But notorious roles shouldn't scare off good actors, says Lisa Schwarzbaum

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated September 01, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

CBS can’t find a star to play O.J. Simpson

If you think you’re disappointed by the entertainment available this weekend, how do you think we feel. ”Nurse Betty” — one of the best movies of the year, if you ask me — doesn’t open until next weekend. My colleague Owen Gleiberman advises that ”Whipped,” which does open this weekend, should be avoided at all costs. We’re here at Entertainment Weekly, and I can’t find any good new entertainment for this weekend.

I did, though, find an interesting little news item this week: CBS hasn’t been able to find any actor willing to play O.J. Simpson in the teledrama they’re making about the ”Trial of the Century.” Apparently, everyone with any marquee value passed on the opportunity to star as the former football player acquitted of murdering Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman in 1994. So the producers of ”American Tragedy” are going with an unknown performer to provide Simpson’s voice, while the actor playing his body will be shot in silhouette or from a distance.

There’s something hypocritical and sanctimonious, don’t you think, about an actor refusing a role because the real-life character creeps him out. Mark Harmon has played serial killer Ted Bundy, Elizabeth Montgomery starred as ax-wielder Lizzie Borden, and Michael Caine and Robert Duvall both transformed themselves into Communist tyrant Joseph Stalin — all of them without lingering psychic or career damage. I’m sure you can suggest others. True, Faye Dunaway has said in interviews that playing Joan Crawford as a famously abusive mother in ”Mommie Dearest” hurt her career, but I don’t think the association with Crawford was the problem so much as association with that indelible, over the top performance.

The challenge for actors (as well as for audiences and casting agents) is not in separating their professional reputations from the real-life villains they play. The challenge comes in freeing themselves from the beloved characters (real or fictional) they embody. The late Sir Alec Guinness, for instance, was forever cloaked in the robes of Obi-wan Kenobi, and the fantastically versatile actor — whose stellar career spanned over half a century — wrote repeatedly of the ambivalence with which he viewed such a reputation (and fortune).

For every actor who claims a part forever as his own — Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, Topol as ”Fidder on the Roof”’s Tevye, Macauley Culkin as the ”Home Alone” kid — there’s another one worrying noisily about being hemmed in by fame and the adoration of fans. ”Don’t they realize I’m so much more than Fox Mulder?” David Duchovny growls, although Mulder has so far proven to be Duchovny at his acting best. ”I’m NOT just George Costanza!” Jason Alexander insists, although his impersonation of Boris Badenov in this summer’s ”The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle” did nothing to bolster his argument. (Other nominations welcome.)

Amid all this jockeying, one actor comes to mind for the sensible, good-natured attitude he takes toward fame and opportunity. John Lithgow has made a strong impression in every one of the scores of serious movies and stage plays in which he’s been involved. But these days he’s most universally known as the alien Dick Solomon on the nutty NBC sitcom ”Third Rock From the Sun” — and the ID suits him fine. Come to think of it, it’s a really slow weekend for entertainment: Why not watch ”Third Rock” in syndication and read Lithgow’s dandy new kids’ book, ”The Remarkable Farkle McBride”? Pretty soon the Labor Day weekend will be over, and excellent, fresh entertainment will be available once again, weekly.

3rd Rock From the Sun

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