Stars take a shine to WB: TV: Robert Townsend, Ed McMahon and Carol Leifer have all found something to like in their new network.

January 31, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

For Carol Leifer, it's the opportunity for a creative carte blanche.

For Robert Townsend, it's the chance for some talented African-American directors, writers and actors to hone their skills.

And for Ed McMahon, it's the chance to serve as father figure to a bunch of young kids anxious for the big time.

For all three, working for the WB is working for the new network on the block, a reality that may translate to fewer viewers and less exposure but brings with it a host of other benefits.

"It kind of appealed to me that [the network] is in the evolutionary stages," says Leifer, one of a trio of WB sitcom stars who hit Baltimore this week to help welcome WNUV, Channel 54, to the network fold.

"It can be a little intimidating to go on a bigger network and maybe know that if you're in a bad time slot or don't deliver in a couple weeks, you're off the air. There's not that kind of pressure here. They've really let me do what I want to do. I like being a pio- neer."

As do they all, apparently.

Robert Townsend

Townsend, who rose to film fame as an actor/writer/director ("Meteor Man," "Hollywood Shuffle"), says he was drawn to television because of the potential for maximum exposure -- important for a man who believes his work provides more than just entertainment.

"As an African-American especially, there aren't a lot of positive role models on TV," says Townsend, "and there aren't a lot of shows that teach as well as be funny. My whole career has been built on stuff that has been funny but has something to say.

"I never want it to be a preachy show, but I think that it is needed," he continues. "Certainly, in this day and age, when people have gotten so far away from values that you can't sit at 8 o'clock and watch television with your kids that's the reason that I created this show."

"The Parent 'Hood," in which Townsend stars with Suzanne Douglas, Reagan Gomez-Preston, Curtis Williams Jr. and Ashli Amari Adams, is the '90s equivalent of such family shows as "Father Knows Best," "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Cosby." And those are comparisons Townsend relishes.

"The real reason I created 'The Parent 'Hood,' " he explains, "is because there's a whole generation that's not growing up on what I grew up on, unless it's on Nick-at-Nite. Maybe it's corny, maybe it's sappy; those shows I grew up on, they always had a happy ending but at the core was a real message." Television, he says, offers the best medium for getting his philosophy across. "I can get a message to millions and millions of people every week."

Townsend praises the programmers at WB for scheduling an entire evening (Wednesdays) of shows aimed at African-American audiences. While he'd prefer that such shows be spread throughout the prime-time schedule, he understands that putting them all on the same night makes good business sense.

"I wish television wasn't as segregated, but it's where we are as a society," he says. "But what I see is a lot of my friends who couldn't get work getting a chance to work. [The network is] developing young writers and directors, giving them a chance to work."

Ed McMahon

Ed McMahon, who's been in the entertainment biz for nearly half a century, gets a real kick out of his status as senior statesman at WB.

"There's a lot of reverence and a lot of respect for me, which I really think is great," says McMahon, who co-stars on "The Tom Show" with Tom Arnold. "One day, the stage manager came in and started to tell me something, and Arnold comes up to him and says: 'Get off the stage. This man has 50 years of experience doing this; you don't even speak to him.' "

McMahon laughs as he tells the story, a laugh familiar to nearly everyone -- that's what 30 years sitting alongside Johnny Carson does. Working on a sitcom, he says, is vastly different from doing "The Tonight Show."

"That was so loose for me," he says. "There were no meetings or anything, I just showed up. We were flying without strings. Here, there are story conferences, lines to memorize. But I love the discipline, being an old military man like I am. I love that there's a certain pattern to everything."

McMahon says he was uniquely prepared to play the part of Charlie Dickerson. "That was me," he says. "The guy hosts a morning television show; he's been on the air for 43 years. Back in the '50s, I had a breakfast show."

As for his old boss, McMahon says he's pretty sure television has seen the last of Johnny Carson on a regular basis. "I think when he left, he did have honest intentions of coming back someday, but he didn't find anything fast enough. He'd tell me, 'Ed, nothing works.' I don't think we'll see him again in any kind of continuing role."

Carol Leifer

Carol Leifer's heard the talk, about how Jerry Seinfeld patterned the character of Elaine after her, and how her show, "Alright Already," may be the spiritual heir to the "Seinfeld" viewing dynasty.

As to her being the real Elaine, she says, "I think that was greatly overblown.

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