Matlin, Harmon paired in new TV series

August 15, 1991|By Ron Miller | Ron Miller,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

This fall NBC will gamble that America is ready for a weekly series built around a relationship between a man and a woman who talk to each other in sign language.

Of course, they aren't exactly ordinary people. Mark Harmon is one of TV's busiest leading men. And Marlee Matlin is the Oscar-winning star of "Children of a Lesser God," the acclaimed 1986 feature film.

But their new series, "Reasonable Doubts," is the first to star a hearing-impaired performer such as Matlin, which means it comes with built-in problems.

In the series, which gets a "preview" showing in September, Matlin plays a lawyer in a big-city district attorney's office. Harmon is a police detective assigned to be her investigator, primarily because his father was deaf and he knows how to sign.

Take away the hearing angle, and "Reasonable Doubts" is a stylishly made but humdrum law-and-order series from Lorimar Television and producer Robert Singer, who brought us "Midnight Caller" for the last two seasons.

But nobody's about to take away that angle. It is, in fact, the whole rationale for the show, which is a vehicle for the gifted Matlin.

Though they're inclined to downplay the difficulties, it's obvious that "Reasonable Doubts" had to proceed at least partly as a labor of love for most of those involved.

For example, the writers have to create especially clever and succinct dialogue so the scenes involving Matlin don't bog down. She signs most of her lines, which means Harmon often has to repeat her comments for the majority of viewers to understand.

For the sake of accuracy, Harmon has to use some basic sign language in his scenes with Matlin, which complicates his preparation and their rehearsals. And Matlin needs her real-life interpreter -- Jack Jason -- in order to fully understand what the director and her fellow actors want to say to her.

In the fast-paced world of TV production, all these extra elements require a special commitment on everyone's part, including Matlin's.

Producer Singer says finding a way to avoid having Harmon repeat everything Matlin signs is a goal. "What we tried to do is have Marlee speak and have Mark frame his answers in a way that the audience understood what she said," Singer said. "If they were just having a conversation, he wouldn't repeat back everything she says. So that's a challenge in the writing."

It's a matter of the writers' getting in the rhythm of writing such scenes, Singer said.

Singer also doubts there'll be any production slowdown as a result of communicating with his star through a third individual.

"It goes as quickly as with any actor or actress," he said. "Marlee is one of the most directable actresses I've worked with. You can give her a subtle direction, and she gets it immediately."

Matlin, who turns 26 on Aug. 24, is able to speak but is much more expressive when signing. Her face is lively and animated as she forms the words with her lips and acts out the remarks she's signing with her fingers.

It's a major bonus for the writers that they can call on her character to speak aloud now and then. In practice, though, Matlin calls the shots on when she speaks her lines, after studying the script.

"I have a little bit of an ego," she said through her interpreter. "When I want to speak, I will. And that's the way we work on it."

In one scene in the first episode, Matlin's character, Tess Kaufman, is insulted by a crude cop, and she replies, in sign.

"What I actually said," Matlin explained, "was, 'Why don't you take that beer bottle and shove it up your -- whatever.'"

NBC's standards and practices experts decided to cut away from her signing before she got to the "whatever" part of the remark, but, as Matlin pointed out, nobody was going to miss her point.

Right now Matlin is the most celebrated hearing-impaired actress in America. She's aware that she's knocking down many barriers for performers who have disabilities, and, as a result, often is looked upon as a role model.

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