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This fall's movies and miniseries

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It took Sleeping With the Enemy, Thelma & Louise, and Terminator 2 to teach the slow learners at Hollywood’s movie studios what the networks have long known: Strong women can mean big audiences. While meaty roles for actresses have always been a mainstay of TV movies and miniseries, this season’s projects, more than 100 in all, will showcase women in unprecedented variety, from the scary (half a dozen films feature women as stone killers tough enough to take out any Nielsen family that stands in their way) to the subtle. This year, actresses will turn up as bosses and brawlers, cops and robbers, reporters and wrestlers, and — in a Hallmark Hall of Fame — a turn-of-the-century frontierswoman.

Many of the actresses aren’t the usual TV-movie suspects. A major casting coup belongs to CBS, which signed Jessica Lange to play a struggling immigrant in Hallmark’s adaptation of Willa Cather’s 1913 novel, O Pioneers! Last year, NBC secured Jessica Tandy for The Story Lady, then waited for her to recover from illness; the film, about a widow who unwittingly becomes a kids’-TV star, will air in December. Doris Day returns to TV after a long absence in ABC’s The Widows Club, intended to launch a film series in which she’ll play an amateur detective. NBC’s Wild Texas Wind casts Dolly Parton as a battered woman suspected of killing her lover, and Roseanne Arnold makes her TV-movie debut as a high school football coach in ABC’s Backfield in Motion.

Some of this season’s biggest names aren’t the stars but the subjects of a spate of TV biographies. Suzanne Somers will play herself in ABC’s Keeping Secrets, about her struggle with her alcoholic father. Crime Story‘s Stephen Lang takes a swing at Babe Ruth, and Twin Peaks‘ Dana Ashbrook gets a crack at Warren Beatty’s role in Fox’s Bonnie and Clyde: The True Story. ABC’s four-hour The Jackson Five could get off the ground this season, but since it’s authorized, don’t expect details about nose jobs, llamas, or La Toya. On the unauthorized side, NBC is offering six hours based on C. David Heymann’s 1989 best-seller A Woman Named Jackie, with Stephen Collins as JFK and unknown Roma Downey in the title role.

Other literary adaptations (well, maybe ”literary” is putting it too strongly) include NBC versions of Danielle Steel’s Daddy, starring Lynda Carter and Patrick Duffy, and Palomino, a Western romance with plenty of ranch dressing and, we assume, undressing. NBC also plans a miniseries based on Stuart Woods’ steamy novel of political intrigue Grass Roots (Mel Harris, Corbin Bernsen, and Reginald VelJohnson will star). Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent follow-up, The Burden of Proof, will appear as a four-hour ABC miniseries — although Raul Julia may not reprise his Innocent role as Sandy Stern — and trash queen Jackie Collins will be represented by NBC’s Lady Boss, a sequel to last season’s Lucky/Chances.

Aiming somewhat higher, NBC will mount a four-hour adaptation of Allan Gurganus’ massive 1989 novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. Michael Dorris’ award-winning The Broken Cord, a nonfiction account of his adopted son’s struggle with fetal alcohol syndrome, will become an ABC movie. And ABC is bringing Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound to TV, with a cast that includes Anne Bancroft, Michele Lee, and Hume Cronyn.

NBC’s miniseries Cruel Doubt, based on Joe McGinniss’ forthcoming book about a North Carolina murder, leads this season’s true-crime slate. Among this fall’s finalists for America’s Most Dangerous Woman: Judith Light as a murderous mom in ABC’s Marie Hilley, Susan Ruttan as a homicidal nurse who works for an unsuspecting pediatrician (Veronica Hamel) in NBC’s Deadly Medicine, Helen Hunt as a lethal schoolteacher in CBS’ Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Smart Story, and Barbara Hershey as a Southern seductress who lures a teenage boy into committing murder in ABC’s miniseries Stay the Night.

The actresses without whom no TV-movie season would be complete are due for some serious suffering this fall. Valerie Bertinelli faces off with her sister’s murderous husband in CBS’ November miniseries In a Child’s Name, Susan Lucci takes plenty of punishment for an extramarital affair with a murderer in ABC’s The Woman Who Sinned, and Donna Mills faces life in the slammer in ABC’s four-hour False Arrest. While she’s behind bars, she can say hello to Cheryl Ladd, also wrongly imprisoned for murder in CBS’ They’re Doing My Time. One other retired Angel will also be hard at work: Jaclyn Smith, as a rookie (!) detective, faces mortal peril from her lover in NBC’s Kiss of Death.

Alas, Smith, Ladd, and Farrah Fawcett won’t be available for a Charlie’s Angels reunion this season, but fans of TV’s tackiest era should set their VCRs for ABC’s Dynasty — The Reunion, featuring a rematch between those Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling Linda Evans and Joan Collins. Several other old series are creaking to life as well: On Oct. 20, NBC uncorks Barbara Eden in I Still Dream of Jeannie (as for Larry Hagman’s Major Nelson, he’s either dead or on a very long space mission), and James Arness straps on his holster in CBS’ Gunsmoke — To the Last Man. On NBC, The Return of Eliot Ness brings Robert Stack back to a role he hasn’t touched for 28 years.

Several TV-movie sequels are also planned: NBC follows last year’s Emmy- winning miniseries Drug Wars with Drug Wars II: The Colombia Connection, and NBC teams country stars Kenny Rogers and Reba McEntire in The Luck of the Draw: The Gambler Returns. Walter Matthau, who won huge ratings as a crusty lawyer in 1990’s The Incident, returns for CBS’ Incident in Baltimore, and NBC offers another entry in the crime series In the Line of Duty with Standoff at Marion. But viewers will have to wait for TV’s most anticipated sequel: CBS’ follow-up to Lonesome Dove is unlikely to be ready until next season.

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