When "Evening Shade" debuts tonight at 7 p.m. on Ch. 5, it will be a miracle of sorts. A coming together of incredible writing and acting talent that no one thought could happen, pulled together in just a matter of weeks.
It all began when Jeff Sagansky took over as president of CBS Entertainment early this year. Taking a look around at his network's sparse hits, he noted that Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, creator-writer-producer of "Designing Women," wasn't working on anything else."When I came aboard, I went to her and I said, `Look, is there anything you want to do?' " Sagansky said.
Bloodworth-Thomason said she'd been kicking around an idea for several years - a show about a former NFL football player who returns to his small hometown in Arkansas to coach the high school football team.
Sagansky was enthusiastic and told her to go with the idea, but Bloodworth-Thomason said she couldn't write it until she had a star to play the part of Wood Newton.
"Over the next couple of months . . . every week we would trudge in and give her a suggestion of who could star in it, none of which she thought could do it," Sagansky said. "And finally out of desperation one day, I said, `Well, gee, how about Burt Reynolds?' She said, `Yeah, that's great.' "
One big problem with that idea, however. Reynolds was starring in ABC's "B.L. Stryker."
But, fortunately for Bloodworth-Thomason and CBS, Reynolds wasn't happy with that show's new time period.
"I kind of knew that `B.L. Stryker' was not going to make it when they moved us from Monday night to Saturday night," Reynolds said. "It was sort of a no-man's land. And also, I had people who loved the show who couldn't find it."
ABC tried to keep Reynolds in the fold, offering him a half-hour pilot or "Stryker" as a weekly, hourlong show. He declined.
Instead, he put himself "on the marketplace," where he found all kinds of networks and studios competing for his services.
"It was quite eventful for three or four weeks. I felt very liked," Reynolds said.
Major studios were buzzing around, offering Reynolds deals that included all kinds of incentives and movie projects.
"We just . . . felt like we were in a little covered wagon with the wheels falling off, being chased by Patton's army," Bloodworth-Thomason said. "When word got out that Burt would do a half hour, basically every network stepped up to bat and the two largest agencies in town - neither of whom we are with - so it was not a packaging deal."
Reynolds said he was inundated with offers to play girl-chasing, single fathers - characters he had no interest in playing.
"I was only attracted to something that . . . would have a family situation. And Linda's idea was right down the line with that," Reynolds said.
"There were other writers who have enormous success - I mean, enormous success - and there were other things that could have come along with the deal that made it very enticing, like movie deals . . . and game shows, but I went with my heart and that was Linda."
"There was absolutely no incentive for Burt to do this show with us because we right away said there's no package deal here, you know. We're just Mozark Productions and we've just got a script, and that's it.
"I think he chose the project for which he probably gave up the most money and the most perks, but on the night he decided . . . he had just an encampment of people in his front yard. I mean, I had to wade through people almost in tents to get inside.
"I don't mind telling you, he had a really nice leather jacket from Columbia Pictures. And he had received phone calls in the middle of the night from people named Peters and Gubers, or whatever their names are."
Hal Holbrook had already agreed to play Wood's father-in-law. But once Reynolds signed on, other cast members joined the show with surprising ease.
Elizabeth Ashley. Ossie Davis. Charles Durning. Marilu Henner. All of whom had worked with Reynolds in the past.
"We got everybody we wanted . . . But the main reason we got the incredible cast is because of Burt Reynolds," Bloodworth-Thomason said.
"When we first named . . . what our dream cast would be, everybody said, `No, this is not possible.' We did not think it was possible," said Harry Thomason, Linda's husband, co-executive producer and the man who actually runs Mozark Productions. "(But) we have gotten a hundred percent of who we wanted."
"I know they were all big fans of `Designing Women' and it was just a question of calling them . . . ," Reynolds said. "Yes, I did prevail upon our friendship. But that's what friends are for."
When Bloodworth-Thomason called Ashley, she wasn't really expecting the stage and screen star to be interested in a television sitcom.
"I'd never spoken to this woman in my life, and she said, `Oh, my dear, Buddy (Reynolds) is this shining beacon in a sea of jackasses out there. And I've met all the actors and everyone in Hollywood . . . This is the part I've been waiting for. And if my agents tell you I need money to do this, you call me back.' "
But by the time all of this came together, it was already June and the network was ready to announce its fall schedule. "Evening Shade" had stars and an idea, but no pilot - not even a completed script.
"We really never expected that . . . we would do this show this fall," Thomason said. "We were looking for somebody to do the show with either at mid-term or next fall."
But Sagansky, seeing the talent he had, ordered the show anyway.
"I have that much faith in them," he said.Sagansky's faith was well-placed - "Evening Shade" is a darn good show.
As tonight's hourlong pilot (7 p.m., Ch. 5) begins, it's Wood's birthday and anniverary and he's got a few problems to deal with:
- his wife, Ava (Henner), is pregnant, despite the fact that Wood had a vasectomy a few years earlier.
- Ava, a lawyer, is running for prosecuting attorney and hadn't planned on having any more children.
- his team hasn't won a game in 21/2 years.
- the town stripper (who Ava promises to put out of business) shed her clothes at the football game and gave Wood a big hug.
- the local newspaper, which his father-in-law (Holbrook) publishes, ran a front-page photo of Wood and the stripper.
- his 15-year-old son (Jay R. Ferguson), the only decent football player on the team, announces he doesn't want to play anymore for fear he'll damage his face and his future acting career.
- his new assistant coach (Michael Jeter) is a shop teacher who knows nothing about football.
There's also the Archie Bunkerish town doctor (Durning) who flubbed the vasectomy and Ava's aging-Southern-belle aunt (Ashley) to contend with.
Through it all, Reynolds is a low-key island of sanity in a sea of insanity. The potential for this show is unlimited.
Oh, tonight's show has a few problems - it drags in some spots and some of the jokes are a bit forced. It also suffers from a typical pilot problem: It has to set up the premise for the series and introduce the entire cast - and this is a huge cast.
But take a look. It's worth your time this week - and undoubtedly in weeks to come, as well.