Nathan Lane braces himself for TV stardom (or martyrdom) as ''Encore! Encore!,'' his troubled new sitcom, takes a bow

By Jamie Bufalino
Updated September 11, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Encore! Encore!

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Union Square. Those two nefarious words — more damning than ”opposite ER,” more chilling than ”on C-SPAN2” — have become jaded journalist shorthand for ”This new sitcom’s a stinker.” And, faster than you can say Daily Variety, there they were clinging to Nathan Lane’s Encore! Encore! the way presidential DNA sticks to a blue Gap dress. How in the world did a comedy (from the makers of Frasier, no less!) about a washed-up opera singer who returns to his wine-country roots start giving off the same rancid bouquet as NBC’s fall ’97 diner-based laughingstock?

”It’s an ugly rumor that has nothing to do with reality,” says Lane, pooh-pooh-ing the comparison from the New York set of Isn’t She Great?, the Jacqueline Susann biopic he’s currently filming with Bette Midler (he plays Susann’s husband, Irving Mansfield). ”Because people have to write something, they start to write, ‘Few have seen the pilot and it has to be recast, so it must be troubled.’ It’s a way of stirring [things] up. I talked about this with Bette one day, and she said, ‘Go on the Internet; there’s a Society to Annihilate Bette Midler. Does that make you feel any better?’ And I said, ‘Well…no.’ ”

Up until this summer, the game plan for Encore! seemed lifted straight out of the Must See playbook: After getting raves — and a 1995 Emmy nomination — for a guest-starring gig on Frasier, Lane began a professional flirtation with the show’s producers. ”It took about three years of dancing around each other, but it finally worked out,” says exec producer Peter Casey of Grub Street Productions. Rather than stick him in a generic one-size-fits-all comedy, the Grub Street folk envisioned a show tailored to Lane’s gift for in-character histrionics (exhibits A and B: his scene-stealing stints as Robin Williams’ limp-wristed lover in the 1996 movie The Birdcage and as the barb-throwing, ass-baring houseguest in Broadway’s Love! Valour! Compassion!). After dismissing such ideas as a newly single Great White Way thespian and a Wolfgang Puck-style celebrity chef, the producers and star settled on a past-his-prime diva who’s still indulging his Pavarotti-esque appetite for wine, women, and song.

”I like the sort of Man Who Came to Dinner aspect,” says Lane, 42, of the show’s high camp value. ”He’s someone who’s used to living a really grand life and being treated in a very special way, and suddenly he’s not that special anymore.”

Encore!‘s bravissimo infancy continued with a jaw-dropping casting coup: British grande dame Joan Plowright — yep, Lady Olivier — as Lane’s slaphappy (literally), funeral-loving mom.

But here’s where the sitcom started hitting sour notes. A lackluster pilot was withheld from the press, save for an unlucky few; casting was second-guessed (most notably, Lane’s sister will now be played by his longtime friend Glenne Headly); the show’s title kept changing (from Encore! Encore! to Encore! and back again) due to trademark concerns; and the media were alienated when the show’s ensemble was the lone no-show at this summer’s press-tour unveiling of NBC’s fall lineup.

On top of that, there were grumblings from the gay community about the recently more-out-than-ever Lane making his first starring TV role as…a womanizer! ”That’s just angry queens,” dismisses Lane. ”I should only play flamboyant gay roles? I have no desire to be a role model for anybody. But in a sense I feel like I have been because I’ve played a wide variety of gay characters.” Besides, he adds, citing NBC’s new homo-friendly comedy Will & Grace, ”there are two gay characters on that — plenty for one network. They don’t need me prancing around.”

And, wonders exec producer Casey, is Lane as a skirt-chaser any odder for audiences than Tom Selleck playing gay in In & Out? ”I mean,” he says, ”they’re not sitting there going ‘Aw, jeez, I dunno, I have a little trouble buying that.’ They’re actors.” In any case, the producer’s bigger concern is how to dig out from under the avalanche of negative press. ”We’re starting at a disadvantage,” he says, ”but we’ll overcome that because the product’s good. It’s like fielding a baseball team. They can sit there and say you don’t look good on paper, but let us get out and play.”

Ultimately, Lane is matter-of-fact. The press, he says, is acting ”like I’ve gone on a killing spree. There’s such hostility, and it’s sort of indefensible because we haven’t even begun [to reshoot the pilot]. Either it will work and we’ll all laugh about this in years to come, or it won’t. But I can’t say, ‘Well, maybe we shouldn’t do it [because] some critic in Detroit thinks it’s like Union Square.’ ” After all, points out Lane, ”I have a mother in Jersey to support.”

Encore! Encore!

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