HOLLYWOOD — Jeff Daniels is about a head taller than Richard Dreyfuss, and, if possible, Patricia Heaton is even snarkier than Marsha Mason as the jilted single mother in TNT's new version of Neil Simon's award-winning "The Goodbye Girl."
But, says the award-winning playwright, other than new actors in the lead roles, few changes were really necessary to update the 1977 film about a bittersweet romance between two adults who've given up on love. "We have the cellphone in it," says Mr. Simon, adding with a laugh, "this is going to be revolutionary."
With few small exceptions, such as references to Jeff Daniels's height (the original movie played off the diminutive stature of Richard Dreyfuss), the author believes the script holds up well. The biggest reason for a remake, he maintains, is the passage of time.
"It was 25 years ago," he says. "There's millions of people who haven't seen it, so there isn't an awful lot that I wanted to change," he says, noting that the film garnered Dreyfuss an Oscar. "Why change something when it works so well?"
That said, some things other than text references have changed.
"The style of shooting was different," says director Richard Benjamin. "Things are much faster today. Attention spans are shorter, so what I like to do is keep everything moving," he says. "We can move the camera and do stuff that produces a kind of energy of today. The original 'Goodbye Girl' is wonderfully done and set perfectly in its time, but because of the way we shoot, this is one of the main things that updates the film."
As always, the actors say they have to find a way to bring something new to roles that, for many, have been defined by the cast of the earlier film.
For Daniels, that meant tapping into his personal connection to the script. Like his character, Eliot Garfield, he, too, came to New York as a young, struggling actor.
"Jeff gave us his heartbreak tour around New York City," says Heaton. At every location, Daniels would say something like, " 'Oh, and that's where I lived when I couldn't get a job. It was very pathetic,' " she says.
"It took two days," says Daniels, with a laugh. "I told everybody, 'This just speaks to me. I was this guy.' "
Daniels lives in Michigan, where he runs a regional theater company. Even so, returning to New York wasn't difficult. "I was just able to plug in real easily," he says.
As for bringing his feature to the small screen, Simon says he doesn't think about the medium first. "Writing is writing," he says. "I didn't think of it as television; I thought of this as a movie and I do my plays the same way. I don't think, 'this will make a good television movie or something.' "
In the theater, he points out, material is redone all the time. "Work is work," he says, adding that he waits for the material to tell him what format is best. In some ways, he adds, "this picture feels a bit like a play, because it's in one community all the time, and it's in the house a lot." And yet, he says, there are so many outdoor scenes "that I just couldn't do it as a play."
• "The Goodbye Girl" runs on TNT throughout the weekend, beginning Friday night (Jan. 16).