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Poster: Mr. Television
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This was one of my favorite shows of the 1980's. It was very underrated IMO.
Dear John aired from October 1988 until July 1992 on NBC
For more on Dear John go to the mini-page right here at Sitcoms Online
A Review from The New York Times
Review/Television; Life After Divorce, in the 'Taxi' Spirit
By JOHN J. O'CONNOR
Published: October 6, 1988
John Lacey, a New York teacher married for 10 years, comes home to find a ''Dear John'' letter with the news that his wife has run off with his best friend. ''Must have thrown you for a loop,'' says his nasty brother-in-law, sneering. ''And with your best friend yet!'' At the urging of his sister, John decides to visit a singles support group in a community center in Rego Park, Queens. The brother-in-law is puzzled, wondering aloud, ''Why would he want to hang around with a bunch of other pathetic losers?''
So begins ''Dear John,'' being shown tonight at 9 on NBC, and, in the well-established American tradition, based on a BBC sitcom. This new series is being brought to you by many of the wonderful people whose credits include ''Taxi'' and ''Cheers.'' The executive producer is Ed Weinberger. James Burrows is the director. John is played by Judd Hirsch, distinguished ''Taxi'' alumnus. And in the crucial area of scheduling, after tonight's special preview NBC will put ''Dear John'' on at 9:30 P.M., immediately after the solidly established ''Cheers.''
The premiere, written by Bob Ellison and Peter Noah, moves quickly to the community center and its One-to-One Club. Here is the enclosed-environment equivalent of a taxi dispatch station or a bar in Boston, complete with still another set of delightfully oddball citizens. Actually, John starts out by mistakenly walking into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting across the hall. ''My name is John,'' he finally confesses, ''and I'm in the wrong room.'' In typical Weinberger-Burrows fashion, the joke is later given an even better spin.
One-to-One is run by a formidable Englishwoman named Louise Mercer (Jane Carr), who insists that her purpose is not to pry, but then inevitably opens up her question period asking, ''Any sexual problems?'' Most prominent among those in attendance is the ebulliently slimy Kirk (Jere Burns), who is obsessed with the possibility of making out and who assures the appalled John, ''We're gonna get our turkeys tetrazzinied.''
Then there is Ralph (Harry Groener), who hasn't seen his Bulgarian bride since their wedding reception. The irrepressible Kirk offers his consolation, ''Why pour yourself in the dumper over some ugly Commie chick?''
Will John return to this peculiar womb? Well, there is always Kate (Isabella Hofmann), who has difficulty phrasing intelligent questions but is indisputably an attractive woman. Tune in next week. In fact, based on the number of laughs generated in this pilot, tune in for the next several weeks. With Mr. Hirsch and his first-rate co-stars in command, ''Dear John'' is likely to be around for a long while.
An Article from The LA Times
Hirsch's Return in 'Dear John' Is Love Letter to Comedy
November 21, 1988|STEVE WEINSTEIN
"It's like the Jewish mother joke," Judd Hirsch says in answer to the question of why, after years of respect and success on the stage and in the movies, he would choose to return to the slap-it-together, often-artless world of TV sitcoms.
"She gives you two ties for your birthday. You decide to wear one of them to dinner and she says, 'What's the matter with the other one?' "
The chance to make an audience laugh, suggests the 53-year-old actor--who won an Emmy in 1983 for his performance in "Taxi," a Tony in 1986 for his performance in "I'm Not Rappaport," an Obie for his Off-Broadway performance in "Talley's Folly," and an Academy Award nomination for his performance in "Ordinary People"--is one reason why he agreed to return to weekly television in NBC's "Dear John."
"I've dreamed I was Danny Kaye," Hirsch says. "I've always thought the greatest thing for me would be to put all of Danny Kaye's movies into a television show. I've always loved comedy, and you can't be in a comedy every week except on television."
"Dear John" tells the story of John Lacey, who, after coming home one evening to find that his wife has left him for his best friend, stumbles into a support group for a wacky group of lonely hearts.
In many respects, the character is a more innocent, more vulnerable, less sure-of-himself incarnation of Alex Rieger, the moralistic cab driver Hirsch played on "Taxi" from 1978 to 1983. Like Alex, John sounds the only note of sanity in a purgatorial, claustrophobic, one-room club inhabited by an ensemble of nuts and lost souls.
The similarities can't be helped, he says.
"I'm not playing the hunchback of Notre Dame or an 80-year-old man who walks with a cane," Hirsch explains, "so what you see is Judd. Some of my persona is obviously going to be like Alex. But I certainly don't want to be a repeat of something I've already done."
Actually, the similarities are to a certain extent intentional. Ed. Weinberger, co-creator of "Taxi" and "The Cosby Show" and executive producer of "Dear John," which was adapted from a short-lived English series of the same name, said that the writer who created the series for the BBC was a big fan of "Taxi" and wanted an "English Judd Hirsch" for his show.
"He was very pleased that we got the original for this series," Weinberger said. "I don't think anybody could play this part better than Judd. He creates a reality so that no matter what goes on around him, no matter how eccentric everybody else is, he makes them believable. He makes it real and he's also very funny."
Though Hirsch is as eager to reminisce about "Taxi" as he is to speculate about the future of his new series, the inevitable comparisons to "Taxi" point out one of the pitfalls of returning to television. Hirsch says that while the tremendous satisfaction derived from developing a character from week to week and the rush from what he calls "the I-dare-you-to-go-out-before-a-live-audience-and-do-this-now" feeling lured him back to series television, the danger of being typed as Alex or John or another "TV Judd" concerns him.
Hirsch is, after all, one of the very few actors who slips effortlessly from TV series to Broadway to feature films and back again, racking up awards and favorable reviews wherever he performs. In the last year, for example, he toured "I'm Not Rappaport" around the country, starred in Sidney Lumet's feature film "Running on Empty," appeared earlier this month in the TV movie "The Great Escape II," and plunged headlong into the first season of "Dear John."
"You take a lot of chances doing something like this (a series) because you're setting up the public to know you in a certain way," Hirsch says.
"I truly resent going on a stage playing Chekhov and having someone say, 'It's like Alex from "Taxi." ' You always have to battle somebody else's idea of who you are. You play a psychiatrist (as he did in 'Ordinary People'), and you can't believe how many scripts to play a psychiatrist you get.
"And in television, you get so stuck into whatever identification they have for you simply because so many people are watching. It's a fickle place to be. Judgments are made on you like you've never been judged."
The judgment of "Dear John" co-star Jere Burns is ringingly positive. Without Hirsch, he says, the other characters in the series couldn't stand.
"Judd lends our characters credibility in that to the extent he takes us seriously, the audience can take us seriously and believe in us," says Burns, who portrays Kirk, a pathetically obnoxious and completely failed swinger who leaves his shirt unbuttoned to his waist and calls women "femmes."
"It has something to do with his being able to sublimate his ego. If it's right, he doesn't care how silly he looks. That's a rare quality."
Chances are good that Hirsch and his gang of eccentrics will be acting silly for some time. NBC blessed "Dear John" with the most coveted time slot in prime time--Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. following "Cosby," "A Different World" and "Cheers." Since debuting Oct. 6, "Dear John" has performed respectably, consistently landing among the Top 20 programs in the ratings, although it has suffered a significant audience drop-off from its three even higher-rated lead-ins.
Hirsch, who studied math and physics in college and worked as an engineer for Westinghouse before finding his niche on the stage at age 25, concedes that committing himself to a weekly series does limit his career options. But he insists that this particular series is worth it and that, as before, he will work on the stage or in films during breaks in his TV schedule.
"I turned down a tremendous amount of television in the last few years in which I said, 'If I ever did that, I'm a dead man.' This I decided I could do for a while," he says. "Sure you have doubts. It's a scary place to be when you're expected to be a hit right from the start. But for all of that anxiety, they do pay you a lot."
An Article from The New York Times
ANATOMY OF A Sitcom
By LINDA BLANDFORD:
Published: April 2, 1989
OUT OF THOUSANDS OF SITUATION COMEDIES PITCHED in Hollywood each television season, few succeed. This year, there are three new hits: ''Roseanne,'' large, noisy, the tabloid of sitcoms; ''Empty Nest,'' full of lunatic, cheery farce; and an unusual winner, a quiet, downbeat comedy with an impeccable pedigree, ''Dear John.''
In a medium traditionally peopled by miraculously happy families (''The Bill Cosby Show,'' ''Family Ties''), ''Dear John'' is about a support group of needy and anxious singles - mostly divorced - who meet in a drab community center in outer Queens. It is about losers, albeit dreamers - hardly the stuff of a network's happy half-hours. And yet, against the odds, it comes in week after week in the magical top 15 ratings.
STAGE 27 ON THE PARAMOUNT STUDIOS LOT IS HUGE, DARK AND still. Busy Hollywood days outside go unnoticed. Inside is a world of its own: part theater, it is drafty, shabby, full of dust and dead ashtrays, pools of light and dark corners. It is part prison with 16-hour days and regulars talking of life ''on the outside.'' It is home, too. Amid the sticky dishes of buns and caramel corn, the staff of ''Dear John'' toil through the long week to capture the sparkle and life that might draw viewers to NBC at 9:30 on Thursday night -Thursday after Thursday.
At 11 o'clock on a recent Monday morning, the first meeting of a new episode is about to start. The script appears on thick white paper. It is called a first draft but it has already been through countless incarnations. Each future revision appears on a new color: pink, blue, yellow and even, on thorny weeks, a last-minute lilac. This is to be a lilac week. In television, they are fond of saying that anyone can do a movie: you only have to do it once. The real test, they say, is here in this bare script, so spare that five lines is a monologue.
The actors are already on stage, hair awry, noses dripping with heavy colds, faces scrubbed. The talk is of baby showers, new puppies and mortgages: the small change of people unexpectedly growing close. The show is too new, its success too untrustworthy for there to be much glossiness or false charm about its stars. But who, in the end, would not be spoiled? The numbers defy imagination. Over 27 million people watch ''Dear John.'' In television, an audience of only 15 million - the population of many nations - can mean failure and rejection.
The smell of theater still hangs over the company. The production schedule calls forth memories of summer stock: washed-out Monday mornings, a new play each week, underrehearsed and overworked, performed Friday nights for the cameras and an audience of 300 on uncomfortable, narrow bleachers.
Unexpectedly for a sitcom, ''Dear John's'' five regular cast members are all stage performers. Jere Burns, the insensitive and bigoted Kirk, was in Sam Shepard's ''True West'' with the Steppenwolf Company. Louise, the bossy group leader with a prurient interest in other people's sex lives, is played by Jane Carr. She came to Los Angeles first in ''Nicholas Nickleby'' with the Royal Shakespeare Company. (''Oh, this isn't very different really . . . .'') Isabella Hofmann, the gentle and elusive Kate, was with Second City in Chicago. Harry Groener, the owlish and naive Ralph, won Tony nominations for his work in a revival of ''Oklahoma'' and in ''Cats.''
The show's anchor is Judd Hirsch. He plays John Lacey, a good-hearted English teacher, still baffled that his loving blonde wife left him for his best friend. If anyone should swagger into this cozy, smoke-filled Monday, it should be Hirsch, who has received a Tony for ''I'm Not Rappaport'' on Broadway, an Oscar nomination for ''Ordinary People'' and two Emmys for his acting in television's legendary series ''Taxi.''
Hirsch, though, is a trouper. His face, given the context, is massively unassuming, wrinkled, imperfect. In Los Angeles, few such faces escape unrevised. Actors dream of being Redford or even Hoffman; few dream of being Judd Hirsch, as he well knows.
''For Chrissake, where did they dig you up?'' Hirsch bounds in to hug a worn and untidy man with baggy and lugubrious eyes. Noam Pitlik is the director of the week, one of that inner circle of sitcom ''traffic cops'' - a hundred episodes of ''Barney Miller,'' many of ''Taxi.'' The director as auteur - the vision of feature films - is not the way of television. Once Pitlik hoped for movies (''When I was more ambitious and less old'') but he has settled for this, the smaller glory of working among friends. Union minimum per half-hour episode is $11,644. Word on the set has it that Pitlik earns more than twice that amount: comforting enough for a Hebrew teacher's son who grew up in Depression Philadelphia.
Pitlik, nice as he is, is not the fulcrum. No one jumps to attention because he is here. The power, clearly, lies elsewhere. A long trestle table has been set up onstage and silent hands have arranged around it scarlet deck chairs with writers' and producers' names on them. All through the week, these chairs materialize and disappear. A line of them here, another there - and it soon becomes evident that when they are set up, writers and producers are about to descend. Actors have to pull up their own chairs.
The writers arrive now: a procession of writers, thin, lanky and young writers; roly-poly and even younger; tall, lanky and old, little and big. The cast calls them the Junta. The procession has about it something of Gilbert and Sullivan. The self-consciousness, perhaps; the slight hint of condescension in the air. Certainly, only Hirsch's wardrobe designer outdresses them: she is a raven-haired, jewelry-clanking beauty, who darts in now and again to bring a whiff of Hollywood to this homely proceeding.
The atmosphere has changed now. The laughs are more contrived, there is a tension and edginess. The actors were given a dressing-down not so long ago for having an ''attitude problem.'' The writers complained that cast members were not trying hard enough to ''sell'' their scripts in the crucial Monday morning reading, not trying to make the jokes funny, not showing respect for the words - and, by implication, proper respect for those who wrote them.
Writers, as everyone knows, are the lackeys of the film industry. (The starlet joke goes: ''She was so dumb, she slept with the writer.'') The exception is situation comedy. They call it ''the voice,'' ''the melody'' and every successful show has one. Even when it comes with a star such as Bill Cosby or Roseanne Barr, it is the writers' words that give breath to the voice, inner pulse to the melody. It has turned the best writers into the princes of television and made little writers into little gods.
DEAR JOHN'' WAS created for NBC and Paramount by one of the masters of situation comedy, Ed. (as in Edwin) Weinberger. He is one of the last of a special group: the Mary Tyler Moore alumni. Other groups of writers may have been more flamboyant, but it was the MTM years that proved the touchstone.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show developed a school of comedy based not on one-liners or broad jokes but on character, dark touches, stories, sadness and a wealth of acting talent. MTM was like an excellent collection of short stories, the limelight fading in and out on Mary, or those around her, at will. There was Cloris Leachman as Phyllis, Valerie Harper as Rhoda, Ted Knight as Ted Baxter, Ed Asner as Lou Grant. Where difficult issues were dealt with - Lou Grant's separation and divorce, for instance - the show was funny without being simple-minded. Ed. (his punctuation) Weinberger started writing for MTM in 1972. In 1978, he went on to create ''Taxi'' - a crew of taxi drivers hanging out in a huge garage in New York: losers but dreamers.
''Taxi'' had its own richness. In a wire-mesh cage above the taxi drivers, the mean, abusive Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito) strutted and scourged. The cabbies were a textured and mismatched bunch: a burned-out hippie preacher, a struggling boxer, an East European emigre and, in their midst, Judd Hirsch as Alex, the middle-aged Everyman. In these people, in this unlikely setting, the life force could be sensed at work. And part of it was Ed. Weinberger. Edwin Weinberger arrives last this Monday morning. He always arrives last. He is a chaotic-looking man with the face of a chronically anxious badger and the long, flying, silvery hair of a man in his 50's who wishes there was more of it. He hides behind thick spectacles tinted brown, a glimmer lurking still of the brilliant Columbia undergraduate who expected to teach 17th-century literature, but who dropped out to sell jokes to nightclub comedians. Long ago, he served his apprenticeship - monologues for Johnny Carson, jokes for Bob Hope in Vietnam, for Dick Gregory in Mississippi, for Dean Martin specials.
With his partner Stan Daniels (a Rhodes Scholar at Magdalene College, Oxford, and philosophy don manque), he was half of a famous writing team. Picture these two introverted and cerebral men, Daniels painfully writing in longhand, Weinberger pacing to and fro looking for the bizarre moment, the wild card. Weinberger no longer writes scripts as such: he runs, owns, produces. (''When you get to be Ed Period,'' an insider remarks, ''the world says you are too big to write.'') This is not to say that ''Dear John'' is not his in the creative sense. He found the show on English television and brought the idea to America. The differences are interesting: the other was cruel and quick in the British way; its John was a whining loser. Weinberger's show is warmer, kinder, more to do with fighting back and reaching out, with life's awkward second act. His John is not a victim as much as a man permanently surprised by life, peering out at it and hoping to be touched by it. (''You're so good,'' Kate wails at him, drunkenly trying to get him into bed. ''I'm sorry. I don't mean to be,'' he immediately apologizes.) It is a gentle, shy comedy, often touching -and Ed. Weinberger's voice, confused at the mess of life, is in there somewhere.
Every joke and bit of business goes through his personal sieve as he paces around, clutching his large cigar. When he arrives for this first actors' reading, there is not a ''hello,'' as there will not be a ''goodbye.''
John: ''Come on, Kate.
What do you say? It's the game of the season -Knicks and Lakers - and someone gave me floor seats at half court.''
Kate: ''To be honest, John, I think football is an incredibly stupid game.''
Ed. paces. Is it too obvious? Is it patronizing to let Kate, the good-looking redhead play for the simple laugh? On the other hand, is it obvious enough? Is it not very middle-class and L.A. to assume that out there, beyond the San Fernando Valley, everyone knows their basketball from football?
Approach it from another angle, he suggests.
''It's great,'' says John now. ''You're so close to the action that the players' sweat sometimes hits you right in the face.''
Kate: ''John, do me a favor. Ask me again when you don't have such good seats.''
In a page and a half, each character must be set. Kate, holding herself back slightly; John, turning hopefully in all directions. Ralph, the neurotic bumbler, gets a turn at the tickets:
Ralph: ''I'd love to, but I should warn you, if there's going to be a lot of people, there's a good chance I could break out in hives, hyperventilate, go all funny-colored and, most likely, faint.''
Louise turns the offer down with a very sexy shiver: ''Mmm . . . tall men running around in their underwear. . . . I'd love to dear, but I'm busy tomor-row night.'' Kirk, eyes aglitter, angles for an invitation.
By Friday, each of these tiny speeches will have been tried this way and that, struck out, rewritten, shortened, moved aside - worried at by Ed. Period, stubbornly looking for the word or two that sets alight the unheard laughter.
No wonder the actors dance around Weinberger after this first reading. It is not just his well-known temper that they fear: it is that no one on his staff is his size anymore. Once, in the MTM or ''Taxi'' days, he was surrounded by talent. Others, who were as clever, as brilliant, have moved on, among them, James L. Brooks, to ''Broad-cast News'' and other films, and Stan Daniels, to being top writer and director of other television projects. (For old-time sakes, he has also directed five episodes of ''Dear John.'')
Wednesday. This week's episode is ''on its feet,'' taking shape on Stage 27. Lines come and go. (''My niece's preschool is doing a production of 'The Iceman Cometh' '' did not last long.) The Junta sweeps in and out for run-throughs. The actors stay, patiently working and reworking each line, each word. They sniffle and cough, comparing flu remedies. By now, they are on the third rewritten script. They shake their heads as weary teachers do over yet more splodgy essays from the third grade. ''Judd, let me ask you,'' Harry Groener sighs. ''Who changed the line from 'Oh, my God' to 'Yikes!' '' A pause. ''I'm just trying to figure out the process.'' Hollow laughter all round.
Judd Hirsch is in a remarkably good mood. The guest star this week is an old friend, Cleavon Little, who co-starred with him in ''I'm Not Rappaport,'' a comedy about two old men, one Jewish, one black. They hope to bring subtlety to their scenes together. The problem is that subtlety in sitcom is negotiable: 22 minutes, two acts, 40 or so sparse pages.
Cleavon Little plays a gay man who falls in love with John Lacey. ''We said, 'What if we did a ''Fatal Attraction''? ' '' said the staff writer David Hackel, who wrote the original script. ''We said, 'What if we made him gay? What's the funniest situation we can think of? How can we make the character of John Lacey squirm?' '' Did he research the subject, given the sensitivity of gay men, let alone blacks? ''Well, I run in the valley three times a week with a writer whose partner is gay. I don't want to be offensive - I want to be real.''
Weinberger and Hirsch at least understand other, more complicated arenas. Hirsch tells the story of his first part on Broadway, as the ethnic telephone man in ''Barefoot in the Park'' and of longing to read for the handsome lawyer leading man. He tells of the agent who said he was too ''regional'' for commercials. He chain-smokes when he can; when he is angry, he mocks the world - and himself most of all.
''I'm not sure I'm not selling myself down the river doing this, I'm not sure Federico Fellini isn't saying, 'I'm not going to have that guy because he's on television.' '' He started his career, he says, being offered ''the miserable man, the underbellied character in even seedier circumstances.'' Enough remains of the early Judd Hirsch to know how John Lacey feels going home at nights to the sofa bed in desolate Queens.
Weinberger long ago embraced the silkiness of Los Angeles success: the house at the beach, the gated estate in town, the Greek-goddess actress-wife (Carlene Watkins), the children's birthday party with valet parking. But he still needs to need more. ''By any normal, decent standards,'' he says, ''the money is absurd, but I suppose I'm the product of the worst aspects of our society. No matter how much it is, it never seems enough.''
And somewhere in that sentence is the voice that comes through in his comedy: the little man, self-deprecating, whose inner voice colored the darker moments of ''Taxi'' as they do now of ''Dear John.'' He is still the tragic clown, the lunatic funny man in a band of WASP's, the insecure, complicated Jew, only son of a butcher in Philadelphia.
WEINBERGER HAS learned the other stuff, the producing and dealing. (''Producing,'' says Bob Ellison, a producer of ''Dear John,'' another MTM veteran, ''is the punishment for writing well. Producing is screaming into the phone: 'How much does she want!' '') Weinberger makes the show for Paramount, who sells it to NBC; he will share in the profits. The problem is that it is no longer enough to have a modest hit. The stakes have gone too high for that. James L. Brooks (of MTM and ''Taxi'') won Oscars for ''Terms of Endearment.'' James Burrows and Glen and Les Charles (who worked with Weinberger on ''Taxi'') made many millions from their television show ''Cheers.''
The money is only part of it, though. It is proof, manifestation: the real longing is to be courted, to be appreciated, to be more than filling between commercials. James Burrows was profiled in GQ, the men from ''Family Ties'' and ''Cosby'' were in People.
Weinberger asks too many questions of himself to submit to many from others. ''Dear John'' is not his only show, for instance. He also created another television hit sitcom, ''Amen.'' Gossip has it that he started the show, set in a raucous black church, as a ''black Cosby Show'' in a fit of pique after creating and leaving the original. ''Do you think it was arrogant?'' he asks. ''Maybe it was. Maybe it was just stupid. Is it being condescending? Hell, I'm scared to death of it.''
It is one of those knotty contradictions: the black show run by white, middle-aged, middle-class men, as if the world of inner-city pain, of anger and history had been edited out, painted over. In this enclosed world, it seems at times as if there are only cheery rooms with simple colors and brash lighting and fun, fun, fun. There is an inherent and colossal innocence to sitcom life, an innocence that ''Taxi'' and now ''Dear John'' have tinged slightly and nervously with ''reality.'' ''You're doing lonely,'' says the doleful Weinberger of his new show ''and America doesn't have much affection for losers.''
THE CHALLENGE this week is to make a gay man's unrequited love lighter, funnier and more convincing all at the same time. Fortunately, the director Noam Pitlik is liked by the struggling actors. He has acted in his time and he even says ''please'' and ''thank you,'' unheard words here. He is extremely delicate with them and it is just as well. At the end of Act One, Cleavon Little has to kiss Hirsch as he declares his love. Full on the mouth, the script has it, and Hirsch gamely goes along. (The only resentment he shows is for stupid bits of business: ''I don't do silly, I don't do hee hee hee, hah hah hah,'' as he puts it.) They try it one way, they try it another. They try it in rehearsal, they try it in run-through. ''You've got to make it more playful,'' Weinberger calls to Little suddenly. He has, uncharacteristically, left himself open. ''Show him, Ed., show him,'' come the calls from the ranks.
In that moment of ribbing, the curtain lifts and the real glue shows: the camaraderie, the chumming around with the guys, the maleness of this world, a place where those who shy from feelings can release them in humor. For an instant, Weinberger is a small, awkward boy again; he blushes and blusters. ''What do you think, I'm afraid?'' he scoffs defiantly. ''I'm not afraid to kiss a guy.'' The bravado, the wanting to be as big as the other guys - the playground toughs when he was young, the movie moguls now that he is big. All those sides of him have been in his work, and are still.
Weinberger does not let Little kiss him, of course. He is too tense these days for the spontaneous gesture, unless it is wrapped in something safe, like anger or laughter. It is Judd Hirsch who finally stops acting as the hired hand and steps over the magic line between set and stage, from actors' place to writers' turf. He takes off his glasses and talks to the line of personalized directors' chairs. He pleads for them to write in some fun, some embarrassment, a moment that can be soft and beautiful.
As with any good performance, the response is electric. For the first time in a week, there is total silence on stage - not through tension or resentment but because everyone is moved. So they try it another way. Little, for that second, is a lonely man reaching out for his life, trying to offer affection. The kiss is long, deep, caring -and full on the mouth. There is a long, long still moment afterward. ''Oh,'' wails a voice in the darkness by the bleachers. ''It's so real at this moment that I don't want to laugh. And that's terrible.''
IT IS FRIDAY EVENING, time to record the show that will first go out in mid-February and, if the heavens are kind, will live to run again and again in repeats and syndication. Some 120 prime rib dinners have been served. Some shows are stingy with crew food: ''Dear John'' prides itself on being a class act. But it means 120 bodies milling around during the show: cameras, cables, booms, pot-bellied carpenters, clean vice presidents from network and Paramount.
Backstage, Kirk practices one of his big moments: ''Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. In short, whoa.'' Another way, possibly. ''Who, whoa. . . .'' Sitcom is not unlike too large a host of angels dancing on the head of a pin. It is amazing when it works at all. ''If something appears not good enough,'' says the producer Peter Noah huffily, ''maybe it is because it is hard to do, not because everyone is a moron.''
It is the eternal contradiction of television sitcom: the gossamer of comedy relies on an apparatus that is as unwieldy as a truck. There is the frantic need of networks for ratings and shares (''Dear John'' hovers between 10th and 14th place and a 20 percent to 25 percent share of the audience), the bombardment of commercials, the creative teamwork that has everyone chip in, the watering down, the coarsening and flattening out.
Somehow the actors have to survive all this, have to bring life, color and spontaneity to the support group in the shabby Queens community center in which they sit and talk. Each actor has his own solution: Jere Burns, as the obnoxious Kirk, uses his icy blue eyes to sneer at the newcomer's gayness and blackness. He uses gesture and energy. He buttons and unbuttons his jacket, twitches and darts. ''You know, Ralphie,'' he leers, unbidden. ''He's light in his loafers . . . got a little extra bounce in his boots . . . a little too much air in his Nikes.'' Cleavon Little's Tony turns bitterly to John: ''You will let me know when they get to the supportive part,'' he says quietly.
Jane Carr, the Shakespearean veteran, brings a heaving bosom and a robust delight in sex (''Are there any . . . er . . . sexual problems?'' is her catch line). Harry Groener as Ralph hugs his hysteria and bewilderment to himself. His feeling is of barely contained, almost puppyish eagerness. Isabella Hofmann is careful to balance all this lunacy with a very special, almost fluid grace. Hirsch and Little simply respond to the audience, for they are theater men in their bones. They sense the affection for them in those darkened, uncomfortable bleachers, and play out to it, beyond the cameras and paraphernalia.
''I love you in spite of your faults,'' Little says to Hirsch and kisses him playfully - on his large, friendly nose. The kiss gets the largest laugh so far of the season. Embarrassment and resentment are instantly dissolved. Just as Weinberger said they would be.
An Article from People Magazine
Gaining Fame as Dear John's Hunk Lout Is No Sweat for Jere Burns
Susan Schindehette and Kristina Johnson April 10, 1989
He is every woman’s worst nightmare: the lascivious shark in a gold chain, loud sport shirt and polyester suit, hell-bent on targeting the nearest broadski or femme. He is Kirk Morris, easily the biggest, funniest, sleaziest slime ball on prime-time TV, and as played by Jere Burns, he’s the main reason NBC’s Dear John has become one of only three new series to crack the Nielsen Top 10.
Actually, his character on Thursday night’s Dear John—a sitcom about a self-help group of newly divorced singles—is significantly less loathsome than some of the psychotic dementos Jere Burns used to play: a rapist on Hill Street Blues, a criminal on Crime Story and a body collector on Max Headroom. So in a way, playing what one critic described as “a man on the make with all the subtlety of Godzilla destroying Tokyo” actually represents a step in the right direction.
“I always think that people must be so relieved to meet Jere [pronounced Jerry] and see how intelligent and easygoing he is,” says his wife, Melissa. “It’s so different from what they see on television. I’ll be sitting there watching the show with Jere, and I’ll laugh at Kirk. There’s no connection between the man sitting next to me and the guy I’m watching.”
Far from the cheesy lothario he plays opposite Judd Hirsch’s character, Jere seems every bit the devoted family guy. On a recent Ventura afternoon in the swimming pool, as he sorts out his three kids from the household’s golden retriever, Burns is the happy home-lifer—with a touch of lunacy. When 4-year-old Jake slips from his mother and falls on the pavement, Jere rushes to examine the scrape, then turns to his wife: “Honey, don’t trip him like that. It’s funny on the grass, but it’s not funny on the flagstone.”
From the sound of the audience’s laughter in the Dear John studio, it seems as if Burns, 32, has always been a riot. But according to Melissa, 33, Burns’s comic light has been hidden under a bushel until now. “Jere played the heaviest characters you could find,” she says. “But there was this thing lurking in the background. The world didn’t know that comedy was his ace in the hole.”
In fact, the deck was stacked sometime in childhood. Says Burns: “Even as a little kid, there was a certain amount of competitiveness around the kitchen table to see who could get my father to laugh.” Growing up in Cambridge, Mass., the eldest of four boys (Dad was a cap-and-gown manufacturer, Mom was a housewife), Burns landed his first bad-guy role in the ninth grade in The Came Mutiny. Dad wasn’t laughing when Burns decided on a two-year precollege hiatus, but before enrolling at the University of Massachusetts in 1976, Jere racked up real-time experience—lifeguarding on Cape Cod, bumming through Europe and driving a cab in Boston. He got held up a few times doing that, he recalls. “They’d put a gun to your head and tell you to give them your money. You would give them all your money…then change your pants.”
A comparative literature major at U Mass, Burns also studied theater, but “the acting department seemed a little too precious and special. I’d just stay over in the lit department, smoke cigarettes and pretend I was an intellectual.”
In 1982 Burns and Melissa, who’d met in college, got around to marrying, just after their daughter was born. A fledgling acting career in New York short-circuited when Jere moved to L.A. in 1985. “I had no desire really to live out here,” he says. “But I had an enormous desire to work. At the time, TV seemed like a fun departure from off-Broadway and making $98 a week. Also, it was sunny, and there weren’t as many fat people out here. Rear ends were a lot smaller on this coast.”
Three weeks after his arrival, Burns landed his first role, as the pathological rapist on Hill Street. Now, six years into his acting career, his chiseled blond looks are finally sparking interest. Melissa recalls that, seated in the audience during Dear John’s first taping, she overheard two girls in front of her cooing, ‘ “Ooh, look! There’s the stud!”
Burns wouldn’t mind becoming a mega-big success, although his motives are not material. “What I’m working for doesn’t have a lot to do with money or fame,” he says. “It has to do with having choices. It’s freedom—the ability to say yes when you want to say yes, the ability to say, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow. Today, I’m swimming with my kids.’ ”
—Susan Schindehette, Kristina Johnson in Los Angeles
An Article from The Chicago Tribune
Burns At Home As Quirky Kirk Of `Dear John`
August 13, 1989|By Michael Carmack.
Where would NBC`s ``Dear John`` be without Kirk Morris? Where would womankind be without this struttin` lounge lizard swathed in polyester? Where would Kirk be without Kirk?
The answer to the first question is, possibly not in TV`s top 20; to the second, at home, in bed, content with a good book; and the third, frankly, alone.
Half-childlike, half-John Travolta (``Saturday Night Fever`` era)
cardboard cutout, Kirk is played with tailored brashness by Jere Burns. He`s the infectious slimeball that one wouldn`t consider befriending but at the same time can`t get enough of. The movement of the hands-as if Kirk was built
, from patten leather shoes up, from an Erector Set-the cockiness of one who has all the answers but doesn`t know any of the questions, adds up to the case of a potentially classic television character whose fame could well live on long after his series has met its demise. People will be ``doing`` Kirk for years to come.
But ``Dear John,`` now beginning its second season, looks to have a long, prosperous life, thanks in part to Burns, who has carefully instilled both an arrogance and, surprisingly, a tenderness in Kirk.
``What makes people laugh at Kirk,`` Burns says, ``is his crudeness, his obnoxiousness-which comes out of his lack of knowledge-his insecurity; his being `clueless` as to social protocol. It comes out of his need to have fun and his desire to be the center of attention, and for him, to be the center of attention is the best thing in the world. Of course, he doesn`t understand why it is not the best thing in the world for everyone else, as far as they`re concerned. He genuinely thinks everyone appreciates what he is doing.``
And what he does in the One-Two-One Club is cruise the lonely hearts, offering usually inane advice-especially when it`s not wanted and butting in when he should be butting out. But the reality is that Kirk is possibly the most singular of singles, the loneliest one of all who gather each Thursday for this half-hour of humor and shared feelings.
During the first season, Burns pretty much played it for laughs; but the sophomore year might add a little dimension to Mr. Insensitive.
Burns says that, ``I don`t know what the new year holds. As an actor I`d like to go as many places with the character as I can and find out how far he can go, how far he can be stretched, and how many directions he can be stretched in. I don`t anticipate getting on one specific course with Kirk this year and maintaining it. But I do imagine it will be a journey that will go all over the place.``
It could even go backward as well as forward. As Burns points out, no one really knows Kirk`s history, or if he was ever married.
``I`d like to think that Kirk ended up in the One-Two-One Club for all the wrong reasons,`` Burns continues. ``I don`t think he`s divorced, I don`t think he`s separated, I don`t think he`s widowed. I think he was looking for companionship and he had explored other avenues and he thought he`d give this a shot. He came in one night and met John, then Harry and Ralph and then Isabella, Jane and Louise. He found a home, and he has been there ever since.``
For Burns, originally from Cambridge, Mass., home off-screen for the last four years has been Los Angeles. In recent years he has found happiness in film (``Let`s Get Harry,`` ``Touch and Go``) and TV (recurring roles in ``Hill Street Blues`` and ``Max Headroom`` and the upcoming made-for-TV movie
``Repeat Performance``), but he`s actually a theater-trained actor with numerous credits, including Moliere`s ``Don Juan`` at the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Obie-winning (off-Broadway) production of Sam Shepard`s
Burns hasn`t forsaken the stage as much as further establishing credibility in all three mediums. He sees diversity as an advantage, not only in terms of roles, but also in the amount of work available.
``I came to Los Angeles because I was signed to do a movie,`` Burns says. ``But ultimately, as an actor, I also wanted to increase my choices and fortunately a certain amount of freedom exists once you get to a point in the industry. In other words, an actor who can work equally in all three mediums works more than someone who works in just one or two.
``The work just started to roll in (in Los Angeles) and I stayed for the money. I`m happiest when I`m working. But I have no preference for film over TV or stage because it`s like some days you like to eat fish, some days you like to eat chicken. You like them both in different ways and from each you get different things.``
And with ``Repeat Performance,`` scheduled for mid-December on NBC, Burns hopes for not only good notices, but also a sense that ``Dear John`` fans, especially, will appreciate him as someone other than Kirk. Therefore, during his first hiatus from the series he chose a role as far from his sitcom character as possible, costarring with Connie Sellecca and David Dukes in a remake of a 1947 thriller.
It takes place on New Year`s Eve as a person is purportedly murdered. Burns portrays a character named Robert, who as a writer won a Pulitzer Prize when he was 20, but in the eight years since hasn`t artistically reached the same level.
``Connie plays a woman who is an actress who thinks she murdered her husband, and I`m her best friend, her soulmate, sort of a kindred spirit. We`re going to her lawyer on this New Year`s Eve and in the elevator she says to me, `Oh, God, wish I could change.` And I say, `You can`t alter fate, you can`t change destiny` and then the elevator stops, the doors open and I`m not there. Then we realize in the course of the next minute as she enters her lawyer`s apartment that she has in fact gone back a year in time and the rest of the movie is with her and me trying to alter the circumstances that led up to the death of her husband.
``I think it will be very stylistic; it`s partially in black-and-white and there will even be some new kinds of color techniques used. It`s a good script, a good change.``
But while other projects will help enhance Burns` career, it`s Kirk, with that know-it-all smile hanging off of his lips, that can make Burns one of the most popular and well-known actors on television today.
``Kirk comes from my imagination; it`s really an amalgamation of characteristics that are East Coast and urban, fun in a sleazy way. It`s kind of mysterious how these things are arrived at,`` he adds. ``Dan Aykroyd used to have a character named E. Buzz Miller, which I always found enormously inspiring. I think Kirk originally borrowed some superficial characteristics of E. Buzz Miller. But I think we`ve gone on from there.``
One unusual thing for Burns, especially with his stage background, and the rest of the ``Dear John`` cast, which includes Judd Hirsch, is the minor complexities in shooting the series in front of an audience.
``It`s not a problem, but it is an issue you really have to deal with and drives some people crazy, writers included,`` Burns explains. ``Some people wonder what we are using the audience for. I`m not quite sure, frankly. I guess the audience gives us a momentum, gives us a charge and for the most part it is great that they are there. But, at the same time, after they`re gone (after we`ve filmed), I find myself rethinking things and redoing things during pickups (additional filming without an audience). I am ambivalent about the audience. I love having them, but because we are actually playing to cameras, it is sometimes confusing.``
Confusing or not, for the most part Kirk still gets the laughs and Burns gets the notoriety. And while Kirk can seem to verge on the obnoxious, he always has a restraining leash on nonetheless.
``That`s the danger,`` Burns says. ``If Kirk started saying things that people were unable to laugh at, that was cutting, we`d turn them off. He`s so close to `over-the-top` that if he gets really obnoxious, if he gets hostile, he gets vindictive, no one is going to care about him.``
But people do care, for, as one critic said, inside Kirk Morris is a marshmallow. Sometimes he says things to get attention, and what he often says is not meant to hurt.
``I love the association (with Kirk),`` Burns adds. ``I love the opportunity to play him. I just love creating him.`` So, apparently, do a lot of other people.
To read some articles about Dear John go to http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=r1xWAAAAIBAJ&sjid=CfADAAAAIBAJ&dq=dear%20john%20tv%20show&pg=2969%2C4163915 and http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=-YREAAAAIBAJ&sjid=J7UMAAAAIBAJ&dq=dear%20john%20tv%20show&pg=1022%2C449573 and http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=6ohJAAAAIBAJ&sjid=_AsNAAAAIBAJ&dq=dear%20john%20tv%20show&pg=5346%2C2631322 and http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=u19WAAAAIBAJ&sjid=YvADAAAAIBAJ&dq=dear%20john%20judd%20hirsch&pg=6923%2C4344015 and http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=DzsdAAAAIBAJ&sjid=IKYEAAAAIBAJ&dq=dear%20john%20judd%20hirsch&pg=5892%2C5819411 and http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=KwYqAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Uc4EAAAAIBAJ&dq=dear%20john%20judd%20hirsch&pg=5168%2C4320710 and http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=VaxPAAAAIBAJ&sjid=AlMDAAAAIBAJ&dq=dear%20john%20tv%20show&pg=6876%2C2649796
To read Billie Bird's Obituary go to http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=LrstAAAAIBAJ&sjid=FooFAAAAIBAJ&dq=billie%20bird%20dies&pg=6562%2C1140991
To watch clips of Dear John go to https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=dear+john+tv+show
For Tim's TV Showcase go to https://web.archive.org/web/20130406173554/http://www.timstvshowcase.com/dearjohn.html
For an article on Dear John go to http://previously.tv/dear-john/what-exactly-was-going-on-in-the-dear-john-opening-theme/
For the Somewhat Official Harry Groener Fanpage go to https://www.facebook.com/The-Somewhat-Official-Harry-Groener-Site-116121335090822/
For a Tribute to Billie Bird go to http://www.harmonize.com/dapperdans/quartets/billiebird/billiebird.htm
For some Dear John-related interview videos at the Archive of American Television go to https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/shows/dear-john
To watch the opening credits go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKF3C5EqY2Q
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Keywords: The Cast of Dear John (Links Updated 7/16/18)