Orioles no comedy to Cheers' Levine

January 10, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

Sam, Norm and the gang at "Cheers" are suitably impressed that one of the guys who puts words in their mouths is going to the big leagues.

And Ken Levine, who has been a writer on the highly acclaimed show since its inception in 1982, is quick to point out that this is a serious venture -- a second career he was able to generate because of unique circumstances.

Levine moves into the Orioles' radio booth this spring and some already have predicted that he and Jon Miller, one of his partners, will be the funniest partnership in the business. But Levine insists this won't be a "Can You Top This?" novelty act.

"To be honest, I didn't think I'd get a major-league job when I started out doing this," said Levine, who made a brief get-acquainted visit to Baltimore yesterday. "But I always geared myself for that possibility so I would be ready if the opportunity presented itself.

"This isn't going to be Robin Williams doing a comedy act on radio," he said. "I do have a broadcasting background."

Levine freely admits that his success as a writer/producer/consultant in Hollywood allowed him the luxury to pursue a boyhood ambition. "It's something I've wanted to do ever since I started listening to Vin Scully when the Dodgers came to Los Angeles in 1958," he said.

He spent nine years in radio, mostly as a disc jockey, starting as a student at UCLA in 1968. His opportunities as a screen writer led him in another direction -- and ultimately provided him with the freedom to try play-by-play broadcasting.

"I started thinking about things I'd always wanted to do and never tried," he said. "At the age of 35, I could see myself sitting in Dodger Stadium talking into a tape recorder -- but I couldn't see myself doing that at 50."

So he went to Dodgers games, made tapes from the stands -- and ultimately decided to take a flyer. In 1988 he landed a job calling games for the Triple A Syracuse Chiefs. "As it turned out that was the year of the Writers Guild strike, so I was the only writer working -- making $1,200 a month and $14 per day meal money," said Levine, 40.

It was a financial gamble he could easily afford to take because of his success in Hollywood, where his credits include "M*A*S*H," more than 80 other episodes of prime-time television comedies and two movies ("Volunteers" and "Jewel of the Nile") in addition to "Cheers."

He won an Emmy for a "Cheers" segment in 1982 and has four other nominations as well as six Writers Guild nominations. As a consultant, Levine is on the "Cheers" set every week and writes about "four or five" episodes each season (including the one airing tonight).

For the last two years, Levine broadcast games for the Tidewater Tides, then was one of 94 candidates who applied for the Orioles' job made vacant when Joe Angel left to join the New York Yankees. His selection has not gone unnoticed in Hollywood.

"It has created a lot more attention than I thought it would," he said. And how did the gang at "Cheers" react? "They think it's great -- real cool."

Along with partner David Issacs, Levine has been involved with "Cheers" throughout the show's nine-year run -- and admits the early prognosis was about as favorable as his chances of launching a play-by-play career four years ago. "Creatively we thought we had a good show, but commercially no," Levine said of "Cheers" early days. "The first year we were consistently in the bottom 10. There was grave concern that we might be canceled after 13 weeks."

But "Cheers" survived, and because it did one of the show's original writers had the luxury of "pursuing a boyhood dream."

*

The Orioles announced yesterday that reliever Kevin Hickey has agreed to a $250,000 contract for next year. The lefthander was 1-3 with a 5.13 earned run average last year, when he spent 2 1/2 months with the Rochester Red Wings.

The signing of Hickey leaves the Orioles with five players still eligible to file for arbitration -- infielders Rene Gonzales and Bill Ripken, pitcher Mark Williamson and outfielder Joe Orsulak -- in addition to catcher Mickey Tettleton, who accepted arbitration in lieu of free agency.

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