Michele Lee negatiates the steep hill to a driveway just a ridge below the historic HOLLYWOOD sign. The house at the top of the driveway-a multilevel, postmodernist structure done in pastels-belongs to Knots Landing’s executive producer, David Jacobs, but this isn’t an ordinary social visit. Lee waits for her costar and on-screen husband, Kevin Dobson, so they can enter as a couple. A soundman mikes them at the doorway, and Jacobs hands her a box of Danish pastry.
The pastry, it turns out, is a prop, exactly the sort of thing Lee’s character, Karen MacKenzie, would bring to a wake. And for the two days of this unusual exercise, the house belongs to William Devane’s character, Greg Sumner. Some members of the Knots cast arrive soon; others will show up later, depending on their characters’ relationship to Sumner.
What these actors will be doing is an improvision that will be the basis for the 200th and 201st episodes of Knots Landing. They have been given the perimeters of the plot; they know where the series is headed after these episodes and they have already filmed the previous episode, in which Sumner’s wife, Laura(played by Constance McCashin), fatally ill with brain cancer, decides to die alone at a clinic far from her family and the Knots Landing community. These episodes cover two days; the first is a kind of wake. Sumner is at home, joined by his friends, waiting for word that Laura’s body has arrived at the airport. The second day is her funeral. A sound crew and four video cameras will record everything that occurs. Jacobs and executive story editors Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Latham will then base the scripts on what the actors have done.
Needless to say, this is a risky and unusual proceeding. “It’s a way to keep things fresh, to reevaluate and reexamine,” says Knots Landing co-producer Larry Kasha. “It’s like going to an analyst.” But it is also a way for the actors, who often feel they know their characters better than the writers do, to have their say. In the ninth season, the Knots company is casual, familiar. The actors have always had a lot of input, dropping in on writers and producers and suggesting changes. But this improvision takes the custom a few steps further. This is the actors’ chance to write their own stories.
But the two days pass listlessly. The cast arrive in character, trying to comfort the bereaved Sumner, who acts uninterested, removed. They sit in Jacobs’ peach and grey living room trying to come up with dialogue. Michele Lee, as Karen, looks after the coffee and cake and takes care of everyone. Joan Van Ark, as Valene, sobs and whimpers and leaves early. But no new plot emerges. After two days and 16 hours of videotape, the actors depart for a seven-week break and it is up to Jacobs and the writers to turn what seems to have been a desultory and undramitic exercise into two riveting scripts, perhaps consoled by the fact that their jobs are secure. Actors, after all, do need writers.
But like football coaches, when they watched the tapes, they saw things they hadn’t seen before. “We were initially disappointed that we didn’t get any new plot,” Jacobs admits, “but we got emotional development and that led to story.” What the actors offered during the improvisation were new feelings and new facets of their characters. Sometimes they were trying to expand their roles; sometimes they were making their characters more likeable. But most often they were trying to make their characters more like themselves. What was revealed in the improvisation is the me-and-my-shadow relationship that develops between actor and character on a long-running series. “I want to do something more with my life,” Dobson tells me on the set one day. “Do you mean Kevin or Mack?” I ask. He shrugs. “I guess both. They’re interchangeable.”
And it was Dobson who made the strongest contribution at the improvisation. Dobson begins by getting angry at Devane/Sumner for not showing any emotion about his wife’s death. Disgusted, Mack begins drinking, and on Day 2, he is drunk and doesn’t show up for Laura’s funeral. The behavior seems sharply out of character for the ever-responsible Mack, but Dobson defends it. “Everyone depends on Mack; he’s the fixer. He’s always there for everyone else. But where’s his release? When is it going to be Mack’s turn?”
Dobson comes from a big Irish family in New York and believes unabashedly in the strength of the family. His own biggest role is being a real-life father. “The three greatest moments in my life were the three times when I became a father.” Later, he tells about his 12-year old daughter, Mariah, who recently acted in the movie “Real Men.” “I visited her on the set, and I wanted to tell her to stay behind her mark and then rock into it. But she did it! I don’t know where she learned that. I was so excited. My heart was pounding so hard, I thought it would come right through my shirt!”
But Mack never had the experience of fatherhood. “I’ve been a father to this whole community, but I’m not a father to anyone in particular, a real father,” says Dobson, using “I” to mean Mack. “Mack is appointed a family man. This girl Paige(Mack’s daughter from an earlier marriage) shows up. I love her, but…where’s that look in her eye that’s just like me? I don’t see myself in her. She’s just like her mother. He wants to be a real father.”
And like the Mack he improvises, the 44-year-old Dobson seems to be having a midlife crisis. Like Mack, he wonders if he missed some boat. “I’d like to see Mack get into politics,” he says wistfully. “He knows how to tap people, but we never see him doing that.” And Kevin? “Maybe I should have played pro ball,” he muses. (In 1965, a baseball scout offered him a tryout with the San Francisco Giants.) “But when I was young, I was confused.”
(CBS and Global are scheduled to air the 200th and 201st episodes of Knots Landing on Dec. 3 and 10.-Ed.)