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  BELLED #28 - SEPTEMBER 22, 2002

Welcome to Belled's Fall Premiere Issue!

Jean Smart dominates the news this edition as two of her major and much-anticipated projects hit theaters and television screens.

First, Belled goes behind the scenes as Jean settles into a regular role on NBC's new comedy, In-Laws, followed by a look at her return to the South in Reese Witherspoon's Sweet Home Alabama -- in theaters this Friday.

Plus in this issue's Designing Women Flashback, we present a classic interview with Meshach Taylor following the official announcement of Designing Women's cancellation.

And don't forget to visit the Hot Off the Press Page for regular news and updates!


Meeting the 'In-Laws'

The cast of IN-LAWS -- Elon Gold, Bonnie Somerville, Dennis Farina and Jean Smart

A Belled Exclusive Report
by John Paul Murphy

It's a story as old as time -- adjusting to your in-laws.

NBC loves it and is promoting the hell out of it. It's audience has been bombarded with weeks of promos and episode clips, not to mention billboards -- and yes, I even saw an In-Laws cast picture in lights above my supermarket checkout.

TV Guide hates it -- right now along with pretty much anything that doesn't boast an original concept.

Let's face it; for the last couple of years the hot commodity has been slick spy shows and "reality" television, so new sitcoms in the traditional format have been challenged breaking in an audience. But I have to wonder which is closer to "reality" as we know it -- eating pig intestines and swinging over pits of hot tar in exotic jungle remotes, or the never-ending familial struggles with our in-laws? I know which is more representative of my reality, but I digress.

Jean Smart and Dennis FarinaSo what will audiences think of another new series with such an old formula?

In-Laws has quite a bit of strength in its corner, from the heavy-hitting producers of Frasier to the very talented and well-seasoned cast of Dennis Farina (Get Shorty), Elon Gold (Clerks), Bonnie Somerville (Friends), and the Emmy-winning Jean Smart. This is a team to be reckoned with, and judging from last week's live taping, I'd say they're prepped for the long haul.

Like many of you, I was excited to hear that Jean would be in a new series, especially one created by the same talented writer who was behind her Emmy-winning Frasier character. I had no idea what direction the show would take, but knowing that Jean raises the production level of anything in which she's involved, I expected big things.

Then came the deluge of In-Laws promos, which left me feeling a little tepid about the whole project. The jokes were cute enough -- though didn't blow me away, and Jean was noticeably absent from most of the episode clips. What little of her we did see gave the impression that her character would be demure and refined -- very mature, and not necessarily the best use of her skills. So when I made a trip to the studio for last week's taping of In-Laws, I wasn't sure what to expect.

What I got was a widly entertaining performance that left me in tears from laughter. The cast was beyond brilliant. The script was witty, well-paced, and well -- downright funny. And the chemistry from the set permeated the entire studio.

Bonnie Somerville and Elon GoldElon Gold is definitely a star on the rise. A stand-up comedian at heart, Gold warmed up the studio audience with his own brazen comedy routine which set the tone for the evening and introduced us to the material on which In-Laws was originally based.

And it was a packed house -- amazing in itself for a show that hasn't even aired any episodes yet. The audience was actually there for this show and these actors, with many of the first few rows even being reserved for VIP guests.

Seated next to me was a clean-cut, all-American student of 21 who told me that this was his third In-Laws taping, to which Jean herself turned around to give him two thumbs up and a big thank you. At first I assumed he must know someone who was working on the series, but he said he was honestly just there because he loved the show! He admitted to originally being drawn to one of the tapings by a free ticket with Dennis Farina's name on it, but after his first taste of In-Laws, he said he couldn't get enough and has been back every week since. "Elon Gold is so freakin' funny, and the cast has so much chemistry together. I try to bring friends with me every week, and I've been telling everyone to watch this show."

Elon Gold, Bonnie Somerville and Dennis FarinaOk, so it's been done before, but In-Laws is definitely not Archie Bunker and Meathead.

It's the story of newlyweds Matt and Alex, their reluctant decision to move in with Alex's parents while Matt attends culinary school, and a father who can't let go of his daughter. There's no screaming or arguing, but Farina's character is a master manipulator and knows just how to twist a situation to his advantage. Gold plays Matt like someone who's just entered the Twilight Zone -- trapped inside the oddball world of he wife's family, the Pellets, and caught between his father-in-law's manipulations and Alex's insistence that it's all in his imagination. His facial expressions say it all as he tries to hold on to his sanity while defending himself with his own wisecracks and sarcasm.

And Jean's character is absolutely priceless! The previews definitely do not do her justice. Marlene Pellet spews forth some of the best one-liners and least predictable dialogue of the series -- leaving her spark on each and every scene she pops into, regardless of whether she is spotlighted. She often refers to herself in third person, and goes out to get her real estate license just "so Marlene won't be sitting home on her ass all day." In the Pilot, the family goes out to celebrate the sale of her first house, but it ends up falling through because she forgets to inform the buyers about the people that died there. Her reaction? -- one of the murder victims was apparently killed running and fell over the neighbor's hedge -- so technically he died on their property.

Jean Smart as Marlene PelletMarlene is loud and brash and often written as flighty -- played in classic Jean Smart-style, but this mom is no Charlene Frazier with her sharp wit and Gucci taste. She just loves to have a good time. For example, as the Pellet family prepares for a day of apple picking, Marlene's traditional role is to sit under a tree with a good book and two bottles of wine -- which she affectionately refers to as her buddies 'Cab' and 'Mer' (and according to daughter Alex, the book serves primarily as a coaster). The lady enjoys life, and although she sees her husband's manipulation of Matt, she finds it mostly harmless and lets her new son-in-law learn to fend for himself.

Much like her character, Jean is clearly having a good time with this series, especially since the success of In-Laws doesn't fall as heavily on her shoulders as it did with High Society and Style and Substance. This show belongs to Elon Gold and Dennis Farina and the conflict of their characters, but in the end, it's the chemistry of the ensemble cast that's making it work.

Many new sitcoms present us with so many characters that one can barely keep up (just look at Bonnie Hunt's new show) -- usually dropping some or replacing them as the need arises. But in the tradition of classic cast ensembles like I Love Lucy, All In the Family, Seinfeld, Will and Grace -- and yes, Designing Women -- In-Laws has set itself up for success by putting its money on a strong comedic quartet.

The Pellets sit down to a 'tense' dinnerIt was impressive to watch the actors pull off very long and very polished performances with so few mistakes. They actually shot several minutes of continuous dialogue -- completing entire scenes as if we were watching a play rather than a taping. Kudos to the cast for their precision and professionalism.

You know the material has to be solid and the performance quality amazing when a show can pull off entire episodes with only four characters; no gimmicks and no flashy guest stars. And that's exactly what Executive Producers Mark Reisman and Kelsey Grammer have proven with this series.

So even if the previews alone haven't been enough to draw you to In-Laws, check it out anyway. You'll be pleasantly surprised. I know I was.

Dennis Farina, Jean Smart, Elon Gold and Bonnie Somerville. In-Laws -- premiering Tuesday, September 24th at 8:00pm ET/PT on NBC with two back-to-back episodes.

**Sources: NBC Publicity, Smart Stuff: Officially Jean Smart
Photo credits: Chris Haston, Paul Drinkwater, James Sorensen, and Dave Bjorke -- courtesy of NBC Publicity.


And Then There Was Anthony ...

Designing Women's Meshach Taylor ends the series as he began -- with dignity.

Meshach Taylor as Anthony Bouvier

A Classic 'Designing Women' Article

Source: Los Angeles Times - May 23, 1993
Written by: Carolyn Patrica Scott

Actor Meshach (pronounced ME-shack) Taylor pauses during a fast lunch on the Columbia Studios lot in Burbank. He's just read the news of Designing Women's cancellation in the morning paper. "It hurt-seven years of my life."

But the sting lessens as Taylor reflects on the deliveryman character, Anthony Bouvier, whom he invested with dignity, wisdom and humor on the Linda Bloodworth-Thomason sitcom. Anthony and the Sugarbaker design team bow out with the show's final airing on CBS Monday.

"Anthony was a one-shot deal, but was on every show since that guest appearance," he recalls with justifiable pride.

"I like comedy with an edge, humor that teaches and entertains, as opposed to just a lot of yuk, yuk, yuk. Punchline, one-liner, one-liner," the actor explains. "Satire is a sensory experience. You don't stumble on it, you develop it, look for ways to bring it out." Which is how he approached Anthony.

True, Anthony had his limits. But Taylor could turn a double-take into an indictment, flash a wide grin and draw the line-"I do not choose to ... "-and turn what might have been a stereotype into a role that commanded respect.

"As a teen-ager," Taylor says, "I was always in the company of some very smart, funny friends, with off-center senses of humor." He honed his own one-liners and mimicry with them.

The son of college professors, he earned a bachelor's degree in theatre arts earlier this month at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. He's played in feature films (Mannequin), done guest spots on TV (In the Heat of the Night) and extensive stage work in the Midwest until Anthony came along to test his skill as a comedic actor.

Suzanne and AnthonyTaylor likes Anthony, the only male character inhabiting the Sugarbakers' Southern design den, and he liked the smart tone of the scripts from day one. "They were funny, with little twists."

He erupts in laughter as he recalls one of his favorite episodes, "Stranded," which ran early in the series and focused on a telling interplay with Suzanne, played by Delta Burke, who later left the show in a public tiff with the producers.

That episode, like many others, was edgy comedy, he recalls. Anthony was snowbound with the self-centered Suzanne, who takes the last room at the last inn. She sends Anthony out into the cold, cheerily admonishing him not to "let the bedbugs bite." Anthony pauses at the door.

"Excuse me, Suzanne. I would just like to remind you that it is 3 degrees below outside. Therefore, I do not think it's appropriate for you to say . . ." He mimics her voice, "Good night, Anthony, don't let the bedbugs bite." Without taking a breath, he drops a gruff two octaves:

"I think it might be more to the point, if you said, `Good night, Anthony. May God have mercy on your soul!' "

Episodes like "Stranded" drew fire from social critics, who protested that Anthony was being relegated to a subservient and demeaning role.

"You always walk a tightrope, between humor and humiliation," says Taylor, who was named for the biblical Meshach, who walked out of a blazing furnace miraculously unharmed. "There's always that possibility that someone will be offended."

Annie Potts and Meshach TaylorIn fact, Taylor once "thought making people laugh was demeaning." He pauses, then flashes a contagious smile. "I didn't realize how important laughter is. I realized that when I began doing the show."

Even before his 1989 Emmy nomination, Taylor charmed viewers as the down-to-earth Anthony. "Everywhere, people liked Anthony," he recalls. "They were nice to him; it was fun." Where the designing women themselves might be acerbic, "Anthony was accessible and honest."

With Designing Women over and already in syndication, Taylor looks forward to finding new roles, both comedy and drama, in film as well as TV. Married to former soap star Bianca Fergusson and the father of four, Taylor notes that doing Designing Women "allowed me to be with my family, but I like film; in film I have to stretch." Ideally, he'd like to work half the year in film, the other half in TV.

He's got a new management team-Suzanne de Passe and Shelly Browning (Lonesome Dove, The Jacksons)-finding new avenues for him to explore: "I'm excited. They're developing a sitcom for me."

In the meantime, he's become famous enough for Robin Leach of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to go on a romantic vacation with the Taylors to the Virgin Islands.

And with a final look back to his TV home for seven years, Meshach Taylor says with a laugh, "All that Anthony would say is: `I wasn't there for a long time, but for a good time.' "

**Photo credits: Columbia Pictures Television -- courtesy of Designing Women Tribute.


Going Home Again

Jean Smart and Reese Witherspoon

Jean Smart returns to the South in Sweet Home Alabama

Jean Smart reprises the Southern accent that made her famous when Sweet Home Alabama hits theaters this Friday.

Josh Lucas and Reese WitherspoonThe film is a romantic comedy featuring Reese Witherspoon as Melanie Carmichael, a New York fashion designer who suddenly finds herself engaged to the city's most eligible bachelor -- the Mayor's son. But her past holds many secrets, including the redneck husband she married in high school, who refuses to divorce her. Bound and determined to end their contentious relationship once and for all, she sneaks back home to Alabama to confront her past. What she finds is that the life she tried to escape from may actually be the life she's been searching for all along.

Joining an all-star cast which includes Patrick Dempsey, Josh Lucas, Candice Bergen, Fred Ward and Mary Kay Place, Jean plays a honkey-tonk bar manager named Stella -- who also happens to be Melanie's mother-in-law. The official description of her character is as follows:

Jean Smart as Stella"Stella's got a heart of gold beneath that tough as dirt exterior, but only her son, Jake, and her daughter-in-law, Melanie, know that. Her patrons at Stella's Roadhouse have no idea. They only know the Stella that pours them shots and then tosses them out when they've had too many."

There is also something about her passion for soaking her arthritic feet while watching Sunday night football -- but some things are better left to the imagination.

Reviews aren't in yet, but Witherspoon and Josh Lucas sizzle together, so expect Sweet Home Alabama to be the year's biggest date movie.

Sweet Home Alabama hits theaters this Friday, September 27th.

**Sources: Sweet Home Alabama (Official Site), Smart Stuff: Officially Jean Smart
Photos credits: Touchstone Pictures.