A long, long time ago — verily, I say unto you, even ere Xena the warrior princess hath appeared on Broadway in Grease! — trained stage actors were skeptical, if not openly contemptuous, of lending their skills to television. Much of what was gilded about the so-called golden age of TV in the ’50s was the live broadcast of plays (some first-rate, but, it always bears remembering, many more as mediocre as an episode of Matlock). Once that era passed, everyone retreated to their corners. Oh, occasionally a classy actor would tackle a TV series in a vain (in both senses) attempt to upgrade the medium — an early paradigm being George C. Scott in the 1963-64 social-worker flop, East Side/West Side. (Upon its quick cancellation, Scott is said to have thundered, ”Those quivering masses waiting for my return can relax and forget about it!”) But for the most part, any actor who’d so much as brushed up against Stella Adler on the subway tried to keep from being sullied by TV’s lucre-loaded lure.
Nowadays, when the general quality of television is at least as high as that of any work being presented on the pale White Way and sitcoms have virtually exterminated the long-run Broadway comedy, you can’t keep the thespians off the tube with bug spray. The best of them have a solid grounding in physical comedy and possess the verbal dexterity to give even weak lines a sharp snap. Just think of 3rd Rock From the Sun‘s John Lithgow (a scream in the 1986 revival of The Front Page), Cybill‘s Christine Baranski (a two-time Tony taker, for The Real Thing and Rumors), and prime time’s two most glowing current examples, Seinfeld‘s Jason Alexander (Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, among many others) and Frasier‘s David Hyde Pierce (Beyond Therapy, The Heidi Chronicles).
TV dramas benefit as well. Former song-and-dance man Jerry Orbach (everything from Promises, Promises to 42nd Street) knows how to take it down a notch to achieve a somber force on Law & Order. Orbach’s police boss, played by S. Epatha Merkerson, got a nod for the best-actress Tony in the August Wilson play The Piano Lesson. And the new season is graced by subtle performances from Off Broadway veteran Kevin Anderson, starring in Nothing Sacred, and Calista Flockhart, who in one year has gone from Chekhov on Broadway to Ally McBeal on Fox.
But the broader appeal of comedy seems to offer the easiest route to TV exposure for theater vets, and this season finds The Rocky Horror Picture Show‘s Tim Curry going sitcom in Over the Top (ABC, Tuesdays, 8:30-9 p.m.). Curry stars as Simon Ferguson, a washed-up actor leeching off the unaccountable kindness of his ex-wife, Hadley (played by Annie Potts, in a return to her wisecracking Designing Women mode), who runs a small hotel in Manhattan. Simon is a boor, a lout, a tippler, and a buffoon; the occasional times the lazy sot attempts to help around the hotel, disaster ensues. But because Simon has an English accent, he comes off as a charming rogue — or at least that’s what we’d think if the writing on Over the Top were funnier. This is a ringingly hollow little show — a male-female Odd Couple possessing neither romantic spark nor crisp verbal byplay — that makes you feel sorry for its plucky stars.
Although Curry is best known for the 1975 movie version of Rocky Horror, on the stage here and in Britain he’s starred in everything from The Threepenny Opera to Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. His key credit in the context of Top, though, is My Favorite Year, the Broadway version of the 1982 movie about, well, a washed-up, over-the-top British actor (remember Peter O’Toole in the film?). Knowing this, it certainly looks as if Top‘s creators used Curry’s cracking Year role to jump-start a sitcom concept.
Like his greasepaint-spattered colleagues mentioned above, Curry knows how to go over the top in a grand way; unlike them, however, he hasn’t found the right showcase for his technique. If Top were a Broadway premiere, it’d probably close after opening night. C-