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Fall TV Preview: 'Bette'

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Tackling the role of a temperamental hollywood diva requires lots of rehearsal time. And if the past few months are any indication, Bette Midler is determined not to be caught unprepared. During this summer’s press tour, when mere mortal celebs like Calista Flockhart and Charlie Sheen schmoozed with the ink-stained wretches in Pasadena, the Divine Miss M chose instead to shill her new CBS sitcom, Bette, via satellite while she vacationed in Europe. And two weeks ago, when fellow sitcom headliners Geena Davis and Michael Richards were working their black-tie-and-tails off plugging their shows at the Emmy Awards, Ms. Midler was nowhere to be found. Heck, we couldn’t even get her to pick up the telephone to be interviewed for this story. ”It’s just not a priority to her right now,” snapped her publicist. Well, all righty then.

At least she’ll have plenty of material for her highly autobiographical show, which CBS touts as the perfect vehicle for Midler to poke fun at the persona of … Bette Midler. Says creator/executive producer Jeffrey Lane (Mad About You), who got her finally to agree to do TV earlier this year, ”When I thought, ‘What character could I create for Bette Midler?,’ I couldn’t come up with one that’s better than the one she’s created for herself over 30 years.” Good move. The decades of ‘tude already seem to be paying off: Madison Avenue media moguls have marked her shtick-heavy comedy as one of this season’s most likely to succeed.

Lane and the show’s writers have had a high ol’ time researching the bawdy blond’s colorful past. They’ve been poring over her movies, musical performances, and albums, trolling for story ideas. To wit: Midler will sing in almost every show, and there’ll be plenty of punchlines that knock the stuffing out of stuff like her 1982 celluloid stinker, Jinxed, and her Oscar shutout for The Rose. ”She takes a lot of hits on herself,” points out costar Joanna Gleason, who plays Midler’s manager and best friend. ”She’s the first one to laugh at all of the sort of attendant fawning and glory and divaness … And that’s the way to go if you’re doing a show about a superstar.”

Another bonus to being a diva: great connections — which is why such friends of Midler as Dolly Parton, George Segal, and Danny DeVito (who sends the show’s insecure chanteuse into a middle-aged image crisis when he asks her to play his mother in a movie) will make appearances in early episodes. In another upcoming plot, Midler tweaks a different Hollywood star when she’s presented with an award and forgets to thank her husband à la Hilary Swank’s Academy Awards faux pas. ”That’s what I like about the show,” says Kevin Dunn, who costars as Midler’s husband. ”It’s like, ‘Hey, this [celebrity thing] isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. It’s kind of a pain.”’ Yeah, yeah, so take two aspirin, Miss M, and call us in the morning. Or not.

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