Originally created 01/16/97

`Naked' star gets prime exposure



In 1992 Tea Leoni, the rail-thin actress who looks like she belongs on a Paris runway, was deemed "the next big thing" by Fox, which cast her in a sitcom titled Flying Blind, starring Corey Parker.

It lasted one season.

In 1995, ABC gave Ms. Leoni her own series, The Naked Truth, where she won praise for playing a silly photographer at a tabloid newspaper.

That lasted one season, too.

ABC, which then couldn't figure out what to do with it, put the show on hiatus.

But NBC took notice and came to the rescue. At 9:30 tonight, Ms. Leoni brings The Naked Truth back to life on the No. 1 network - sandwiched between the No. 1 comedy and the No. 1 drama (WAGT, Channel 26).

Now Ms. Leoni, whose program airs after Seinfeld and before ER, has died twice and gone to TV heaven.

This kind of resuscitation requires big changes, enough to turn a lamely scripted sitcom, albeit one with talented actors, into a smash. So NBC has added a pivotal cast member and hired a new executive producer.

Ms. Leoni, whose first name is pronounced Tay-uh and whose last name is actually "a lot longer and sounds a lot like spaghetti," described the main difference between last season and this:

"The best way to sum it up is - and this was said by a writer - it's a bit like watching an elephant walking into a circus, and that's just not quite as funny as watching one walk into a tea party."

Ms. Leoni's persistence with television seems unwavering. She could have junked TV for film, especially after the reviews came in for her scene-stealing role as a scatterbrained social worker in Jerry Stiller's recent movie, Flirting With Disaster.

But by the time Flirting With Disaster was released, Ms. Leoni had already left ABC and signed a five-year contract with NBC, which had been eyeing the feebly written Naked Truth.

NBC is banking that The Naked Truth will retain more male viewers than Brooke Shields' Suddenly Susan has in the same half hour. Although Susan is the third-ranked series this season, it didn't stop a disproportionate number of Seinfeld's male fans from changing the channel. (They come back for ER.)

Ms. Shields' show should return on Thursdays in late February, pushing The Single Guy to another night. "We have plenty of confidence in Suddenly Susan, but we do this every year - pull fall shows and introduce new ones at midseason," said Karey Burke, an NBC senior vice president. "But yes, we looked at Naked's ABC profile from last year, and it had a strong male appeal."

"And having hung around the set for a while, I can honestly say Tea has a lot of male appeal. She has that rare combination of being a gifted comedienne and a beautiful one - she doesn't talk like she knows what she looks like."

And when it comes to comedy, network officials see in Ms. Leoni mannerisms reminiscent of Lucille Ball. Clearly, Ms. Leoni's considered to be someone you can build - or rebuild - a show around.

A key ingredient in the revamping of the series is the casting of George Wendt, who is recognizable as Norm from an old NBC hit, Cheers.

"George plays the new editor-in-chief of the Comet," Mr. Burke explained. "So he replaces Holland Taylor, and she gets a bit of a demotion, which creates a very comedic conflict for all of them. He plays the son of the heir to a meat-packing corporation." The relationship between Ms. Leoni's writer and Mr. Wendt's editor is a father-daughter one.

Another change that should be immediately noticeable is in the writing. Nearly all of last season's writers were let go, and Maya Forbes, who arrives with the haloed resume of having written for Garry Shandling's The Larry Sanders Show for four years, comes on as head writer.

The 28-year-old Ms. Forbes is also the show's new executive producer. She honed her writing skills at Harvard Lampoon, then moved to Sanders, which is also from The Naked Truth's Brillstein-Grey production house.

To recap the original premise: Leoni's character, Nora Wilde, was just divorced from a philandering, rich husband, and with her stellar photo-journalism experience, good intentions and no money - she refused any from her exhusband - took a job at a sleazy tabloid called the Comet, edited by Holland Taylor's Camilla Dane.

"It's sort of funny, because the idea that Nora Wilde was a photographer is ridiculous, because she's not very good," Leoni said. "That she had been nominated for a Pulitzer made us think she had handed over her camera to a trustworthy child while she went to the bathroom."

Nora will now write an Ann Landers-style column. But, Leoni added, "Of all the people to give advice, it should not be Nora."

Nearly all of the cast is back, including the wonderful Taylor.

"What we wanted to do last year was to figure out a way to get Holland's character closer to Nora, so the two of them could go out on their little missions," Leoni said.