May 07, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

What are big stars like Julia Roberts and Robin Williams doing on the small screen?

The big news about Julia Roberts’ guest spot on the May 5 episode of Law & Order is that…it’s not big news. Movie stars are taking one-shot roles on prime-time series with increasing frequency. Already this year we’ve seen Bruce Willis sit in as a therapist on Ally McBeal and Robin Williams check in as a patient on L.A. Doctors. ”The bias against TV by film people is really disappearing,” says Doctors exec producer Mark Johnson. ”At one point, people thought maybe it wasn’t good for their careers to do TV, but now it’s almost cool.”

Small-screen gigs were no big deal for movie stars in the early days of TV. William Holden, John Wayne, and Harpo Marx cameoed memorably on I Love Lucy, while Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe made their TV debuts on The Jack Benny Show. The General Electric Theater showcased performances by James Stewart, Bette Davis, and Ronald and Nancy Davis Reagan (who played Native Americans in 1958’s ”A Turkey for the President”).

In the ’70s and ’80s, perhaps fearing that recession-plagued audiences wouldn’t part with their precious cash for films featuring stars whom they could see for free at home, Hollywood intensified the segregation between the two media. You wouldn’t catch, for example, Smokey and the Bandit‘s Burt Reynolds trading dating tips with the Fonz on Happy Days.

But after such behind-the-scenes film mavericks as David Lynch (Twin Peaks) and Barry Levinson (Homicide: Life on the Street) proved small-screen work could actually boost their careers, more movie stars turned up in front of TV cameras. Robin Williams, who starred in Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam, helped save the director’s ratings-challenged Homicide with a 1994 guest shot as a tourist mourning the murder of his wife. Williams later did Doctors as a favor to Vietnam producer Johnson, and his star presence provided a shot in the arm, bringing the struggling medical drama its largest audience of the season.

In most cases, a movie star’s prime-time appearance is the result of some offscreen connection. For example, Roberts probably wouldn’t be playing a high-class escort who administers a fatal dose of Viagra to a client on L&O if she weren’t dating costar Benjamin Bratt. This mixing of TV business with pleasure is part of a pattern for the actress: Roberts was linked with Matthew Perry while filming the post-Super Bowl 1996 episode of Friends and repaid a debt to Murphy Brown creator Diane English (who penned an as-yet-unproduced remake of The Women for her and Meg Ryan) by making out with Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) on the sitcom’s series finale. Willis’ link to McBeal is a bit more remote — he costars in the upcoming movie The Story of Us with Michelle Pfeiffer, wife of creator David E. Kelley (whose Picket Fences once offered a surprise cameo from Pfeiffer).

Oh, and there’s one other reason why film stars are doing TV these days: So many movies stink. Williams seemed to be atoning for his wince-inducing antics in Patch Adams with his agonizingly subtle work as a recluse suffering from neurofibromatosis on Doctors. ”There are a lot of very talented people writing and directing TV,” observes Johnson. ”Consequently, there are good parts and good scripts. Why wouldn’t somebody want to do that?”

(Reporting by Shawna Malcom)

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