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Showtime Movie Gives Wings to Steven Weber's New Career

Television * In his scriptwriting debut, the actor draws on his family's past to create the fictional 'Club Land.'

April 07, 2001|MURRAY WHYTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TORONTO — As a kid, Steven Weber was surrounded by them: comedians, dropping by the house to see his talent-agent father, Stuey, or backstage visits to the New York clubs where Stuey's clients played. For a kid, it was heaven.

"It was all very enthralling to me--like if you've ever met gangsters," Weber says. "When I was young, my father had a comic who opened for Sinatra. I met all these guys--the nicest people, funny and tough. They were all like Humphrey Bogart, very attractive."

Reclining on a set of cheaply carpeted stairs behind some off-duty lighting screens in Toronto, Weber's taking a brief timeout from shooting "Club Land," due to air Sunday night on Showtime. He stars in it, but Weber is more deeply invested than that. Not only is the film Weber's feature-length scriptwriting debut, but the veteran TV actor--seven seasons of "Wings" (as lighthearted pilot Brian Hackett) and now "The Weber Show," a struggling new sitcom on NBC--also took some age-old but nonetheless sage advice for his first script: He wrote what he knew.

"Club Land," a period piece set amid the unforgiving world of the New York club scene of the 1950s, isn't quite biography, but it isn't far off, either. Producer Laura Gherardi said Weber's connection to the material was evident from his first draft.

"Steven has a command of the language from back then--he really gets the way they spoke," she said. Weber's first attempt at long-form storytelling is, like its material, something of a throwback, says Saul Rubinek, the film's director. It's an old-style drama, filled with rich character roles.

"A lot of people call this movie 'the planet of the character actor,' because there are all these wonderful cameos and all these great character actors in it," Rubinek says. "Most of the time, it's very simple--great actors, a great story, simply told--it's so old, it's new."

Loaded with dark, atmospheric scenes from backstage at the New York club scene, "Club Land" is much more than a collage of Weber's childhood memories. The story emerges from a young talent agent named Stuey Walters (the name is not a coincidence), played by Weber, who's pushed into the business by his father, Willie, a hard-bitten, unforgiving veteran of the agent game, played by Alan Alda.

Stuey's nonchalance is obvious from the get-go and, not surprisingly, that doesn't sit well with his father, a workhorse and old-school taskmaster. Their relationship, which chafes more coarsely at every turn, provides the film's dramatic tension: As things become more strained between father and son, they're forced to confront the issue at the heart of their bitterness. To say just what that is would be giving it away. But the film is driven by very real issues from Weber's life.

Though the dramatic crux of the film--Stuey's mother died when he was young, leaving both men emotionally crippled--is fictional, much of the hard feelings that emerge on screen are not. His father and grandfather lived through the hostility played out by Alda and Weber. Eventually, the bitterness Weber's father had toward the business took its toll, Weber said.

"After my grandfather died, [my father] was still an agent. He carried on, and then business sort of went sour for him," he says. But in "Club Land," Weber is trying to give his father and grandfather a second chance.

"The reality was that it was just a troubled relationship that neither of them could ever break out of," he says. "But in this movie I'm giving my father a chance that he probably never had, or never took, to break out and become a better guy."

Though "Club Land" is decades removed from the present, Weber can attest to the fact that the same ugliness still permeates the entertainment industry today.

That, in part, is why he is broadening his scope, adding writing and, in the case of "The Weber Show," executive-producing, to his resume.

"I get worried about being swept out to sea and never seen again. And that happens to a lot of actors. As you get older, especially now, when everything is predicated on how young you are and how beautiful you are," he says. "I want to now become more involved in what I do, and not be a feather blown by the wind anymore. It's too difficult to get work, and get satisfaction from doing that. At least it is for me. And I feel like I have something to offer, so I might as well take the opportunity, seize upon it and try to exercise a little control on the way things go."

"Club Land," with its collaborative spirit, has been a refreshing break from some of the show-business nastiness, Weber says. But it hasn't exactly cured him of the self-doubt that runs like an epidemic through the business. Despite a pleasant remission on "Club Land," Weber doesn't see a cure any time soon.

"It's a big step, sure," he says. "But I never expect things to go that well. I've always tried to be a fatalist, if not a realist. That's the way it is in acting, or in all of show business, I guess: Chances are that you're going to get rejected . . . or someone else is going to come in and mangle it, and you just go along.Listen, if they wanted to do this with sock puppets I would have done it," he says, then shakes his head. "In this business, you never know. I'm full of expectations, but little hope."

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