Forget the Blarney stone. Television fans will want to kiss their Magnavoxes after seeing Charles Durning in his new detective series, "Eye to Eye," premiering tonight on Channel 7 at approximately 9:30.
You may wonder why America's most lovable, huggable character actor would stoop to doing a television series, and one based on such a tired formula: crusty, semiretired gumshoe teams with pert, pretty blond for weekly forays into the wacky world of crime.
Believe it or not, the formula works, mainly on the strength of Durning, who last charmed his way into our consciousness as Jessica Lange's widowed father in "Tootsie," not to mention fine performances as satirically menacing types in "True Confessions" and "The Sting."
With all the lifetime Nautilus members passing as small-screen heroes these days, Durning's Oscar Poole -- the only man on television who can call a woman "doll" and get away with it -- is a sight for bored eyes. He's a Tip O'Neill-sized lonely guy who's seen the bottom of too many Cheetos bags. His K mart ties stop four inches above his Tall and Big Man belt, and his bulbous nose looks like the one Karl Malden traded in after "A Streetcar Named Desire" for a larger size. He shuffles through the hour with a bemused look on his face, eyelids at half-mast, looking like a favorite red-faced uncle who can't remember all the words to "Galway Bay."
Oh, what a relief he is!
As his sidekick Tracy Doyle, the daughter of Poole's ex-partner, Stephanie Faracy is wonderfully appealing as an eclectic artist, caterer, "registered florist," movie buff and owner of a baby-blue Mustang, whose idea of personal growth is to become a "trained SmokEnders counselor." Her Goldie Hawn giggle and intuitive intelligence strikes just the right balance against Durning's grumpy vulnerability.
The series was inspired by the Art Carney-Lily Tomlin vehicle "The Late Show," and despite the track record of other spinoffs ("M*A*S*H" being the obvious exception), the television version is just as good, if not better, than the original feature film.
While the plot for tonight's pilot is flimsier than a Frederick's of Hollywood nightie, the dialogue is snappy and sophisticated, and the two are the most likable odd couple in many a season. They not only see eye to eye, but go toe to toe in a spirited tango. Not since Jackie Gleason has such an aircraft carrier of a man moved with such comedic grace.
After convincing Poole to find out who killed her long-lost father, Doyle talks her way into becoming the detective's partner. There are a few high-speed car chases and grade-B baddies, but Durning and Faracy rise above the requisite amount of drivel with deadpan exchanges.
She: "My God, I can't believe I'm in an actual gun battle."
He: "I can't believe I said 'Freeze.' "
With only a swizzle stick for a clue, Poole goes fishing for the murderer. He encounters an old buddy in the church choir.
Poole: "Eddie, you were a big drinker. Did you ever save swizzle sticks?"
Eddie: "Oscar, I never even used a glass."
At one point, his sidekick says she has never seen him laugh. He points to the crook of his mouth and says, "You see this side of my mouth? When it goes up around a quarter-inch, that's me laughing."
There's only one thing wrong with "Eye to Eye": It's so good, it will probably be canceled. Until that day, Thursday nights will be a bit brighter.
So what if Durning doesn't laugh. The rest of us will.