Highlights from the William Paley Festival -- We tell you the big secrets revealed behind small screen gems from ''Dick Van Dyke'' to ''Felicity''

By Bruce Fretts
Updated April 09, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

A TV fest reveals big secrets behind small-screen gems from Dick Van Dyke to Felicity

If there was a theme to the Museum of Television & Radio’s 16th Annual William S. Paley festival, which assembled the casts and creators of past and present shows for discussions about the biz, it was this: The more things change on TV, the more they stay the same.

Although the festival feted both classic series (including L.A. Law, The Twilight Zone, thirtysomething, plus a salute to The Dick Van Dyke Show vet Carl Reiner) and current trendsetters (Sports Night, Felicity, Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Moesha, Everybody Loves Raymond, and NewsRadio), five eye-opening truisms emerged from the event:

1. TV PILOTS MAKE FOR STRANGE BEDFELLOWS. At the tribute to Reiner — the festival’s unquestionable highlight, thanks to the still-quick wits of Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Van Dyke, and Reiner — it was revealed that the never-sold first pilot for The Dick Van Dyke Show (called Head of the Family and starring Reiner as Rob Petrie) was financed by Rat Packer and Kennedy clan member Peter Lawford. This meant that the family’s moneybags, old Joseph Kennedy Sr., ultimately had script approval, which led Reiner to quip ”You mean my morals are going to be arbitered by a guy who slept with Gloria Swanson?” In other strange pilot lore: Ray Romano was originally hired to play Joe Rogan’s electrician role on NewsRadio. Deadpanned series creator Paul Simms, who axed the future star of the CBS hit Everybody Loves Raymond: ”That worked out pretty well for Ray.”

2. BE NICE TO THE PEOPLE YOU MEET ON THE WAY UP. At the session for ABC’s critical phenom Sports Night, costar Peter Krause and creator Aaron Sorkin recalled their first meeting — at a Broadway theater where they were both bartending. Moesha coproducer T Smith reminded star Brandy that he had once given her a ride when he was a limo driver. But Felicity scene-swiper Greg Grunberg (who plays Scott Speedman’s nutty-inventor roommate) wins the prize for the most precocious schmoozing: He was a kindergarten classmate of series cocreator J.J. Abrams.

3. SIZE DOESN’T MATTER…Slim Harry Hamlin said he landed the role of L.A. Lawyer Michael Kuzak despite the character’s description as ”a 45-year-old, overweight, myopic ex-football player.” And even though Raymond’s producers initially envisioned Romano’s cop brother as a short guy, gentle giant Brad Garrett managed to win the part, albeit after enduring nine auditions. Joshed Garrett: ”I [practically] had to read for the guard at the gate.”

4. …BUT DICTION DOES. Felicity exec producers Abrams and Matt Reeves claimed that the reason they cast Keri Russell in the title role of The WB serial was because she was the only actress who correctly pronounced the word preface in her audition monologue.

5. IN HOLLYWOOD, THE GLASS IS ALWAYS HALF EMPTY. Little more than five years after his baptism by ire as host of NBC’s Late Night, Conan O’Brien‘s stock in the TV industry has risen to the point where his program merited inclusion in the Paley festival. Still, he didn’t find comfort in the tribute. ”TV shows, if they’re good, are organic things,” he explained. ”They start at one place, they grow, then they get crappy, and we honor them. So I guess this is a bad thing.”