ONCE upon a time, when TV stars appeared in movies, they tried to show off new and surprising sides of their talent. The classic case is Jackie Gleason: Although he was known to millions as a roly-poly comedian, he won tremendous respect when he appeared in a serious film, ``The Hustler,'' as Minnesota Fats, a very uncomic pool player.
Another example is Mary Tyler Moore, who took a vacation from TV sitcoms to play a downright tragic role in ``Ordinary People.'' Dick Van Dyke did the same thing in ``The Runner Stumbles'' a few years ago.
Lately, though, TV comedians have been treating theatrical movies as mere extensions of their television work. In the movie ``Outrageous Fortune,'' for instance, Shelley Long plays almost the same character as on her TV show, ``Cheers'' - an ambitious young woman who's not quite as smart or attractive as she desperately wants to be.
Now it's Michael J. Fox's turn. He built his career on the TV show ``Family Ties,'' playing a young man who's comically conservative.
His name is Alex, and his parents - veterans of the '60s - have all sorts of ideals about togetherness and giving of yourself. Alex is too hip for these long-ago hippies, though. To him, life is a business, and the best thing in life is money. Below the surface, of course, he's a regular softy. But it's fun to watch him lecture his parents on being more responsible and paying more at-tention to the bottom line.
In his new movie, ``The Secret of My Success,'' Fox plays the same character under a different name. He's from Kansas - in the heart of the rural Midwest - and at the beginning of the story he arrives in New York City to try his hand in the corporate world.
Before that, he has to try his hand at surviving in the Manhattan streets, and that's not easy. When he calls his mom from a pay telephone, for instance - just to say he's arrived safely - he finds himself in the middle of a shoot-out. But he doesn't want to alarm anyone, so he says it's just a noisy TV program in the background. After some crazy setbacks in the financial world, our hero finally lands a job with Big Business, using a coldhearted uncle as his connection. The first thing he learns is that business people can be ruthless. The second thing is that none of them care whether he succeeds or sinks like a stone.
He's determined to make it to the top, so he decides to be tricky. He starts prowling around the office after hours, poking his nose where it doesn't belong. This leads to some funny situations, and by the end of the movie he's a bona fide success - not because he played by the rules and won, but because he found ways to be more sneaky than anyone else.
I don't want to take ``The Secret of My Success'' too seriously, but there's something about it that makes me squirm a little. When Michael J. Fox plays this sort of character on ``Family Ties,'' we're supposed to laugh at Alex's immaturity. When he does it here, we're supposed to cheer him on. This is a movie that celebrates the lust for money. True, the uncle who runs the company is shown as a bad and greedy guy, but that's just because the picture needs a villain. As long as you're cute and friendly in your quest for naked wealth, like Michael J. Fox, you're a hero! This is a film for the ``me generation,'' if ever there was one.
``The Secret of My Success'' was directed by Herbert Ross. He used to be a high-class filmmaker; one of his pictures was ``The Turning Point,'' a drama about ballet with Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft, and years ago he gave George Burns his first major Hollywood part in ``The Sunshine Boys.'' Lately, Ross has been flirting with the so-called ``youth market,'' churning out movies aimed directly at teen audiences. His first try, ``Footloose,'' was a dud. But now he's figured out a winning formula: a young star like Michael J. Fox, a story that lets him beat the grown-ups at their own game, and a lot of pop music to cover the holes in the plot and the slow spots in the action.
There's nothing wrong with making films for specialized audiences, but it seems limited to me. Instead of making teen-age movies, why not make good movies that people of every age - including teen-agers - will want to come and see? That would be the secret of real success - in terms of quality, and not just long lines at the box office.