Fall TV Debuts Packed With Stars

TV shows off its finest this week, as the fall season begins packed with big names and highly promoted premieres.

The area once viewed as the minor league of pop entertainment is leaving that stigma behind, launching a crop of prime-time shows brimming with Hollywood star power.

Oscar winner Geena Davis plays a career woman in love, Bette Midler spoofs her own diva persona, Seinfeld star Michael Richards returns as a private eye, and Roseanne veteran John Goodman essays a gay character.

Get the VCR Rolling

Among the first of the nearly two dozen series debuting on the Big Four networks in October and November is NBC’s newsroom drama Deadline, premiering Monday night. Film actor Oliver Platt plays a crusading newspaper columnist with Bebe Neuwirth as his managing editor.

One of the most trumpeted new shows on TV this fall is The Fugitive, a CBS a remake of the ’60s hit show that spawned a 1993 motion picture blockbuster. The new version debuts Friday night with Wings actor Tim Daly in the latest incarnation of the wrongly accused Dr. Richard Kimble.

ABC is banking on one of TV’s most recognizable stars, morning talk show host Regis Philbin, returning as the host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire four nights a week, up from three last season.

Two of Hollywood’s best-known bad boys also will show up this fall on returning shows — Charlie Sheen stepping in for Michael J. Fox as the star of ABC’s Spin City, and Robert Downey Jr. playing a new love interest of Calista Flockhart on Fox’s Ally McBeal.

Hollywood muscle is even showing up behind the small-screen camera this season. James Cameron of Titanic fame masterminded the new Fox sci-fi drama Dark Angel, which begins Tuesday night, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer serves as executive producer of the freshman CBS crime drama C.S.I.

Star Ratings Power?

Industry observers say the abundance of movie actors showing up on television is part of a larger trend. As TV continues to shed its stigma as a second-class medium compared with feature films and gains currency as a haven for top-notch talent, stars are increasingly willing to cross over to the small screen.

The networks are ready to capitalize on their celebrity.

“I think the success of shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has proven more and more that network television is being event-driven,” said Daily Variety TV writer Michael Schneider. “Networks are having to rely more and more on big events, and that includes big names. So the launch of the Bette Midler show becomes a big event,” he added.

Yet a big name is not necessarily the ticket to big ratings. The networks have a mixed track record when it comes to prime-time star vehicles.

Schneider said Ted Danson, who became a household name on Cheers, flopped a few years later with the show Ink but has done quite well with his current CBS series, Becker.

“The danger is that you’re relying on that star alone,” said TV Guide Deputy Editor Lisa Bernhard. “If you have a show that’s cast well for all the roles and you have top-notch writing, then you’re going to click.”

Name Dropping Among big-name stars appearing on TV this season, perhaps none is better known than Bette Midler. The Divine Miss M, a two-time Oscar nominee whose last two films generated little box-office heat, is taking a stab at TV in the CBS series Bette, in which she lampoons her own image, career and ego.

Geena Davis, the statuesque actress who won an Academy Award for her supporting role in The Accidental Tourist but is perhaps best known for her star turn in Thelma & Louise, headlines ABC’s The Geena Davis Show. She stars as a career woman who finds love and an instant family with a widower.

Michael Richards, the first of the four Seinfeld stars to return to series television, landed an NBC sitcom titled The Michael Richards Show, playing private eye Vic Nardozza.

And Roseanne hubby John Goodman, with a number of quirky film roles to his credit, is making a TV comeback on the new Fox comedy Normal, Ohio, playing a gay man who moves back to his hometown to live with his sister and her family.

Designing Women veteran Delta Burke plays the first lady and In Living Color alumnus David Alan Grier co-stars as the Secret Service agent who protects her in DAG on NBC.

The cast of the steamy new Aaron Spelling drama on NBC, Titans, includes one-time Dallas star Victoria Principal and former Baywatch beauty Yasmine Bleeth.

Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, whose film roles range from a priest in Stigmata to Satan in End of Days, stars in the ABC comedy Madigan Men. And Ellen Burstyn, celebrating the re-release of her 1973 film The Exorcist, plays a very different mother role on the new CBS drama That’s Life.