Arthur Miller's television play "Fame" finds a number of people in top form, but unfortunately, Arthur Miller isn't one of them. The time has long since passed when major playwrights viewed television as a lofty new mountain to be challenged with at the resources and resolve at one's command.
Somewhere along the line, Olympus became Death Valley.
The author of "Death of a Salesman" is slumming with his entry for NBC's "Hallmark Hall of Fame," at 10 tonight on Channel 4, and it shows, but it also develops that a great man's doodles can be more provocative than the strenuous outpourings of a common hack.
And so many of the performers invest their roles with such devotion and command - perhaps grateful to be speaking even humdrum Arthur Miller as opposed to no Arthur Miller at all - that the production achieves the impact of a momentous feather, which may be just what the author intended.
Less a play than a series of interlocking serio-comic vignettes on the relativity of renown, "Fame" stars Richard Benjamin as playwright Meyer Shine, a consuming success whose hit plays "Clown Sandwich," "Imperial Cafe" and "Mostly Florence" make him seem patterned more after Neil Simon than after Miller himself, although Hallmark publicity terms the work "somewhat autobiographical.'
Bracketed with a prologue and epiplace in a soundstage version of logue set in New York, "Fame" takes Rome, where Shine has journeyed to meet an eccentric Felliniesque director who bought the film rights to one of the plays.
His mild misadventures illustrate one irony or another about being a recognizable celebrity, something which, not to be unkind about it, cannot be quite so troublesome a problem for Miller as it used to be. Perhaps the most profound thought on the subject is expressed in the hybrid English of a gorgeous Italian lollipop who notes, "If all pay-pool will be fameoose, then there will be no fame, I think."
Richard Benjamin continues his audition for the part of Everyman in the role of Shine; Benjamin's face still looks most comfortable when it relaxes into the trance of a commuter awaiting the 8:40 to Manhattan, but his minimalist approach actually works well here, expecially since he is surrounded with splendid, spirited exhibitionism from the likes of Jose Ferrer as the Italian director, Oliver Cark as a long-lost boyhood chum, Shera Danese as the Italian actress, Linda Hunt as a spunky jockey, and Richard Libertini as a Roman cop. The sunny disposish of Nipsey Russell, as an omnicient bartender, is a great help, too.
But finest of all is Raf Vallone as a bumbling, agitated stranger who picks Benjamin up at Rome Airport and drives him to his hotel. Most of his dialogue is in quasi-Italian but his face is a fascinating universe unto itself. By a vicious fluke of editing-for-time, however, Tom Poston's role as a Rolls-Royce salesman was reduced to a silent cameo under the opening credits. This is nothing less than a major tragedy, but those are the breaks.
"Fame" is no feast; it is an afterdinner mint. But the talents of the actors, and of director Marc Daniels, composer Arthur B. Rubenstein and, perhaps most strikingly, art director Roy Christopher, combine to suggest something teetering toward the extraordinary. Arthur Miller owes each one of them the biggest bouquet a Hollywood florist will sell him.