Evening Shade aired from September 1990 until May 1994 on CBS.
The first network series set in Arkansas, this sitcom was created by Linda ( Designing Women) Bloodworth-Thomason. It was set in Rural Evening Shade, a sleepy town peopled largely by eccentrics. The focus of the series was easygoing Wood Newton ( Burt Reynolds), who had, in his youth, been a star running back on the local high school football team before going on to college and pro-football. Now he was back home coaching the team, The Evening Shade Mules, which had not won a game in more than 2 years. Wood's family consisted of Ava ( Marilu Henner), his wife of 16 years who, during the series first season, was elected Evening Shade's prosecuting attorney, while pregnant with their 4th child; Taylor ( Jay R. Ferguson), the careful QB on the high-school team, and little Molly ( Melissa Martin and later Candace Hutson) and Will ( Jacob Parker). Ava's father Evan ( Hal Holbrook) publisher of the local newspaper, The Evening Shade Argus, had never forgiven Wood for cradle robbing ( Ava married him when she was 18 and he was 30), but was himself dating the town's voluptuous but dimwitted stripper, Fontanna Beausoleil ( Linda Gehringer). Other regulars included Ava's outspoken Aunt Frieda ( Elizabeth Ashley); Harlan Elldridge ( Charles Durning), the town's cranky physician; Merleen Elldridge (Ann Wedgeworth), Harlan's lusty wife; Herman Stiles ( Michael Jeter), the wimpy math teacher who served as assistant football coach; and Ponder Blue ( Ossie Davis), the philosophical ( he also narrated the series) proprietor of Ponder Blue's Barbecue Villa, the restaurant where many of the townspeople hung out. In the last original episode of the 1990-1991 season, Ava gave bith to a daughter Emily.
Over the years a number of significant events took place. Fontanna married Evan in March of 1992 and later gave birth to a little girl, Scout. She also found out that Merleen was her mother and that she had been given up for adoption. Herman lost his teaching job at the high school in April of 1992 as part of a budget cutback. He continued as Wood's assistant coach and took on odd jobs to make a living. That December he moved into Frieda's house when his apartment was converted into a condominium. In the fall of 1993 Taylor, who had been going to college locally, moved into his own apartment; the Mules finally won a football game in early October breaking a 57 game losing streak and Wood ran for and was elected mayor of Evening Shade. Little Emily ( Alexa Vega), who had rarely been seen since her birth, was now 3 years old and showed up in several episodes during Evening Shade's final season.
A Review from The New York Times
Reynolds and a High-Powered Cast
By JOHN J. O'CONNOR
Published: October 5, 1990
Back in 1974, in the movie ''The Longest Yard,'' Burt Reynolds played a former football pro who ends up in prison and puts together a squad of dirty players to defeat the warden's team. It was Mr. Reynolds at his charmingly swaggering best, a level he has since had trouble matching, especially in recent years. Now, on Fridays at 8 P.M., he can be seen in the new CBS series ''Evening Shade'' playing a former football pro who returns to his hometown as coach of the high school team, which, as the series opens, hasn't won a game in two and a half years. Mr. Reynolds is back in top form.
To be sure, he has unusually impressive support. ''Evening Shade'' has been created by the producing and writing team of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason, whose ''Designing Women'' has been making Atlanta and CBS look good for several seasons. In addition, Mr. Reynolds, playing Wood Newton, has been surrounded by a high-powered batch of co-stars.
Heading the list: Marilu Henner as his wife, Ava, mother of his three children with another unexpectedly on the way; Hal Holbrook as his father-in-law, Evan Evans, publisher of the local newspaper; Elizabeth Ashley as Ava's formidable Aunt Frieda; Ossie Davis as Ponder Blue, restaurant proprietor; Charles Durning as Dr. Harlan Elldridge, and Michael Jeter as Herman Stiles, a wimpy math teacher recruited to be assistant football coach. The last two were 1990 Tony Award winners, Mr. Durning for ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,'' Mr. Jeter for ''Grand Hotel.''
The fictitious Evening Shade is a small town in Arkansas, the kind of place where the daily paper is delivered by a slightly retarded man using a wood wagon he calls Chariot of Fire. Everybody, of course, knows everybody else's business. It takes no time at all for the news to spread about Ava's being pregnant again, despite the fact that Doc Harlan supposedly gave Wood a vasectomy. Wood is furious. It's bad enough that his football team's dismal record continually prompts ''keep you chin up'' comments from friends and neighbors. Worse, Ponder has had a new jukebox installed in his ribs joint and playing B-5 now means listening to Milli Vanilli instead of Fats Domino's ''Blueberry Hill.''
In short, ''Evening Shade'' is about what changes and what remains the same in ordinary lives lived out in places that couldn't care less about passing trends. Roles are changing, especially for women - Ava wants to be district attorney - but husbands and wives and children are, beneath the topical veneers, pretty much what they always were, just trying to muddle through as best they can. And Mrs. Bloodworth-Thomason's scripts make the most of her sassy sense of humor. Frieda is a chatterbox blend of the Dixie Carter and Delta Burke characters in ''Designing Women.'' Then there's Doc Harlan and his somewhat otherworldly wife (Ann Wedgeworth) living in their dream home called Tara with the Styrofoam swans in the new pond.
Mr. Reynolds relaxes confidently in ''Evening Shade,'' not pushing, simply content to be part of a first-rate ensemble, yet making the most of the small moments. In the first episode, a strained birthday party left the former football hero realizing that ''mortality struck me tonight, I'm not going to be immortal anymore.'' He and Ava wound up dancing alone on the house porch to ''Blueberry Hill.'' She had bought Ponder's old jukebox as a surprise present. The past has not been discarded after all. Nice touches put this series up near the top of the ''most promising'' list.
Produced by Douglas Jackson and Tommy Thompson for CBS Entertainment Productions in association with Mozark Productions Inc. and MTM Enterprises Inc.; David Nichols, co-producer; Sean Clark, story editor; Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason, executive producers; Burt Reynolds, co-executive producer. At 8 P.M. Fridays on CBS.
Wood Newton...Burt Reynolds
Frieda Evans...Elizabeth Ashley
Ponder Blue...Ossie Davis
Harlan Elldridge...Charles Durning
Ava Evans Newton...Marilu Henner
Evan Evans...Hal Holbrook
Herman Stiles...Michael Jeter
Mrs. Elldridge...Ann Wedgeworth
A Review from USA TODAY
TV PREVIEW/ BY MATT ROUSH
Bask in the bucolic comfort of ' Evening Shade'
Evening Shade, Ark, is a heavenly hamlet where people have names like Ponder Blue, the town crier Nub Oliver hawks papers from a wagon called the Chariot of Fire, and the air hums to the romantic strains of Blueberry Hill.
Evening Shade the sitcom is as savory as Blue's famous ribs, and as snug as the ratty shirt worn by the local paper's editor in chief ( played by Hal Holbrook, no less). It's like Mayberry with a college degree.
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, whose extravagantly Southern sensibilities created the tart divas of Designing Women, relaxes her vision a bit with this cozier but no less delightful ensemble piece.
It's not only a great place to visit, by the end you may already feel your imagination living there. This is the season's one resoundingly great show.
Tonight's hour pilot is a tad shaky and a slow starter-it's herky jerkiness due to the fact 11 minutes had to be trimmed-but it builds to a blissfully romantic close with Burt Reynolds and Marilu Henner ( football coach Wood Newton and wife Ava) twirling on a poorch, their three kids watching.
In between, enough scene -stealers to fill a county jail ply there trades: Charles Durning as a good 'ol boy, fat 'ol boy doctor; Elizabeth Ashley a flamboyant flame-thrower of a gossipy aunt; Michael Jeter ( Grand Hotel) the concavechested new assistant coach; Ossie Davis as Ponder.
Wherever you go, from the shoe store to the druggist's, you hear about Wood and Ava: his failed vasectomy, her campaign for prosecutor, his lousy team, the local stripper who stalks him. And you hear gems: " In a world of pork 'n' beans , I think you might be missing a couple of gristle cubes."
This is a town, and a show, as full of life as it is of star power.
A Review from Entertainment Weekly
B+By Ken Tucker
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, creator of Designing Women, has made good on her stated promise to bring some mature sexiness to prime-time with her new effort, Evening Shade. A big cast fills a small town in this Southern sitcom. Burt Reynolds stars as Wood Newton, a former pro footballer who has returned to Evening Shade, Ark., to coach the high-school team. Marilu Henner (Taxi) is his wife, Ava (they have three sitcom-standard children). Hal Holbrook is Ava's dad, and Elizabeth Ashley is Ava's aunt. Charles Durning and Ossie Davis have fun rolling Southern syllables around in their mouths as the town's doctor and rib-joint owner, respectively. Michael Jeter, who won a Tony earlier this year for Grand Hotel, has turned himself into a Don Knotts for the '90s as Wood's jittery assistant coach.
As Wood, Reynolds continues the career rehabilitation he began last year with the film Breaking In. He has shaken off the funk he seemed to be in through most of the '80s; in Evening Shade he's happy and alert even when maintaining a strict expression. Although the large cast hasn't allowed anyone much screen time so far, Reynolds and Henner have already developed a nice romantic rapport, while Ashley has already become a tiresome over-actor. She probably intends her character to be a pumped-up version of a Tennessee Williams heroine, but she's coming across like a scaled-down version of Delta Burke.
The show strains somewhat to make the Old South meet the New, to force confrontations between the generations. Holbrook tells his grandchildren it's all right to eat lots of sugar: ''Sugar,'' he says decisively, ''will propel ya''; the kids think Grandpa's a little nuts. Davis feels he's keeping up with the times by taking Fats Domino off his jukebox and replacing him with the 2 Live Crew. To be a good joke, this would have to be minimally believable, but ''Me So Horny'' in a small-town restaurant jukebox? Fat chance.
With actors this interesting and writing this vivid, however, it's likely that Evening Shade will settle down and become as dependable a piece of entertainment as anything on television. B+
An Article from The LA Times
The Sitcom Behind the Sitcom : Television: The countdown to an 'Evening Shade' rehearsal can be comedic. Just ask writer and producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.
October 29, 1990|IRV LETOFSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER
To those people in Hollywood who fill up empty computer screens writing comedy and drama, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason is an amazement. She has written 61 "Designing Women" scripts in the past four years, most of them scrawled on yellow legal pads the Saturday and/or Sunday before the first cast rehearsal on Monday. That's like running the three-minute mile in spike heels.
"I used to take six to eight hours on a script," she says. "Now I take about 12 to 14 hours. I'm going downhill. . . .
"Of course," she adds, "a lot of writers will read this and wonder, 'Who does this broad think she is?' Listen, not all these are gems."
But "Designing Women," a monster hit for CBS (No. 6 for the season), is widely regarded as one of the best-written series on the air, and Bloodworth-Thomason is now applying her talents to "Evening Shade," the new Burt Reynolds comedy. She created the show and produces it with husband Harry Thomason.
CBS will re-introduce the series in a different time period tonight at 8, spelling "Uncle Buck" for the week. "Evening Shade" will also play at 8 p.m. Friday, its usual time slot.
"Evening Shade" ranks 57th in the season-to-date ratings (out of 90 prime-time series). But, cautioned Michael Eisenberg, CBS vice president for audience measurement, ensemble series are notoriously slow to build an audience. If the episode tonight does "substantially well," a shift in time period might be recommended.
Despite the legend growing up around Bloodworth-Thomason's writing feats, the preparation of tonight's "Evening Shade" episode, called "Fast Women," turned out to be a sitcom within a sitcom. The episode took 12 to 14 hours to write, spread over three days instead of the usual two, because of digressions.
She waxed philosophic late one Monday night in September, knowing that the cast would be waiting for her words the next morning: "The interesting thing is that when you have five hours to write 30 more pages and these people are here from Poplar Bluff (her Missouri hometown) and your brother told them that you personally are gonna give them a tour of the whole lot and there's a reporter on the phone asking you to comment on Burt and it's for USA Weekend and the hairdresser did not work out and two of the actors didn't get here from Dallas for dubbing and you're just standing there with a big smile on your face . . . then you really know what it's like to be Miss Congeniality."
As for the plot: Wood Newton (Reynolds) is prevailed on by wife Ava (Marilu Henner) to intervene in the romantic pursuits of son Taylor (Jay R. Ferguson) and Ava's father, Evan (Hal Holbrook). Taylor is entangled with a senior who announces to Newton that she intends to "have sex with your son" and will be gentle. Evan is likewise entangled with the town stripper, who dances with a very long scarf.
By ready resume, Bloodworth-Thomason comes to her present position via the University of Missouri, the Wall Street Journal (selling ads), a high school in Watts (teaching), then "MASH," "One Day at a Time," "Rhoda," "Limestreet" and "Filthy Rich" (writing scripts).
She is an ebullient woman who talks considerably, and considerably like a composite of her "Designing Women" cast. She seems more earth mother than Hollywood producer.
Her talent is (1) writing and (2) putting off writing. "I get distracted very easily," she said.
On the Saturday afternoon that she commenced writing "Fast Women," before the series had made its debut, a friend called from Poplar Bluff with an hour of town gossip. Meanwhile, Burt Reynolds had been hammering on the walls of the show's office at MTM Studios in North Hollywood. "He's hanging photos of his life," she explained, "and now he's hanging them in \o7 my \f7 office and \o7 my\f7 bathroom--since he's out of space in \o7 his \f7 office. He is a hanging-picture fanatic."
Husband Harry brought in a deli feast for a picnic on the set. Pam Norris, who now produces "Designing Women" and does most of its writing, came by for more digression. Like the Miss America Pageant. "We just watch the part where the girls come in and shout their states," Bloodworth-Thomason said. "Then we're satiated."
She and Norris have an odd bond. Each needs a deadline hanging over her head like the sword of Damocles. Wherever they are on Sunday nights at 7, they \o7 yell\f7 when the ticking clock starts on "60 Minutes"--a ritual panic signifying that they're not ready for the messenger who's been dispatched by the script-typing service to collect their pages.
"Without Pam, there's no way I could do this new show," Bloodworth-Thomason said. "We shoot her scripts as they are. If I died tonight, I know that as a personal favor, she'd finish this script."
Sunday was dead for writing. CBS desperately needed the hour pilot to send to the press for reviews--and it was 24 minutes long! She spent day and night in the editing trailer. The cast was told to report for the week's script reading on Tuesday instead of Monday.
She resumed writing Monday, amid: Script reading for the new "Designing Women." Visit by a CBS official and some members of the Federal Communications Commission. Press interview. Casting. More editing. More press.
The messenger finally picked up "Fast Women" about 3 a.m. Seven hours and 20 minutes later, a box of fresh scripts was carried into the sound stage to awaiting performers.
About 50 cast and staff members laughed and laughed over the pages.
At the end of the reading, a few actors rushed to the boss to seek refinements. Elizabeth Ashley, who plays the raucous Freida, suggested a few line adjustments. Reynolds marveled over the way Bloodworth-Thomason had captured the actors' rhythms so fast.
An executive from CBS, likewise smiling, had minor requests for changes dealing with taste. Purple Crackle Whorehouse in Hot Springs, Ark., sounded naughty and was changed to Purple Dawn. A couple of other sexual references were questioned; the writer pleaded, "This morning about 2 o'clock, I couldn't think of a euphemism for that."
Back in her office, Bloodworth-Thomason tried to relax and chat about writing--how "Everybody's a writer," spoken with irony. "It's not like a brain surgeon," she said. "You never meet a brain surgeon and tell him, 'Listen, I've been meaning to talk to you about another way to do that operation. . . ."
Then there was someone asking what clip of the show to run on Johnny Carson. And the pilot still was two minutes, 30 seconds too long.
She reflected, "If Lawrence Tisch (president and dominant shareholder of CBS Inc.) could see the process that two of his biggest shows go through, he'd probably get rid of some of that stock!"
An Article from The LA Times
TELEVISION : The Dawning of 'Evening Shade' : How the producing team of Harry and Linda Thomason lured Burt Reynolds and other movie heavyweights to a sitcom
February 17, 1991|DAVID WALLACE | David Wallace is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and
Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, the creator, frequent writer and co-executive producer of CBS' "Evening Shade," refers to the half-hour series about life in a fictional small town in Arkansas as "hick television." To her and to her husband and partner, producer/director Harry Thomason, both Arkansas born, that is a compliment. "She considers herself a hick, and that's how we met," Harry recalls. "She walked into my office and said, 'I hear there's another hick here!' She uses that term in a loving sense."
But the actors whom she and Harry assembled to portray the town's amiable, eccentric characters are anything but hicks. They constitute just about the glitziest gathering of talent that has ever drawled dialogue--or, for that matter, has ever been seen regularly in a television sitcom. The result has had critics in ecstasy and sent ratings climbing since the show went on the air last September--not to Top 20 status but at least to the point where the show often wins its Monday night time slot.
"From the get-go," says Burt Reynolds, the show's star, co-executive producer and chief talent gatherer, the plan was to seek a dream cast drawn from film and theater as well as television. Former box-office champ Reynolds, at 55, is essaying his first sitcom. Charles Durning and Michael Jeter, both of whom won Tony Awards (Broadway's highest honor) last season, are regulars. So are Elizabeth Ashley (another Tony winner), Hal Holbrook (who has won five Emmys), Ossie Davis and Anne Wedgeworth.
The only sitcom veteran besides Wedgeworth is Marilu Henner, who appeared in "Taxi" for five years.
"My agent called completely out of nowhere," Henner recalled. "He said that Burt Reynolds and Linda Bloodworth wanted to see me the next day. We met and talked about the idea and they told me who was in it. I said, 'I can't believe it. Every week these people are going to be on the show?'
"After the meeting," she said, "I called my agent on my car phone and said, 'Don't let this one get away!' "
How such a dream cast was assembled for a sitcom is a story of unusual determination to seek the very best, strong network backing, stronger personal relationships and plain luck.
Linda and Harry Thomason, who also oversee CBS' "Designing Women," had been planning a half-hour show set in a small town named Evening Shade for more than a year. There are actually two tiny towns in Arkansas named Evening Shade--the name was suggested to the Thomasons by Hilary Clinton, a close friend of theirs and wife of the state's governor, William Clinton--but the show is really based on Linda's memories of growing up in Poplar Bluff, Mo.
Harry recalled: "We were desperately trying to think of a cast for this show. . . . Linda does things a little differently; she gets the cast and then writes the show. So Jeff Sagansky (president of CBS Entertainment), Howard Stringer (president of the CBS Broadcast Group), Linda and I sat down on the floor in our office at Columbia and went through the (Screen Actors Guild) catalogues. We couldn't come up with anybody.
"Finally, Linda said, 'What we need is somebody like Burt Reynolds,' and Sagansky said, 'Let's get him.' Howard said, 'You don't really think he'd do a half-hour show?' Jeff said, 'Let's call and ask.' "
What they didn't know then, but soon found out, was that Reynolds was looking for a sitcom in which to star.
A veteran of more than 40 films, he had returned to television in 1989 in a detective series called "B. L. Stryker," but by early last year it was clear that the show had not caught on. Reynolds began considering other options.
"I had always heard that people were kind of stunned I had never done anything with a live audience (most sitcoms, unlike dramatic series, are filmed before a studio audience) except 'The Tonight Show,' " the actor commented recently during a week of interviews on the "Evening Shade" set at Studio City's MTM/CBS studio. "I kind of agreed with that."
Did the negative connotations of working on a sitcom worry him? "Yes, they did," Reynolds added, "but I thought this might be the last stop for me and so I've got to take all the bad and the good and the ugly and learn something."
He met with "three or four" writer-producers whom he thought could deliver a quality project for him, then winnowed his choices to Linda Thomason and Hugh Wilson ("WKRP in Cincinnati," "Frank's Place").
"It was Hugh or Linda right to the last moment," Reynolds recalled " . . . I swung towards Linda because it sounded like she was talking about me--me at this time in my life--when she talked about the character in 'Evening Shade.' It wasn't me in terms of how or what most people seem to think of me, though. I said, 'What kind of character do you see me doing?' and she said, 'Well, I've always felt that the kind of parts you should play and the kind of parts you'd be wonderful in are the parts Jimmy Stewart would play.'
"I was so touched that she thought that was the kind of thing I could do. He is my favorite actor (and a guest on the first of Reynolds' new talk-show specials, 'Burt Reynolds' Conversations With. . . ,' to air on CBS this spring) and I was touched that she saw I had some kind of comic ability and that she put me in a category where I could play somebody that was Everyman and not some cocky. . . .
"She asked what I would have done if I hadn't been an actor," Reynolds continued, "and I said, 'probably a football coach.' I love kids and know I am very good at communicating with young people and I love sports. My brother was a high school football coach for 20 years and when my dad talks about the two of us, he considers my brother as having a little more success than I have. . . . Especially in the South, where I'm from, you have two sports: football and spring football." (Reynolds played football on a Florida State scholarship until a knee injury ended his athletic career.)
Ergo, Reynolds' character in "Evening Shade," was instantly transformed from the journalist that Thomason had been contemplating to Wood Newton, who, after a 15-year pro career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, returns to his hometown to coach the perennially last-place high school football team.
"So we're then going back and forth about the other characters," Reynolds said, "and Linda says, 'There should be a town eccentric,' and I say, 'like Elizabeth Ashley,' and she says 'doctor' and I say 'like Charles Durning.' So we penciled in our dream cast. Ossie Davis as Ponder Blue--he has a barbecue stand where everybody goes; Anne Wedgeworth as Durning's wife-- my first roommate in New York," he interjected, "was Rip Torn, when he was married to the 18-year-old Anne Wedgeworth. Hal Holbrook for Evan Evans, the owner of the town paper--his wife, Dixie Carter, is on 'Designing Women.' Michael Jeter (cast as Reynolds' assistant coach) came out of nowhere; Marilu (cast as his wife, Ava) I've known a long time.
"When it was time for Linda to go to the network and say 'this is what we want,' someone looked at the cast and said, 'Wonderful, but we won't be able to afford camera or film.' So I said 'Call them.' We started calling and the dream cast came together."
"This is probably the most expensive half-hour show to start up because of the cast," observed Harry Thomason. The budget hovers around $800,000 per episode--more than $100,000 over the sitcom average. "In order to do the show, CBS was willing to pay a premium license fee. Another thing we did to allow these people to make the money they wanted per show was to allow them to come and go. We said, 'Just do 10 or 17 shows a year.' The way Linda writes (she writes the script the weekend preceding filming of the episode), she can write with who's going to be there."
The start of another week, and the cast has gathered for a reading of the script in MTM's cavernous Stage 19, previously the site of CBS' "Bagdad Cafe." This week's episode, "Into the Woods," is about Wood, Evan and Ponder's annual hunting trip, which this year includes Wood's son, Taylor (Jay Ferguson), and the Jeter character, Herman Styles. (The installment is scheduled to be broadcast Monday at 8 p.m.)
For most of them, the opportunity to work with Reynolds and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason allayed concerns about appearing in a sitcom and proved more enticing than monetary considerations.
Ossie Davis, 73, who appeared with Reynolds in the "Stryker" series, explained: "Burt called and told me he was doing 'Evening Shade' and would I like to come along? He said it was a sitcom and, of course, I had a little trepidation about that--the formula is strange and slightly intimidating. My fear, after watching sitcoms, is that they're so tenuous I feel I might fall through the damn thing and crash on the level beneath. I'm too heavy, my feet are too big, my head is too solid. I can't float on that surface that the sitcom tends to generate. But once you get to be a member of the Burt Reynolds flying ensemble, you're likely to find yourself doing a whole lot of things you thought would never come your way."
Michael Jeter, a native of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., was recruited for the show by Harry Thomason. "I was doing 'Grand Hotel' (for which he won his Tony for best supporting actor in a musical) and Harry flew into town, told me his wife had written this new series and asked, 'What do we have to do to get you to do it?' He started naming these people--Holbrook, Ossie Davis, Charles Durning, Elizabeth Ashley--and I realized these were people I've been watching for years and whose work I admire. And someone is asking if I would like to do a show with them? There was no question about it."
It was four weeks before Jeter, who flew to Los Angeles to make a quick appearance in the "Evening Shade" pilot, was able to complete his contractual obligations to "Grand Hotel" and permanently join the cast, where his hyper-antic character often threatens to steal the show.
He has found no problem making the transition from stage to tube. "There used to be this reverse pecking order," he said. "It used to be if you really wanted to have a career in movie or television, the first thing you had to do was make a name for yourself on the stage. Now it's flip-flopped. If you want to get a really good role in New York these days, the best way is to have a television or movie name. Someone with a TV 'Q' rating (a measure of recognizability) can walk into the New York Shakespeare Festival tomorrow and have a lot better chance of getting a role in a play than someone who's been working in New York for 15 years"--as has Jeter, 38.
It's Thursday, camera-blocking day, and a hassled Hal Holbrook has been racing back and forth from set to dressing room, where he's on the telephone trying to juggle a tandem appearance with wife Dixie Carter at a theatre in North Carolina. At lunch, jabbing at his egg salad sandwich in the studio commissary, he vents a frustration about television that few of his colleagues on the show seem to share.
"I decided last year that I wanted to spend the rest of my productive years doing a play every year . . . a play of some substance . . . some of the classics that I missed out on because I got myself buried out here making money." "Evening Shade" will let him do that--giving him time off and paying him enough to subsidize his theater work. Holbrook was absent from the series for three months this season performing "King Lear" before sold-out houses in Cleveland and New York.
He is doing the show because of his friendship with the Thomasons, and for the money, as he made clear. "The way it works out now, it's a hard thing not to do," he said. "Not having a contract (he is the only star on the show working without a contract--just a handshake), but having access to making this kind of money helps support my going out and doing plays. When I did 'Lear,' I could only pay half my hotel bill with what I earned every week. That's what you have to do.
"And with Linda, I knew the material would be good, not drecky. I knew it wouldn't be cheap junk."
He is, nonetheless, uneasy about the sitcom format. "What else are you going to do on TV these days? Do you think that I like to get into a blue-striped suit and play an old lawyer on some show about lawyers? Do you think that would be thrilling for me? I'm 65 years old, I love acting and I'm bored with this goddamned business!"
There is no question in either Charles Durning's or Elizabeth Ashley's minds why they are doing the show. "I've never done a series before," said Ashley, who plays Holbrook's eccentric sister, Freida Evans. "The telephone rang and it was big Burt (with whom she made "Paternity" two decades ago). I was thrilled when he said he was going to do a situation comedy--Burt is one of those people who, when you say his name anywhere on the planet, people know who he is and like him. That's a rare thing. Burt is your devilishly handsome, drop-dead, gorgeous mega-macho movie star, but he has something none of the others like that do . . . an utterly brilliant talent for a particularly American type of comedy.
"Anyway, he called, out of the blue, when I desperately needed something--I've never known when one gig is over what I'll do next--and asked me to be in the show. I said 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' "
"I was doing 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' in New York," recalled Durning, who won a Tony for his performance. "Burt called and asked me to do the show and I said I wasn't that keen on a sitcom. Burt, whom I'm very fond of, said my decision wouldn't affect our friendship. . . . Then I heard who was in the cast and that the writer was Linda Bloodworth and I thought, 'Oh, my God!' "
Louisiana-raised Ashley, for whom Neil Simon wrote "Barefoot in the Park," believes her character is one of Bloodworth's unique creations. "Where I grew up, conversation was a blood sport and if you had any character at all, you grew up to be an eccentric. Being eccentric was one of the privileges of being grown up. Southern comedy, like Linda writes, is very different because it is always based on character and it comes from point of view--situation and circumstance colliding with character. And it is always grounded in enormous humor about one's self, unlike Northern humor, which can be deprecating, complaining or just plain mean."
Finally, it's Friday night and the studio audience arrives . . . among them such Reynolds fans as Richard Chamberlin, pro-football great Lynn Swann, Dixie Carter and Doug McClure (a friend since both were under contract at Universal in 1958; Burt cast him in a high school reunion episode).
Asked about the likelihood of his wife, Loni Anderson (also in the audience with their son, Quinton, 2 1/2) appearing on the show, Reynolds said no. "It's tough enough being married to an actress, and she's been unbelievable with this boy . . . she just totally stopped working. As much as I love working with her, I don't think she should do this show, and this would be a tough show for a blonde from Minneapolis to come into."
"I resist the word sitcom," Linda Bloodworth-Thomason explained. "I say they give us 23 minutes and we fill it the best way we can. It's a little play we put on each week, a little video novel. I think that the characters on television, because they are in your living room every week, have the potential of having the same attraction for an audience as the people in novels."
Much of the material found in the show was acquired while Linda was growing up within the extended family that populates many small Southern towns, in her case Poplar Bluff, Mo., "which Evening Shade really is," she said. "I wanted to show that 'hicks' can be very intelligent and very sophisticated and very complicated. That's what we're trying on 'Evening Shade' . . . the same kind of familial love that you felt in (the "Andy Griffith Show's") Mayberry but with a 1990 sophisticated veneer on it."
As if scripted, Linda's explanation of the appeal of "Evening Shade" is vividly illustrated on the set. Filming is nearing completion when, with hundreds in the audience watching and dozens of crew members intent on finishing, everything suddenly stops. Quinton has become upset at seeing his father handcuffed to a pole in the penultimate scene of the episode. "He wants to kiss him and make him well," Loni says, taking the little boy to his father on the brightly lit set.
"We're just playing," Reynolds, instantly a father for real, assures his son. "It's just a play."
An Article from The New York Times
For Michael Jeter, The Jig Isn't Up
By JAMIE DIAMOND;
Published: October 20, 1991
Michael Jeter describes his role in "The Fisher King" as if it were a routine. "All I did was show up in Central Park and let them bury me up to my waist in horse manure," he says. "Then I put on a blond wig, some gold high heels, a red feather dress and a monkey-fur cape, and I got up on a desk and sang a song."
It's a modest assessment from an actor who, also wearing a black garter belt, brings down the house with his pitch-perfect imitation of Ethel Merman in "Gypsy." And it is, no doubt, the 38-year-old actor's modesty that prevents him from mentioning the riveting effect he has in his tiny role as a nameless, homeless, would-be chanteuse who suffers a gang attack in Central Park, tries to end his life by standing in the way of oncoming horses and is rescued by two funny-looking guys (Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges) who are searching for the Holy Grail. "An actor's main job is to show up for work, and that's all I did," Mr. Jeter says.
The versatile performer danced away with a Tony Award last year for his performance in the Broadway musical "Grand Hotel" and currently stars with Burt Reynolds in the television series "Evening Shade." He is one of those actors who seem to have been discovered overnight after toiling in relative obscurity for more than a decade. How is Mr. Jeter reacting? "I bought a sensible car," he says.
Raised in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., the son of a dentist, Mr. Jeter did not plan on a career as an actor; instead, he dreamed of being a neurosurgeon. "But the idea of acting must have always been there," he blurts out, "because I've always been a compulsive liar." His boyish face flushes. "Well, I say liar," he amends, "but that's harsh. I was a child with a vivid imagination. My mother tells me I came up with some real whoppers. I was always pretending."
While enrolled in a pre-med course at Memphis State University that invited very little pretending, Mr. Jeter happened onto a school production of "Man of La Mancha." "It was the first time I'd been in a building that was designed for the production of plays," he says. "Back home, theater was performed by the Rotary Club in the school cafeteria." The experience filled him with awe. "It reminded me of church." And converting was easy; he changed his major. And then he had to phone his parents. "I told them the jig was up."
In 1977, Mr. Jeter arrived in New York hoping to tilt at windmills and work as an actor. Although he appeared in small roles in the films "Hair" and "Zelig" and performed in several plays, he says that by 1985 the jig was up again. "I couldn't get any work. There wasn't any success. There wasn't even any encouragement." After taking a job as a secretary in a law firm, Mr. Jeter began to search for a new career. "I was going to go to embalming school and become a funeral director," he says, laughing. "It's a craft; you can take it with you wherever you go, and it's definitely theatrical!"
The loss to mortuary science was a gain for the arts: at about that time, the phone on his law office desk began ringing with acting offers -- a guest spot on "Designing Women"; seven episodes of Jay Presson Allen's television series "Hothouse"; roles in the plays "The Boys Next Door" and "Only Kidding," and the turning-point part in "Grand Hotel" as a terminally ill, Charleston-dancing septuagenarian. Mr. Jeter resigned from the law firm to do a little Southern comedy called "Evening Shade," taking a few days off to appear in "The Fisher King" in a role that the script called the Gay Bum.
While some actors devote years to studying technique, Mr. Jeter's approach is simple. "There are all these different schools, but to me acting is just pretending," he says. "As a child I told untruths, but I believed them with all my heart, and that's basically what an actor does. An actor has to believe his pretense to make the audience believe it." To help his concentration, Mr. Jeter, an avid reader, often fixes on an image. "The image I had," he says of the scene in "The Fisher King" that resulted in his being buried in horse manure, "was that my character was trying literally to disappear into the ground so no one could hurt him again."
In "Evening Shade," when Mr. Jeter plays Herman Stiles, his Chaplinesque version of an assistant football coach, the actor, who looks like he very well may weigh a weakling's 97 pounds, draws on aspects of his own personality. "I've got that arrogance and grandiosity in my character that hates to admit that I'm a beginner," he says. "The whole idea of Herman is that he's basically a math teacher who's been erroneously appointed to his position. And it's in his need to appear to know what he's doing all the time -- even though he doesn't -- that the comedy comes."
Mr. Jeter says that if he had not been an actor, he would have been a Cistercian monk. While he once experienced live theater as church, the converse seems also to have been true. A Southern Baptist, Mr. Jeter converted to Roman Catholicism in 1980. "To tell the truth, the thing that attracted me to Catholicism was its theatricality," he says. And his interest in monks has not been diminished with time or success. Last summer on vacation, he visited a monastery that houses a silent order of monks. What appeals to him about being speechless in a monastery? "There's more freedom in that life because you explore only one relationship. That becomes the goal of your life, and everything else takes a back seat."
Since he's been driven for the last two decades by the need to act and communicate, doesn't he find it a bit odd that he simultaneously wants to take a vow of silence? He laughs and says, "My shrink says, 'Michael, I don't get it. You're a performer, yet I've never met anyone in my life who wants to be invisible as much.' "
An Article from USA TODAY
Published on September 20, 1993
'Burt factor' casts pall over some 'Shade' viewers
By Jefferson Graham
CBS has a delecate problem on its hands.
The once formidable Monday night lineup has been the cornerstone of the network's success, but ratings fell off last season, causing the network to make changes for this season.
What it didn't account for was the Burt factor.
Shade star Burt Reynolds filed for divorce from Loni Anderson in June and became the summer tabloid king, admiting to a two-year affair with a Tampa waitress and slamming Anderson in interviews as he pressed for custody of son Quinton, 5.
Marjorie Cunningham , 49, of El Paso says she won't watch the show anymore. " Evening Shade has been a warm, wonderful family comedy. Now Burt has pretty well colored that picture black."
Women are the target audience for CBS' Monday night , and could be turned off by Reynolds' mudlinging at Anderson ( Monday, he appeared on NBC's Tonight Show).
Burt vs Loni " would have to have some diminution of the audience," says Jack McQueen of Foote, Cone and Belding advertising. " This hits home, because it involves two very visable people and the institution of marriage. The fact that their is a young child involved could be potentially detrimental."
Viewers are certainly aware of the situation.
" I can't stand to watch a commercial of his anymore, so there's no way I could last through his show," says Judy Zito, 47, of Visalia, Calif.
"What goes on in their personal life is their business. I still like Evening Shade," says Farrel Cochran, 40, of Muscle Shoals, Ala.
" After watching his interview on Good Morning America ( where he challenged Anderson to a truth-serum contest to decide who had the first affair) I saw an unhealthy man..." says Laura Hayden, 37, of Fort Leavenworth, Kan. " I fear he's incapable of working on the high energy, intense comedic level he's achieved in the past. I expect the ratings to hit hard as the curious tune in to watch, then I fear its a slow slide to cancellation land."
Evening Shade was created by mega-producer Linda-Bloodworth Thomason to be a slice of life about a high school football coach ( Reynolds) and his family in a small Arkansas town.
Bloodworth-Thomason ran Shade for the first season , but tensions between her and Reynolds caused the star to take over production of the show. He also serves as co-executive producer and directs.
In viewership , the show no longer regularly wins its time slot-NBC's The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air does. Shade had been coming in second to Prince during the season, but this summer has fallen to third place.
CBS attributes the shift to ABC's new 8 pm newsmagazine Day One.
CBS research chief David Poltrack doesn't think Reynolds ' off-camera life will hurt Shade. " We think ( viewers) look beyond that and recognize that it's a very funny show with a lot of very talented people involved."
Joel Sagal of McCann Erickson believes the tabloid notoriety will help. " Those things just tend to attract viewers. Even if its negative publicity , its publicity. It brings attention to the show."
Here's Michael Jeter's Obituary from CBS News.
Actor Michael Jeter Dead At 50
Character Actor Won An Emmy For Role On 'Evening Shade'
LOS ANGELES, April 1, 2003
(AP) Michael Jeter, the character actor who won a supporting actor Emmy as a shrimpy assistant football coach on CBS's "Evening Shade" and was known on "Sesame Street" as The Other Mr. Noodle, has died, his publicist said Monday. He was 50.
Jeter's body was found in his Hollywood Hills home Sunday, publicist Dick Guttman said. Friends said they had communicated with him as recently as Saturday, Guttman added.
An autopsy was planned to determine the cause of death. Guttman said Jeter, who was HIV-positive but had been in good health, apparently died of natural causes.
Jeter had been filming the Christmas movie "The Polar Express." Guttman said the producers believe there is enough footage to preserve Jeter's role in the film.
Jeter, a slim, 5-foot-4 actor with thinning red hair, bushy mustache and a broad grin, played tough runts, sniveling wimps and big-hearted underdogs.
"I often see myself in my private life as being a pinched and confined person. When I get on the stage I can open up," he said in a 1992 interview.
Among his favorite roles was the kindly Mr. Noodle on PBS's children's show "Sesame Street." The character was nicknamed The Other Mr. Noodle when Jeter took over the role from Bill Irwin. The two Noodles, the show explained, were brothers.
"Kids would recognize him and come running up to him, 'Mr. Noodle! Mr. Noodle,"' Guttman recalled. "He really loved that."
On "Evening Shade," which ran from 1990 to 1994, Jeter played the blustery assistant football coach Herman Stiles opposite the calm, paternal lead character played by Burt Reynolds. He won his Emmy in 1992.
He had film roles as a kindhearted mental patient in 1998's "Patch Adams," a mouse-loving prisoner in 1999's "The Green Mile" and a dinosaur-hunting mercenary in 2001's "Jurassic Park III."
Jeter started as a stage actor and won a 1990 supporting actor Tony Award as provincial German Jewish bookkeeper Otto Kringelein in the musical "Grand Hotel."
Jeter grew up in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., and studied acting at Memphis State University.
He worked in theater and in small film roles in the 1970s and '80s, but after two bouts of drug and alcohol abuse he decided the irregular life of a performer was too much for him.
He became a legal secretary and abandoned acting until a casting director sought him out in 1987. He was offered a small role in CBS's "Designing Women," made by the same people who would later produce "Evening Shade."
Here is Ossie Davis's Obituary published on February 4, 2005 by USA TODAY.
Davis devoted his life and his work to civil rights
By Steve Jones, USA TODAY
"The struggle and the arts are connected almost by definition," Ossie Davis once said. The statement also defined his life and career as an actor and director on film, TV and the stage: He pushed for social justice both in entertainment and real life, usually alongside his wife, actress Ruby Dee.
Whether he was appearing in the most serious of dramas or lightest of comedies, Davis always seemed to embody a sense of wisdom and authority with a warm, rich voice and quiet dignity. At the same time, there was a sly humor and genuine kindness lurking just beneath the surface.
Davis, 87, died Friday in Florida. He had been working on the film comedy Retirement with Jack Warden, Peter Falk and George Segal.
Davis left behind a vast body of work. He starred in such movies as The Joe Louis Story, Slaves, Let's Do It Again, Grumpy Old Men and Dr. Dolittle, as well as Spike Lee's School Daze, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever and last year's She Hate Me.
As a director, he is probably best remembered for 1970's gritty Cotton Comes to Harlem, a precursor to the blaxploitation films of the decade, and 1973's Gordon's War.
His TV work ranged from Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones in 1955 to the Burt Reynolds sitcom Evening Shade to the Showtime series The L Word. He also starred in Martin Luther King: The Dream and the Drum, Alex Haley's Queen and Roots: The Next Generations and Stephen King's The Stand.
Broadway dimmed the lights Saturday for Davis, who began his career in 1940 in On Strivers Row and met his wife on the set of Jeb in 1946. As a playwright, he was most famous for 1961's controversial sendup of racial stereotypes, Purlie Victorious, which would be redone as the musical Purlie nine years later.
Davis and Dee paid a cost for many of the political choices they made. They sued in federal court for black voting rights, and when singer/actor Paul Robeson ran afoul of the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, they were steadfast in their support even as they were blacklisted and other blacks rushed to denounce him.
They were at the forefront of the 1963 March on Washington, and when their friend Malcolm X was assassinated, Davis delivered a moving eulogy for the controversial leader. He also spoke at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.
Actor Roy Scheider, who had worked with Davis and attended anti-war rallies with him, told the Associated Press that Davis and Dee were "the first political couple of America. Ossie seemed to always show up at the right time, on the right side, which was always the human side. He had a very heartfelt sympathy for people everywhere."
Burt Reynolds told AP: "Since the loss of my father, no man has come close to represent the kind of man I hope to be someday. I know he's sitting next to God now, and I know God envies that voice."
In the mid-'90s, Davis told an audience at Cornell University that he recalled hearing Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after she had been banned from singing at Washington's Constitution Hall. "I understood fully for the first time," he said, "the importance of black song, black music, black arts. I was handed my spiritual assignment that night."
Davis and Dee, who have three children, celebrated their first 50 years together in 1998 with the dual memoir With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. In December, they received Kennedy Center Honors celebrating their achievements. Dee, 80, was in New Zealand making a movie at the time of Davis' death.
Della Reese, Maya Angelou and Odetta will participate in a tribute to Davis tonight at a Kennedy Center program Davis had been scheduled to be part of.
"As we went along, we became aware of something," Davis said in 1998. "It was from the struggle itself that we gained our true identity. It was the struggle itself that gave us cause to stay together as long as we have."
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