Moonlighting With

<<-- Back to section page

Newsweek Sept. 8, 1986
Sly and Sexy: TV's Fun Couple

This was really special--a cover story in Newsweek. This article was published right before the third season was to begin.

Cover of Newsweek Sept 8, 1986 with Bruce & Cybill COVER STORY

LENGTH: 2568 words

HEADLINE: Sly and Sexy: TV's Fun Couple


HIGHLIGHT: 'Moonlighting' recasts the old war of the sexes into the sassiest, snappiest, hottest comedy on the tube


SHE: Addison, you swing from a vine.

HE: Sounds like fun.

SHE: Addison, you sleep in a pen.

HE: Could be. I don't know. The lights are always off.

SHE: Addison, you belong in a pound . . .

Ba-Bing!:  Fight scene from new seasonOK, so maybe they don't get along exactly like Nancy and Ronnie. Or even, for that matter, like Madonna and Sean. But that was last season, their first as private-eye partners. Maybe now that Maddie Hayes and David Addison have had the time to, uh, really know each other (if not yet in the Biblical sense), their relationship will become a bit more, ahem, supportive.

Fade to a sound stage at Twentieth Century-Fox, where the costars of ABC's "Moonlighting" are taping an episode for the upcoming season. Maddie (Cybill Shepherd) and David (Bruce Willis) are standing nose to nose, their stares so intense they could be counting facial pores. "You know," mutters he with a small, tight smile, "you're lucky you're so damn good looking."

"Oh, really?" snaps she. "And what does that mean?"

"It means," says David as he turns for the door, "you really are a helluva lot of work."

Maddie leaps to block his exit. "And what does that mean?" she sputters.

David lets his eyes wander suggestively down his partner's decollete silk dress to her silver-and-white Nikes. "That means it's a good thing the packaging is so attractive. Otherwise, I don't think the rest of us would put up with all the crap that's inside."

The next sound we hear is the thwack of palm across mouth. Fade out with a closeup of blood on stubble.

Mutually sublimated hotsies--Maddie and DavidOh, dear, they seem to be at it again. But let's come clean: would we really want them any other way? Nothing draws us ringside quicker than a battle of the sexes, and few TV confrontations have ever piqued our voyeurism with more wit, style and snap than "Moonlighting." Even so, it took more than two dozen appearances for this sassy, smart-ass and resolutely unconventional comedy to tickle its way from far back in the Nielsen pack to a regular spot in the Top 10. Now everyone is blowing kisses, especially the industry itself. This summer the series swept up a record 16 Emmy nominations, more than for any other show including King Cosby's.

Perhaps most remarkably, "Moonlighting" has transformed a fading Hollywood castoff and a balding South Jersey nobody into America's fun couple of the moment. And this, yet, without their characters ever actually coupling. (Not since an entire nation wondered "Who shot J.R.?" have so many been teased to a tizzy by a single video conundrum: "When will Maddie and David finally Get It On?") As the foreplay plays on, "Moonlighting" parties have become the newest campus rage, while everyone from eight-year-olds to otherwise respectable investment bankers is certifying his hipness by quoting the latest Addisonism. ("Does butter fly? Does a picket fence? Great googlymoogly!"). Silly? As sure as bees wax. But it's irresistible enough to number among its converts no less a sophisticate than Cary Grant, who recently told a friend he never misses an episode.

The farce turns madcap:  Between verbal joustings, the partners take a paint bath.Potent chemistry: Obviously, Willis is no Grant and Shepherd no Hepburn -- nor is "Moonlighting" likely to go into a time capsule. Sometimes the show strains so hard to be madcap that it comes down with the cutes. Then, too, once you've heard 300 arguments punctuated by a slammed office door you can pretty much predict how the 301st will wind up. What lifts this screwball comedy above its occasional screw-ups is, just for openers, a sexual chemistry potent enough to curl plexiglass. As the frosty former fashion model who finds herself running the Blue Moon Detective Agency, Cybill Shepherd both plays off and sends up her own ice-maiden, ex-cover-girl image. Gorgeous, petulant, spunky, haughtily sarcastic and very much her own boss, her Maddie Hayes may be the most formidable female ever to ignite the tube. What actor could hold his own with that? Enter Bruce Willis, the ex-bartender from Penns Grove, N.J. There's never been a TV leading man quite like his David Addison, a loosey-goosey, finger-poppin", doo-woppin' wise guy with the fastest mouth in prime time. Call it The Prom Queen Versus The Punk -- it's a sexual standoff made in ratings heaven.

Also one blessed with ideal timing, especially for Willis. Suddenly we seem to be looking at an intriguing revision of the male video image. Traditionally, television, being television, has always been last to catch up with the sexual Zeitgeist and then, having clued itself in, is overly prone to over-reaction. Thus the heroes who populated the medium's early years tended to be either crusty, insensitive cops (Sergeant Friday, Steve McGarrett) or crusty, insensitive cowboys (Paladin, Bat Masterson). The feminist movement swung things in a different, if equally improbable, direction. TV's New Men, the Hawkeye Pierces and Frank Furillos, were so busy getting in touch with their feelings that they risked losing touch with their audience, and not just the male section.

Today's breed, on the other hand, seems to take its cues not so much from Hoffman and Bridges as from Bogie and the Duke. Whether his moniker is Sonny Crockett, Sam Malone or David Addison, the post-feminist hero comes supercooled and hard-boiled. Not to mention a tad chauvinistic. Now that we've mentioned it, try to imagine Addison getting away with this diatribe a decade ago: "You really think that just because your voice is higher and your chest is bumpier you're entitled to roadside service every time you blow a tire?"

If looks could chill:  David get dicey.The hotsies: Ironically, the man who composed that zinger -- the creator, executive producer and heart, mind and soul of "Moonlighting" -- is a very round and very gentle panda of a person who, according to his wife, "tends to put women up on pedestals." At the venerable age of 31, Glenn Gordon Caron is fast emerging as TV's brightest, gutsiest and most celebrated showmeister. Which is also ironic, considering that few within the industry regard the way it operates with more outspoken disdain. "When 'Moonlighting' works," says Caron, "it's because you don't see the meeting where six guys are sitting around a table with their feet up, going, 'Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, we did that on "Private Benjamin" and the plot goes da, da, da"."

Not that Caron didn't do some inspiration-swiping of his own; it's just that he was smart enough to find it where no one else in TV had been looking. After screening a pair of Howard Hawks's clash-of-the-sexes classics, "His Girl Friday" and "Bringing Up Baby," Caron decided that the fastest action in this detective series should flow from the thrust-and-parry badinage -- a true talk show, if you will, that would live by the word rather than the squeal of tires. The quality of crime-solving in "Moonlighting" will never put "Cagney and Lacey" out of business (MADDIE: A clue. A clue. A CLUE! DAVID: Gesundheit!). Rather, this whodunit's plot lines are merely threads on which to hang the edgy repartee, much of it overlapping and all of it designed to underline the real plot: these private eyes are fighting not only the bad guys but what Dr. Ruth might diagnose as the mutually sublimated hotsies.

Caron offers a more complex insight. To him, the key to the show's appeal is the manner in which it puts its male and female leads in "emotional rather than physical jeopardy." As he explains it: "It's, 'If I care for you, and I suspect that maybe you don't care as much for me, what do I do?' I think the audience sees this and says, 'OK, now something is at stake here. Your heart is on the table.' There's always a little ache running underneath everything."

Beasley and Shepherd, (sitting) and from left, Caron, Willis and DanielHaving reached back to the '40s for the show's tone and pace, Caron proceeded to infuse its content with a hip, '80s sensibility. Unlike any detective series before it, "Moonlighting" positively reeks with an awareness of the pop culture it's coming from. Among other things, its protagonists have dropped references to Mike Wallace, Steven Spielberg, Ronald Reagan, Ed Meese, Lee Iacocca, Jane Pauley, the Temptations and "Family Feud." This is also a TV show that enjoys reminding its audience -- with a kind of playful verbal wink -- that it is, after all, just a TV show. (SHE: David, you're in my seat. HE: Please, Maddie. There are children watching.) That comedic device is by no means new: Hope and Crosby were using it in their very earliest "Road" movies. But "Moonlighting" dares to carry it one step further by occasionally having Cybill and Bruce step out of character to directly address the audience at home. In one memorable instance, the pair read letters from viewers who couldn't comprehend why the partners hadn't consummated their relationship. "Maybe this season, maybe next," said Shepherd with a shrug. "I don't want to be rushed." "Next season!" exclaimed a crestfallen Willis. Then, with a resigned glance at the camera: "Keep those cards and letters coming, folks."

Gear shifts: This is gimmickry, of course, yet it reflects a refreshing determination to defy the medium's moldy formulas. In essence, Caron has created his very own TV genre in which the only rule is not to observe any rules -- except, perhaps, the necessity of surprise. "Moonlighting" delights in shifting emotional gears, abruptly veering from madcap farce to moments of poignancy and even pathos. Viewers have learned about David's envy of his older brother, Maddie's discovery of her father's infidelities and each other's attitude toward the existence of God (she's skeptical, he's astounded by her skepticism). In an episode about euthanasia -- not exactly the standard stuff of TV comedy -- Addison mistakenly concluded that he had accidentally killed a lovable nursing-home codger. Aghast, he fled to Maddie's side and totally broke down. "That episode drew the most mail we've ever gotten," proudly recalls Willis. "I mean, people were saying they were crying along with me." Explains Caron: "Our goal is to reinvent ourselves every week. One week we're comedy, the next week we're fairly serious and the next we're a musical."

Sparring another round:  Addison pours his heart out but comes up short.Instant combustion: That stodgy, unimaginative ABC should condone such unpredictability may be the biggest surprise of all. Actually, the network did dig in its heels over Caron's riskiest stroke: casting Willis as Addison. It wasn't so much that the actor (one of 3,000 who tried out for the part) was a complete unknown. To ABC, Willis simply didn't look like a TV leading man, a suspicion that was hardly dispelled when he appeared for his audition done up in a spiky-punk hairdo, combat fatigues and an earring. Finally, just as the network was about to abort the entire project, Cybill Shepherd agreed to do a screen test with Bruce. The combustion was instantaneous. "When we finally got them together," recalls Caron, "you could see the bolt go across the room. It was like, ba-bing! I mean, IT WAS THERE!" (When the producers first interviewed Shepherd about her part, they were determined to play hard to get. But when she walked in the door, Jay Daniel, Caron's chief assistant, sabotaged their strategy by panting: "Hama, hama, hama.")

Nowadays, ABC's only complaints with "Moonlighting" have been generated by Caron's profligate ways -- at $ 1.6 million an episode, it is TV's most expensive hourlong series -- and his obsessive perfectionism. Since a typical, dialogue-packed script averages nearly double the length of a standard one-hour show, and every script, claims Caron, gets run through his typewriter, this series must depend as no other on the speed, efficiency and organizational finesse of its on-line overseer. Unfortunately, Caron is notoriously lacking in all three virtues. Life around the set resembles a never-ending psychodrama. Often Caron will walk into a production meeting, announce something like "There's gonna be a pie fight," and then walk out, leaving his assistants to cook up the details. In fact, if ABC didn't insist on getting plot blurbs for TV Guide a few weeks in advance, Caron probably wouldn't have known even that much about the episode. To add to the confusion, the final scripts, which may have undergone as many as three dozen revisions, are sometimes delivered to the cast on the very morning a show is to commence shooting.

The last-minute pressure crunch has exacted an enormous physical toll on the costars, though their robust salaries (each takes down around $ 50,000 a week) obviously assuage a bit of the pain. After watching one of last season's episodes at home, Willis incredulously told Caron: "There were scenes on that show that I have absolutely no recollection of shooting." Shepherd, for her part, was so burned out after last season that she decided to take this summer off, despite being offered dozens of movie deals. At least the grind dissuades both stars from trying to outdo each other. "Ours is a reverse jealousy," notes Shepherd. "If you have to be featured in a scene, you're envious of the other person getting the afternoon off."

The pressure on Caron himself to maintain "Moonlighting's" sparkle has become, in his own words, "scary. I wonder if I've got anything left." Nevertheless, he seems even more driven to reinvent his creation. Viewers who relish surprises are hereby advised to skip to the next paragraph. For the rest of you: one episode planned for this season, titled "Atomic Shakespeare" and written in iambic pentameter, will update "The Taming of the Shrew." And if he can negotiate some legal hurdles, Caron hopes to insert Maddie and David into the original "Godzilla" movie in much the way that Steve Martin played opposite Bogart in "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid." Oh, yes, Agnes DiPesto (Allyce Beasley), the agency's rhyme-spouting secretary, is scheduled to have an interoffice romance.

Hint, hint: Which brings us back to the big question: will Maddie and David ever, as the latter likes to put it, "get horizontal"? Caron is acutely aware that when NBC's "Cheers" finally allowed Sam and Diane to get together, the show lost so much of its sexual electricity that the couple had to be split up in order to recharge the audience's interest. At the same time Caron has acknowledged that asking "Moonlighting" addicts to endure much more foreplay would be "emotionally sadistic." In fact, he already has a scene written in which his protagonists end up erotically entwined in a supermarket. But the very fact that he revealed this to NEWSWEEK probably means that it won't happen that way. All that Caron will predict for publication is that "the relationship is obviously going to build at some point this year."

Typically, Bruce Willis has his own idea -- and it's mischievously perverse. Walking across a studio lot after taping the slap scene that began this story, Bruce turned to Cybill and slyly inquired: "When is David going to get to slap Maddie? You think American is ready to watch us slug it out on prime-time television?"

"Well," replied his costar, "Cagney did something like that in the famous grapefruit scene."

"Yeah," mused Bruce with an evil grin. "Maybe on the last show of the season."

But of course. The only way that someone who "swings from a vine" might bed the strongest female in the jungle would be to try to belt her first.

<<-- Back to section homepage Home Page


This is not meant to violate or infringe on any copyrights.
It is just a labor of love and is for entertainment purposes only.
© 2002-2004. All rights reserved. CYber SYtes, Inc.