Tuned In: Linda Lavin returns to TV

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Actress Linda Lavin may no longer be the "new girl in town" of the theme song from her 1976-85 CBS sitcom "Alice," but at 75 she really is new to Los Angeles once again for production of NBC's new sitcom "Sean Saves the World" (9 p.m. Thursday, WPXI).

With the exception of a few roles here and there in recent years -- "The Sopranos," "The O.C." -- Ms. Lavin has been out of the business since 1998's short-lived NBC comedy "Conrad Bloom."

'Sean Saves the World'

When: 9 p.m. Thursdays, NBC.

Starring: Sean Hayes, Linda Lavin.

For 17 years she lived in Wilmington, N.C., which she first visited for production of the 1996 TV movie "Stolen Memories: Secrets From the Rose Garden." (Even though Wilmington has become a hotbed of TV production -- "Dawson's Creek," "One Tree Hill," the first season of "Revolution" -- she never appeared in any of those shows.)

For the past five years, Ms. Lavin and her third husband, Steve Bakunas, ran a Wilmington theater company before moving recently to Austerlitz, N.Y.

Why the long absence from the TV scene? Ms. Lavin said she was simply ready for a break.

"I decided I was through with a certain part of my life," she said this summer during an NBC party poolside at The Beverly Hilton. "I was through with pursuing. I don't think I've ever said that out loud before."

She didn't have an agent anymore, but she remained happy to be pursued, including by representatives of "The Sopranos," who cast her in a 2002 episode as Dr. Wendi Kobler.

"When I got the audition for 'The Sopranos,' we set up a video camera in the living room, and Steve played Meadow and I was auditioning for the part of a shrink and we made the film," she said. "I just did whatever came up that was appealing to me. I could negotiate my own contract, and if it was something bigger, then I'd get a lawyer. I didn't want somebody between me and the buyer anymore after years of it and then finally hearing things were not transcribed as I said them.

"I was satisfied with my life the way it was and I wasn't yearning to be ..." she said, stopping in midsentence. "I love working, and I was getting plenty of work and running a theater company. We did 'Driving Miss Daisy' with me as Miss Daisy and it was the longest-running play in the history of Wilmington, and that goes back to the 14th century or something."

Ms. Lavin hasn't stayed in touch with "Alice" co-star Beth Howland, but she is friendly with Celia Weston, who played Jolene -- the second replacement for Polly Holiday's Flo. Philip McKeon, who played Alice's son, came to see Ms. Lavin in "The Lyons" on Broadway last year.

Her return to a prime-time TV series in "Sean Saves the World" is a business and lifestyle decision.

"Let's just say I'd been willing to get back into television," she said. "I haven't wanted an agent. I've been just fine doing whatever came up when people called me. I liked the direct communication with casting directors and nobody in the middle."

But once she decided to leave Wilmington and move to New York, Ms. Lavin decided to take on an agent, who reads scripts for her and sends her the ones he thinks might have appeal, including "Sean Saves the World."

Ms. Lavin stars in the new NBC sitcom as Lorna, the pushy mother of Sean Hayes' character, a Chicago businessman and gay single dad to a teenage girl. Carnegie Mellon University grad Megan Hilty ("Smash") plays Mr. Hayes' best friend, who sometimes clashes with Lorna.

"We've got a lot of theater folks on the show, which I think is a huge factor in cultivating a hit sitcom. Sitcoms are ... the closest things related to theater," Mr. Hayes said in a recent teleconference with reporters. "And so in that sense, we are so fortunate to get Linda onboard. Tony Award-winning Linda Lavin, who you could give literally any line to and she would get a huge laugh."

When she first reopened herself to a series regular role, Ms. Lavin said her goal was to land on a program produced in New York.

"So I didn't get everything I wanted," she said, laughing. But she liked the script for "Sean Saves the World," and her husband agreed to a move west for the duration of the TV show, which in the realm of untested series could be just a few months (in failure) or many years (in success).

"I read two scenes and I could see the potential for this relationship," Ms. Lavin said of her character's interaction with her TV son. "He's gonna need his mother. He's got a kid and she's there and she's smart and open and funny and outspoken, everything I love doing."

She said she was drawn to the script.

"When I did television in those Middle Ages that you just mentioned there was an innocence about the world those people lived in," Ms. Lavin said during an NBC press conference this summer. "For me, this is a place I want to be because I'm playing a character, a mother, who is not the butt of the joke, who is not a simpleton or a joke herself, who has something to say, who is hopefully going to be attractive and smart and challenging and has this relationship."

Being back in front of a studio audience for "Sean" tape nights isn't that different from her days on "Alice," Ms. Lavin said.

"The faces have changed, but the method remains the same," she said. "It was familiar but also when you revisit a place or an experience, you're a different person, not only older and hopefully wiser and more evolved, but you move into the acceptance of your being a different person by not repeating the mistakes you made the first time you had that experience. It's my opportunity to do it differently, my opportunity not to be led around by the pressure.

"Everybody's under pressure. Nobody wants to lay it on you, but they have it and you can feel it," she said. "You want to do the best job you possibly can and not worry about yourself and realize you're there to participate in a project and serve the project. It's about serving the greater good."


TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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