Usually, when a hit movie is turned into a TV series, everybody groans about how it's been sanitized, homogenized and decaffeinated -- like that miserable wretch "Private Benjamin," for instance. The moderately amazing thing about NBC's new show "Fame" is that homogenization improves it; it's better than the movie.
The movie was about an unruly tribe of foul-mouthed and self-centered brats attending New York's High School for the Performing Arts. Each character in the film cared about nothing but himself and about "making it," preferably through some flukish or freakish stroke of luck.
"We've toned that down," says William Blinn, executive producer of the series, and in this case, toning down helps rather than hurts. The subject of the program is still unfortunately show business, the most over-discussed subject in television, but the struggling students have been turned into people worth rooting for, or at least a few notches above detestible. "People who loved the movie, who saw it four or five times, we're never going to satisfy," says Blinn. "But then, that's true of 'M*A*S*H' as well."
Blinn and producer Mel Swope, sitting in a tatty office at MGM Television, say "Fame" might never have become a series if NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff hadn't seen the movie in a theater.
"We are a cassette town," says Blinn. "We get a cassette of something, throw it in the machine, and say, 'Oh yes, that's nice.' But Tartikoff went to a theater to see 'Fame.' He saw the kids dancing in the aisles. He had quarrels with the picture but he couldn't quarrel with the audience response.
"If he hadn't gone to the movies that night, we probably wouldn't be here."
National audience response to the premiere of "Fame" earlier this month wasn't deafening; the show got only a 24 percent share of the viewing audience (28 would have been good). But in its 8 p.m. Thursday time slot on Channel 4 it has to buck an established hit, "Magnum P.I." on CBS, and it did better than "Mork and Mindy" on ABC.
A sign in Blinn's outer office, scrawled on a little blackboard, says, "Love 'Fame' now; avoid the rush." They're hoping it will catch on.
What "Fame" has going for it is freshness and novelty; each week's program will include at least two musical numbers performed by members of the show's talented young cast (including two kids and two adults who were in the film). The original music is concocted by something called The Entertainment Company in New York and shipped to Hollywood.
On tonight's program, "Passing Grade," the story is resolved partly through a tender dance by Debbie Allen, who plays the instructor and choreographs the show, and Erica Gimpel, who inherited the role played by Irene Cara in the movie and is every bit as good. This is the kind of moment you won't see on any other TV series, and it helps explain why "Fame" gets a gold star just for being different.
But will the mass audience take to its massive bosom a series about a bunch of New York artsy-smartisies? Swope, who worked on the outstanding series "Police Story," says he thinks kids tuning in will identify with the strivings of the students and see them as "parallels" to their lives. And adults tuning in can enjoy not only the stories but also appreciate the scantiness of the kids' rehearsal togs. This show is big on nubility.
"Fame" also has the most ethnically diverse cast in television -- and this in a season with few minorities in serious roles on the air, and marked by threats from black actors to boycott producers because of the lack of work.
Blinn says he is not aware of any network nervousness about the various complexions of the show's stars. "They may have those conversations, but they haven't so far pressured us with them," he says.
"We don't intend to do things "racially' in terms of stories about prejudice," says Blinn. "For one thing, what is there new to say on that subject?" In recent years, network shows starring distinguished black actors like James Earl Jones and Lou Gossett have failed to attract audiences, but Blinn -- who produced "The Lazarus Syndrome" with Gossett and wrote the very popular TV movie "Brian's Song" early in the '70s -- says he doesn't necessarily see a trend here.
"I will go to my grave believing Lou Gossett can be a television star," he says. "The fact is, the scripts for that show -- and this was my responsibility -- simply did not play to Lou's strength."
"Fame" is the most original and ambitious new network series of the season so far, but the yellow brick road that brought it to NBC wasn't without its curves and loop-deeloops.
The pilot for the show, which aired recently as the premiere, was actually made a year ago. But NBC executives realized they had a clinker on their hands; by contractual agreement, they had to air the show, but they brought in new talent to make succeeding episodes, and that's where Blinn and Swope came in. They're two of the calmest guys ever to stroll onto the MGM lot.
"If it would help, I'd scream," says Blinn, and there must have been some screaming along the way to the fruition of "Fame"; the new episodes, now airing, are much better than the pilot, and the young cast is outstanding.
One problem with the pilot was "a lack of humor," Blinn says, and the fact that it was a "kind of well, here's-what-happened" sort of thing. "Too much a slice of life," says Swope.The new seripts have more dramatic shape and move one or two of the many characters to center focus each week. But a basic part of the show remains; the original musical numbers that don't just liven things up, but also advance the plot or character development.
"It's our equivalent of what an action show does with a car chase," Blinn explains. "Each number takes a full day to shoot, and only seven days are allotted for shotting an entire episode," but the costs aren't outrageous mainly because, unlike other shows, they aren't smashing up any cars on this one.
Another novel thing about "Fame" is the fact that the producers seem content with the way the network is handling the show. Why, this is almost unheard of: What they say about NBC suggests that the new chairman, Grant Tinker, really has brought in an enlightened attitude toward those who produce the shows -- the revolutionary idea of leaving them alone-to do the best they can.
Neither Blinn nor Swope is complaining yet about the way the network has treated their show. "If we don't make it," Blinn says, "I can't fault the network and I can't fault the time slot. We're in a kind of limbo area; we've thrown a ball, and we're waiting to see where it lands.
"We haven't been muscled," Blinn adds. "Believe me, I make a hobby of bad mouthing networks; I love it. But this is okay. It's like 'Hey, we're being left alone!'"
There have been disagreements, of course. The network didn't like a script in which 16-year-old Doris (played by Valerie Landsburg) encountered a Times Square prostitute who was the same age. The network turned down the story idea, but when Blinn urged then to let the script be written and then read it, they relented, and eventually accepted the show. "It's unusual," says Blinn, "to be open-minded enough to be convinced."
And so, on an MGM soundstage, work is now being completed on the hooker episode. The appealingly perky Landsburg, daughter of the not-so-appealing TV producer Alan Landsburg ("That's Incredible!"), points to a pretty young actress being made up in front of a mirror and whispers, "That's the hooker!"
Landsburg says she thinks it would be nice if the show would run for four years: then she and others in the cast (including the sensational dancer Gene Anthony Ray, who stole the movie outright) could graduate and make way for a new batch of rambunctious singers and dancers.
Of course, in prime-time network television, four years is an eternity. Few shows make it to paradise.
"If this show works," says Blinn, "it will be a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is that there will be imitators -- in fact, I've heard there are some already. The good thing is that the same thing will happen that happened with "Hill Street Blues": some other producer will say, "Let's try to break the mold. Let's try to do something different so we can feel good about coming to work in the morning."