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Hollywood on the Hudson

Broadway is alive with the sounds of movie and TV actors

By Ward Morehouse III Special to The Christian Science Monitor / October 20, 2000


Horace Greeley once told young men to "Go West." Hollywood stars are reversing that advice and heading East. In the last couple of seasons, movie and TV actors have flocked to New York in seemingly record numbers.

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Later this fall, "Baywatch" TV superstar David Hasselhoff will exchange his swim trunks for knee breeches for the title role in the long-running musical "Jekyll & Hyde"; Chris Noth of NBC's "Law & Order" (and HBO's "Sex and the City") already has shed his badge for delegate votes in Gore Vidal's "The Best Man;" and John Ritter ("Three's Company") and Henry Winkler ("Happy Days") are set to appear in Neil Simon's newest Broadway play, "The Dinner Party," opening Oct. 23. Other movie and TV stars who have appeared on Broadway recently include Patrick Stewart ("Star Trek - The Next Generation") in "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan," Kevin Spacey ("American Beauty") in "The Iceman Cometh," and Kelsey Grammer ("Frasier") in "MacBeth."

The trend toward more film and TV stars appearing on stage has been propelled, says casting agent Leonard Finger, by the "McDonaldization" of Hollywood careers - meaning there's shorter shelf life for TV and film stars.

"Stars suddenly find themselves going from an A plus to a B minus [draw] in a matter of years instead of decades," Mr. Finger says. As a result, they're "looking to do theater much more than before."

Aaron Franklin, a Broadway director and retired Columbia University theater professor, says the trend is spurred by other factors too, including an actor's loyalty to a particular playwright or the desire for professional renewal. Financially, successful stars can afford to experiment with generally lower-paying theater roles.

Breaking artistic ground

Calista Flockhart's critically praised Off-Broadway appearance last year in "Bash," a gritty trio of one-act plays by Neil LaBute, may have jarred some of her "Ally McBeal" fans. But it broke new artistic ground for the actress that may have eluded her in TV roles. "In the case of Calista Flockhart and Kevin Spacey [who last season appeared in Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh"], you are dealing with people who need new challenges," Finger says.

"When they're making mega-sums of money and have all the celebrity on earth, what other challenges are there for them? It's finally time to do something to make themselves happy.

"They started in the theater - and, for them at least, that's where there's unfinished business," Finger says. Ironically, "Bash" later aired on the Showtime cable network, thus completing a full circle for Flockhart from TV to stage and back to TV.

Even country singer Dolly Parton is interested in doing a semi-autobiographical stage musical. "Dolly is interested in doing Broadway, and she'll probably do it. She has a lot of original ideas for different things," says Teresa Hughes, Ms. Parton's personal assistant.

Says Ms. Parton's longtime friend and collaborator Robert Orman, "Dolly wants to do Broadway but she wants to do it on her own terms. She's been interested in doing a show called 'Wildflowers,' which has some old and some new songs."