. Quinn back twice a year to continue the multifaceted story lines. That's if the ratings for this movie are are strong enough.

The network clearly would like to build on the performance of the series "Early Edition," which has averaged 10.4 million viewers in the 8 p.m. Saturday slot in which Quinn averaged 11.7 viewers in its last season. Sources have said CBS would also like to woo advertisers with a younger audience than the show's longtime fans.

And Sullivan hopes that movie "heals the wound" caused when the show was unceremoniously yanked last year. After six seasons of loyal viewership, frustrated fans were left with loose ends for narrative threads weaving together a whole townful of engaging characters.

"It's a great to have this opportunity to come back and put a period at the end of the sentence," said Lando. "If there's any more, great. If not, this is a good way to finish up, instead of just petering out. Westerns aren't supposed to go that way. They should end on a good note, end with a bang."

"Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The Movie" airs Saturday at 8 p.m. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for children under 14).

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