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Shunned by Broadway, thriller finds its niche as a TV movie

Based on an Ira Levin play, 'Footsteps' has all the right ingredients: a frightened heroine, a dark house, and lots of twists and turns.

October 10, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Riding high after his 1978 mystery "Deathtrap" ran on Broadway for four years, writer Ira Levin thought he had outdone himself with his next theatrical thriller, "Footsteps." But no one was interested in producing it for the stage.

It's not uncommon for some writers to have trouble getting their plays performed. It's a tough business, after all. But Levin is no common writer.

Before J.K. Rowling or, more particularly, Stephen King proved to be can't-miss writers, Levin had a magic touch. His plays and novels include "Rosemary's Baby," "The Stepford Wives," "The Boys From Brazil" and "No Time for Sergeants."

So two decades after he wrote "Footsteps," Levin is still scratching his head as to why it remains unproduced theatrically. "I feel it's better than 'Deathtrap,' " he says.

Although theatrical producers turned their noses up at "Footsteps," the play did pique the interest of Ken Raskoff, who first read it in 1987 when he was director of TV movies at NBC. "It came to me as a submission," recalls Raskoff, who relishes the play's many twists and turns. However, whoever submitted it to NBC had failed to get the rights to sell it to television. "So I have been chasing them every since."

Executive producer Raskoff's perseverance finally paid off. Sixteen years after first reading the play, he is bringing the thriller to television. Adapted by Shelley Evans and directed by John Badham, "Footsteps" airs Sunday on CBS.

Candice Bergen, in a rare break from her comedic roles, plays Daisy Lowendahl, an emotionally fragile suspense novelist who has just killed off a popular character in her bestselling series. After making a tentative public appearance, Daisy decides to confront one of her biggest fears -- staying alone in her isolated beach house overnight without her doting husband (Michael Murphy). Armed with a cellphone programmed to her husband's numerous numbers, Daisy is ready to brave the night in the big, dark house. But when she finds a teenage fan (Bug Hall) hiding in the closet, Daisy's fears go into overdrive. Even a chatty police detective (Bryan Brown) sent by her husband to check up on her fails to quell her nerves.

Originally, Raskoff says, CBS was going to do "Footsteps" live a few years ago. "Then, we decided that this was a movie that needed close-ups, and boy, we discovered when we were making it how many close-ups it needed of cellphones, batteries, knives and screwdrivers," Raskoff says.

"I can't even imagine how we could have done it live."

Bergen says she's never done anything quite this intense in her four-decade acting career. "It was sort of hard for me to sustain it," she says. "I am so much happier doing comedy."

And although she found Evans' script "smart," she asked the writer to inject some humor into the piece that would capture Daisy's sense of irony about her situation and phobias.

"It was sort of nice to play someone who was vulnerable and really dependent and shaky after portraying all of these kind of overbearing women. I had never done such a small piece, and I liked the intimacy of that. You were basically in one set, and it was really about the psychological interplay between Daisy, the teenager and the cop."

Ironically, CBS gave Levin his writing start, although "Footsteps" is his first project on the network: "In 1950, CBS ran a script competition that was limited to college seniors, and that was what I was then at NYU. I entered it. I didn't win, but I was the runner-up and a woman at CBS called me and said she had a friend who was starting out as an agent and would I mind if she sent the script to her. The agent turned out to be the legendary Flora Roberts and I was one of her first clients, along with Steve Sondheim. She sold my half-hour thriller to NBC, and I subsequently wrote several TV plays."

Levin didn't stop writing for TV, even after he was drafted into the military.

"I was approached about doing the TV adaptation of 'No Time for Sergeants.' I had leave time accumulated, so I took three weeks' leave."

"No Time for Sergeants," which aired on the dramatic anthology series "U.S. Steel Hour," made a star out of Andy Griffith.

"I think that was the first dramatic show with a live audience," Levin says. "They felt it was so funny and Andy was so engaging that they wanted an audience. So they put up bleachers outside the set

Levin's experience with "Sergeants" proved to him that even a TV event seen by millions could translate successfully to the stage. Now he'd like to do it again with "Footsteps."

"I think it's a very good Sunday night movie," Levin says. "As good as the TV movie is, I feel the play is better because it's all in one room. They had to open it up for television, but I always feel that that lowers the dramatic pressures somehow. So I am hoping that some smart producer will see this and say, 'This should be on the stage.' "

*

'Footsteps'

Where: CBS.

When: Sunday, 9-11 p.m.

Rating: The network has rated the film TV-PGV (may not be suitable for young children with an advisory for violence).

Candice Bergen...Daisy Lowendahl

Bryan Brown...Eddie Bruno

Bug Hall...Spencer Weaver

Michael Murphy...Robbie

Executive producers, Ken Raskoff, Mark Gordon. Director, John Badham. Writer, Shelley Evans, from the play by Ira Levin.

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