The big question in TV circles: What will Don Johnson, the trendily outfitted sex symbol of ``Miami Vice'' be able to do in another television vehicle? I have seen the four-hour miniseries -- The Long Hot Summer (NBC, Sunday, 9-11 p.m. and Monday, 9-11 p.m.) -- in which he stars and I have the answer. He bares his chest.
Based on the 1958 film (starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Lee Remick, and Orson Welles), which was vaguely based on a William Faulkner short story, ``The Hamlet,'' this new version features, besides Johnson, Jason Robards, Cybill Shepherd, Judith Ivey, and, in a cameo role, Ava Gardner (played in the original by Angela Lansbury).
It is a turgid, steamy, violent film, more Tennessee Williams than William Faulkner. There's a lot of Big Daddy in Robards's role as Daddy Varner. It wasn't all that good the first time around, but as one of the first miniseries of the new season, it merits some attention now.
Robards is the standout performer in ``Long Hot Summer.'' Johnson, who turns in a creditable performance in the role which helped elevate Paul Newman to stardom, seems too frail a character, physically and psychologically, to play the ambitious, strong-willed, alleged barnburner Ben Quick. Cybill Shepherd plays the quintessential flirty Southern belle with a kind of regal disdain for the role. And Tony winner Judith Ivey accurately portrays her character's struggle to remain noble, but doesn't cope as w ell with her Southern drawl, a problem for all the actors except Shepherd who comes by it naturally.
The teleplay for``Long Hot Summer,'' was written by Rita Mae Brown and Dennis Turner, based upon the original screenplay by Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Revetch. It works well for the first two hours but then falls apart as each character articulates his or her unconscious motivation in a series of simplistic tableaux.
``Long Hot Summer,'' directed by Stuart Cooper, has all the ingredients for a popular miniseries: complex story line, beautiful locations, handsome people in long soft-focus close-ups, twisted personalities, sensuality, and the threat of violence whenever violence itself seems to be getting out of hand.