BetteBack: Bette Midler gets a second wind beneath her wings

Bette Midler gets a second wind beneath her wings.
Article from: Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Article date: January 9, 2001 Author: Bark, Ed

CULVER CITY, Calif. _ She told Jay Leno that the workload was killing her. David Letterman got the same earful, but at an even higher pitch, fueling the perception that “Bette” soon would collapse from the sheer weight of the star’s well-publicized weariness.

Now Bette Midler feels that all concerned have “gotten to the point where we understand how much I can do and how much I cannot do.” So onward in the face of so-so Nielsen ratings on Wednesday nights and an uncertain future for “Bette” beyond the nine episodes left to shoot this season.

“I have no idea” if the show will return next fall, Midler said Monday while seated next to the kitchen counter on the set of “Bette.” “I really like the idea of having success in a medium that I’ve worked so hard to get my arms around. It’s a great challenge. I’d like to come back. I certainly wouldn’t go down without a fight.”

Midler took home a People’s Choice Award on Sunday night as the favorite female performer in a new TV series. “I haven’t stopped whining for a second,” she said in her acceptance remarks. “But I’m having a great time now.”

The whining reached epic proportions on a recent “Late Show With David Letterman.” She called CBS president Leslie Moonves the next day to both apologize and assure her boss that it was Letterman, not she, who again called him a “pinhead.”

“You know, David Letterman, he’s a crafty little guy,” Midler said. “He saw that I was vulnerable and he took me right by my nose and led me down the garden path. But it was good TV.”

She at least is in better shape than Michael Richards and John Goodman, whose star-driven sitcoms already have been canceled after heavily promoted fall start-ups on NBC and Fox. Midler said she now realizes that “Bette” was too squarely on her shoulders. “It was like doing a little Broadway show every week. I had no idea it was going to be that hard The first four or five episodes I was sick to my stomach. It was absolutely horrifying.”

Future episodes will have a bigger ensemble and less of her. “We need more and funnier characters,” she said. “And I think that’s what we’re going to go for.”

“Bette” also will cut dance production numbers, temper the star’s singing, make the shows smaller in scope and be realistic about landing big-name guest stars because “there’s no (bleeping) way Mel Gibson is going to do this show.” At least that’s the plan.

“The workload has lightened up considerably,” Midler said. “So the wonderful thing about life is that sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes you barely eat, and then you eat the bear again.”

There remains the matter of finding a replacement for her TV hubby, Roy, played in the first half of the season by veteran actor Kevin Dunn. He quit because “he was very unhappy with the material he was being given,” Midler said. Now she’s “very timid about getting involved with an actor I’m not sure of.”

The obvious precedent is “Bewitched,” in which Dick York quit as husband Darrin Stephens and was seamlessly replaced by Dick Sargent.

“That’s on everyone’s lips,” Midler said. “Darrin, Darrin, Dick, Dick. I don’t get it at all. I personally feel that every week you should have a different Roy. Maybe you could have a contest _ the longest-running Roy.”

She named Fred Willard, Martin Short and Chris Rock as possibly rotating Roys, an idea that received a thumbs up from most of the TV critics in attendance. By interview’s end, Midler seemed to be half-seriously considering the idea. Well, maybe not.

Her “overarching desire,” whatever turn “Bette” takes, “is to really make people laugh the way they haven’t laughed in years. I don’t like mild TV The true test of a comedian is to make you laugh until you cry. To me that’s great art.”

No one did this better than the late Lucille Ball, she said. “I knew her. I adored her. I don’t have half the skills that she had. For my money, that’s the standard. The bar for great, intelligent comedy has always been Lucy.”

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