SECTION: TELEVISION; Pg. 75
LENGTH: 945 words
HEADLINE: And Now, The Big Tease
BYLINE: HARRY F. WATERS with MICHAEL REESE in Los Angeles
Sexual warfare. It's a dandy spectator sport, always has been, especially when waged with the wit and style of such crack shots as Hepburn and Tracy, Lombard and Gable, Loy and Powell, Bacall and Bogart and Shepherd and Willis. Yes, you read that right: Shepherd (Cybill) and Willis (Bruce), who costar as the mismatched private-eye partners in the ABC sleeper hit, "Moonlighting." Shepherd's Maddie Hayes is strictly uptown, a smashing ex-model with an iceberg demeanor. Willis's David Addison is cocky and crude, a kind of grown-up south Joisey punk in Ray Ban shades. But both partners have mouths on them, and, as TV's trendies are delightedly discovering, the friction between them has sparked the fastest, snappiest, sassiest repartee heard on the tube since, well, the last Hepburn-Tracy rerun.
The success of "Moonlighting" underscores an intriguing video oddity. At a time when both theatrical and made-for-TV movies are getting carried away by all manner of sexual goings-on, a spate of weekly series seems to be reverting to the mind-over-body ambience of Hollywood's romantic classics. Verbal joustings, rather than physical grapplings, are imbuing the tube with an unprecedented level of sexual tension; call it The Big Tease. "Remington Steele," "Scarecrow and Mrs. King," "Who's the Boss?" and "Cheers" all feature couples whose obvious mutual attractions are mostly confined to lingering looks and thrust-and-parry badinage.
Film Spoof: The creators of "Moonlighting," in fact, got themselves into the proper derivative mood by screening hours of such memorable screwball comedies as "The Philadelphia Story" and "His Girl Friday." But if this series has chipped lots of bits and pieces off the jewels of Hollywood's past, it also brings a refreshing tongue-in-chic zest to TV's private-eye genre. Take, as just one example, the episode in which "Moonlighting" spoofed the film-noir era of the '40s. Called "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice," and shot partially in black and white, the episode planted Maddie and David in the middle of a hot-chanteuse-meets-cool-cornet-player murder mess, and then let them lampoon away at every cliche. Shepherd managed a wicked Rita Hayworth impression, right down to the flat buttercream croon. Willis seemed to be doing Bogart, Garfield and Ladd all at once. "Name's Chance," he introduced himself. "Chance, Cash, Johnny, Brick, Lonesome, Shane McCoy... but you can call me Zack." That stodgy ABC should condone such inventiveness seems even more remarkable than the network's willingness to stick with the series despite its initially poor ratings. "I still can't believe the freedom they've given us," says "Moonlighting" creator and executive producer Glenn Caron. "It's hard to believe we're really working in television.
Good Chemistry: There are moments when "Moonlighting" seems a bit too determined to be madcap, and Addison's incessant in-your-face wisecracks occasionally clink instead of zing. The show's ambitions, however are reason enough for forgiveness: its dialogue-packed scripts run to nearly 100 pages almost double the length for a standard, cut-to-the car-chase detective show. Initially, off-screen Shepherd and Willis shared their characters prickly relationship. Recalls the actress: "We didn't know each other we didn't trust each other, and all of a sudden it was like we were married." But from the outset both recognized that this video marriage was worth overcoming any real strains between them. "It's chemistry, Baby" explains Shepherd. "Either you got it or you don't and David and Maddie have it."
A New Jersey native, former New York bartender and onetime harmonica player in a rock-and-roll band, the brash, fast-talking Willis tried out for "Moonlighting" with a resume listing only "itty-bitty" parts in a couple of Hollywood flicks. "At best," he quips, "you could have done a Bruce Willis frame festival." By that time, ABC had passed over 3,000 actors and gone through 14 casting directors in its search for one David Addison. Just as the network was concluding that the part was uncastable, in walked Willis wearing earrings and battle fatigues. "He was really punked out," remembers producer Caron. "He couldn't even stand still. He circled the room like a lion readying to pounce."
As for the show's lioness, Cybill Shepherd is, to borrow from her own film resume, The Heartbreak Kid who has found At Long Last Respect. A string of on-screen embarrassments that obscured her accomplishments in "The Last Picture Show," and a notorious affair with director Peter Bogdanovich, ultimately drove the former Miss Teenage Memphis into exile in her hometown. There she married a former auto-parts salesman, had a daughter, refined her comedic timing in regional theater, and moved back to Hollywood after a divorce. The cool American Beauty, in short, has acquired some fascinating hard edges. In "Moonlighting," Shepherd, now 36, is both playing off and sending up her ex-cover-girl image, and she relishes it as much as the viewers. "I can't tell you," she exclaims, "how great it is to be the new girl in town again.
What would be great for the overcharged voyeurs among us, no doubt, would be seeing Maddie and David move beyond all that crypto-foreplay and finally Get It On. Apparently, Caron has already conceived a scenario for that momentous event. "You can't keep them apart forever," he explains. Maybe not, but let's at least hope that the natural flow of the show dictates the timing -- and not, as seems more likely, the arrival of TV's next ratings-sweeps month. You can bet that Spence and Kate would never have stood for that.