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Faye Dunaway moves to the funny lane

With her new sitcom, Faye Dunaway takes the first comic turn in her long dramatic career.

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The young production interns and junior publicity reps and apprentice techs and assistant caterers who populate the set of the new CBS sitcom It Had to Be You were all of—what, 2?—in 1967, when Faye Dunaway blazed her way to big- screen fame as girl outlaw Bonnie Parker, shooting great, bloody chunks out of life with Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde. They were 9, maybe, when she seared the screen and unhinged Jack Nicholson in Chinatown; 11 when she grabbed an Oscar for her fierce, precise work as ruthless TV programmer Diana Christenson in Network. And the walkie-talkie-wielding staffers on the Warner Bros. soundstage were probably teens in 1981 when they first paid attention to one of America’s great capital-A Actresses in Mommie Dearest.

Of course, at that point, Faye Dunaway was acting up a tornado as a raging, hanger-brandishing Joan Crawford, an all-stops-out performance resulting in a pretty daunting image of herself as a scary, demanding, imperious, melodramatic, difficult capital-A Actress.

And now she is surrounded by these young colleagues who call out, ”Hey, Faye!” ”Morning, Faye!” ”How ya doin’, Faye?” as they bustle around the set of It Had to Be You, CBS’ standard-issue romantic comedy (Fridays, 8 p.m.). The show is about a high-powered, stylishly dressed, highly stressed, workaholic book publisher in Boston who falls for the manly, down-to-earth carpenter who comes to hang her office bookshelves-and who, because he is played by Robert Urich, is also an educated, nurturing widower raising three sons on his own. Sample riposte: He: ”You’ve got no stud on this wall.” She: Do I need a stud? (building tide of laughter) He: ”You tell me.” (cresting wave of laughter)

Dunaway, 52, is now costarring in a foursquare television sitcom, and she’s performing nuts-and-bolts situation-comedy transactions that include standing on her head, hiccuping, and tossing bowls of flour. She’s used to having quiet on the set, used to shooting scenes until she gets them just right, used to darkness in the wings and nobody in her sight lines as she works, and now she is riposting on a tight schedule with squadrons of unimpressed light and sound technicians unceremoniously galumphing around her, with a studio audience peering at her while they chew gum, and with a new script to learn next week.

”I really love this thing of comedy,” says Faye Dunaway. ”I would really like to be a comedienne.”

”I’ll tell you what surprises me—she’s not a snob,” says executive producer Anita Addison, who has shepherded It Had to Be You for a year and a half. Back then it was called For Love or Money (not to be confused with Michael J. Fox’s film of the same title), was about a widower plumber who falls in love with an heiress, and was intended for Twiggy Lawson (Princesses) and Terence Knox (St. Elsewhere). ”(Dunaway) is not a television snob at all. You’d think, coming from features to television, that she would bring the airs. She’s still a perfectionist, but she understands that the small screen is different. And she thinks it’s no less or more valuable than the larger screen. Only different.”

In fact, Dunaway appears to think that the small screen is more valuable. Or at least it is at this juncture in an acting career that has shown signs of stumbling almost willfully in the past dozen years as she entered middle-aged actresshood, that harsh Hollywood playing field. Dunaway has done made-for-TV dramas—she was a small-screen Evita Perón on NBC in 1981, for instance, and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in The Disappearance of Aimee, and later this month she vamps glamorously through a Columbo TV movie. But one of the great American actresses of our time has never done comedy. And now, she says, she sees the sitcom form as something with the potential to reposition her persona for the next phase of her life—perhaps as a woman known for her cool beauty, her intensity, her romances, her fashion style, her idiosyncratic acting roles, her reputation for being difficult, as well as her ability to stand on her head and banter about studs.

”I think the yearning (for comedy) is really something linked to the desire to have that in my life as a lighter approach, something not so tortured,” says Dunaway. She can say that now. The night before, when the series’ first non-pilot episode was shot, she appeared taut, her concentration and her timing rattled by the lights and the audience and the chatter between scenes. Her green, almond-shaped eyes and high swells of cheekbones were cosmetically sculpted into static beauty, her hair stiffly sprayed into carefully plotted tendrils, her wardrobe severely elegant.

Now, at the Warner Bros. commissary, with her pale face bare of makeup, her wavy blonded hair loose and free around her face, in jeans and a plain white shirt, she already looks softer, lighter, lovelier. Before sitting down, she asks the name of the maitre d’ and the waiter and introduces herself to these young men (their eyes register Miss Dunaway! No wire hangers!) like a newcomer thrilled to be in the business. Show business! It is a gesture that combines great acting with unrehearsed charm.

”Let’s say Bonnie and Clyde was the first big role that I connected with in a big way,” she begins, tracing the remarkable trajectory that started with her childhood in the backwater town of Bascom, Fla.; her stage work in Boston and New York; her breakthrough starring role in William Alfred’s play Hogan’s Goat; her first notable film role, in Otto Preminger’s Hurry Sundown; and her casting (reportedly over her costar’s skepticism) as Bonnie Parker, for which she received her first Oscar nomination. ”(That role) is the closest thing to me, a frustrated Southern girl wanting to break out. I knew her backwards.

”But then, boom, star machine big-time! The city! Then you start to play, inch by inch, someone else’s notion of who a woman is and who I am. And the conventional notions, I mean, you know, some of them are true. I became cooler and more urban and more sophisticated. And I’m strong and also defended. But I’m also very vulnerable! Very fearful, a little girl from the South. And that alone is enough to make you scared in the big city. And I would not show anyone that for the longest time because I’m a proud woman.”

Dunaway was a willing participant in the exaggeration of her persona, she admits. The films she chose were intriguing, intermittently odd things: The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) with Steve McQueen, a hooty Oklahoma Crude (1973), The Towering Inferno (1974), and Three Days of the Condor (1975). But the experience of becoming Mommie Dearest cracked open all her own notions of herself. ”That was an extreme moment where I said, How did I get here? This is alien to where I am as a woman. I’ve got to stop. So I did. I was out of control in terms of my choices. So I went to England and I just stopped the music. I became quieter.”

Moving to London in 1983, Dunaway settled on the turf of her second husband, photographer Terry O’Neill, with their son, Liam, now 13 and headed for an East Coast prep school. (Her first marriage, to rock musician Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, ended in 1978.) By the time she left London in 1987, the marriage was over.

Eccentric roles followed: The Wicked Lady (1983), Supergirl (1984), Barfly (1987), and Midnight Crossing (1988). ”But I wanted to do something that would drastically change the perception I was in,” she continues. ”I wanted to play comedy! I’ve always yearned for that light, frivolous, wonderful thing that Kay Kendall had, and Carole Lombard, that larky nuttiness, you know, the eccentricity. The kind of freedom in that stuff. Myrna Loy! Rosalind Russell! And currently, I have to say, Lucille Ball. I love her!”