September 11, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

For such a small man, Tattoo sure casts a long shadow. Consider the case of poor Edward Hibbert, a new sidekick on ABC’s resurrection of Fantasy Island. ”If anybody else asks whether I’m playing the dwarf, I’m going to shoot them,” swears Hibbert. ”I’m five inches too tall!”

Got that? The actor’s absolutely not trying to fill the miniature shoes of the late great Herve Villechaize. This will be a Tattoo-free production.

The show’s not short on other changes, either. Indeed, the Fantasy camp — hoping to stifle any initial groans from the public — is at pains to distance itself from Aaron Spelling’s schlockier, C-star-filled 1980s version. Sure, there’s still the basics (an island, some fantasies, bikinis, da plane! da plane!), but this is a less kind, less gentle Island. The ukulele-tinged hula soundtrack? Silenced. Ricardo Montalban as suave, smiling, Latin host Mr. Roarke? Supplanted by a more malevolent model, played by Malcolm McDowell, the Brit actor famous for his A Clockwork Orange ultraviolence. Roarke’s famous white suits? Burned in the first episode, replaced by ink-dark threads.

When he signed on, McDowell had never seen the original incarnation (”I guess I had something better to do on Saturday nights”) but knew its hip-as-Golden Girls reputation. ”At first, I reacted with a sort of horror,” says the actor, 55, of being offered the part. ”Then I heard the two Barrys were involved, and I figured, they’re not going to do something cheesy.”

For the uninitiated, that would be coexec producers Barry Josephson, former Columbia Pictures bigwig, and Barry Sonnenfeld, the devilishly whimsical director of such flicks as The Addams Family and Men in Black. The team had already dabbled in TV with ABC’s summer replacement series Maximum Bob when Columbia TriStar offered them the idea for a revamped Island. (Spelling had sold the rights long ago.) There was much to tempt the Barrys: The show’s inherent darkness — never adequately tapped in the original; the lush visual possibilities; and, as Sonnenfeld says, ”I also really want my own G-4 private jet, and felt this is the way to get it.” (Ah, so it was da plane!)

The duo chose a new island — the high-budget series is shot on location in Hawaii (”a paid vacation,” says Hibbert) — and elected their new chief. ”Malcolm is perfect because he’s incredibly handsome, but there’s a sort of danger about him,” says Sonnenfeld. McDowell’s Mr. Roarke (we never learn his first name, but ”it won’t be Cosmo,” swears the actor) is a cranky wizard who controls everything from the weather to the room assignments. ”He’s the devil’s helper,” a man whose personal purgatory is lending a hand to the island’s visitors, Sonnenfeld says.

Roarke, in turn, has his own band of unmerry souls to do his bidding: pompous concierge Harry (Hibbert of Frasier), seductive shape-shifting sprite Ariel (Madchen Amick of Twin Peaks), and doltish bellhop Cal (Louis Lombardi of Suicide Kings, who says he beat out comedian Bobcat Goldthwait and ”a little Spanish guy” for the role). But wait, there’s more. The show begins and ends each episode at a mysterious travel agency run by a grandfatherly Fyvush Finkel (Picket Fences) and his grumpy assistant, who just happens to be played by screen legend Sylvia Sydney.

The most amusing moments of the generally promising pilot come from the bickering of these staffers. The three fantasies, on the other hand, seem like tacky leftovers from the Spelling years. Smartly, future episodes will feature only two fantasies, leaving more room for personnel shenanigans. Alas, that does mean less of that other Island trademark: a parade of has-been guest stars a la Barbi Benton; Sonnenfeld will either go for unknowns or try for bigger, more current names. Along with Alyssa Milano, who will slink into the second episode, his wish list includes Monica Lewinsky (please, no!) and Danny DeVito. “The fact that we’re in Hawaii might be a way to get some people to come out and have some fun by working 18 hours a day and never seeing the light of day,” he jokes.

Speaking of scheduling, Fantasy part deux, like the original, will be seen on Saturday night. Da pain! Da pain! ABC hasn’t had a bona fide Saturday hit since, well, Fantasy Island. But, insists Finkel, ”we don’t want to move. We know the network isn’t going to demand too much from us, and we’re going to deliver more.” After all, fantasy fulfillment is in the zeitgeist. As Finkel says, ”Nowadays with — what do you call it? Viagra! — everything is possible.”

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