Sunday, January 14, 2001

'Three Sisters' taken from Lakota grad's family

        PASADENA, Calif. — Writer DeAnn Heline may not have known it, but all her life she has been researching her new Three Sisters sitcom.

        “My mother is the oldest of three sisters,” said Ms. Heline, a 1983 Lakota High School graduate. “We were always together with them, every holiday,” she told TV critics' at the press tour here.

        Vacations, too. The former West Chester resident remembers riding to Florida and back in a Buick sedan with her grandparents, mom and two aunts.

        “We did that all the time, drive down to Florida together and take family vacations together,” says the former writer for Murphy Brown, Roseanne and Ellen.

        Some of her family experiences have become quirks and traits of NBC's savvy Three Sisters, which won the ratings for its debut last week (9:30 Tuesday, Channels 5, 22).

DeAnn Heline
DeAnn Heline
        Cincinnati native Vicki Lewis (NewsRadio), A.J. Langer (It's Like You Know ...) and Katherine LaNasa (Six Days, Seven Nights) star as the three Los Angeles daughters of parents played by Peter Bonerz (The Bob Newhart Show) and Dyan Cannon (Ally McBeal).

        In this week's episode (9:30 p.m. Tuesday), two sisters and their parents decide to ride in one car to the hospital for the delivery of the baby of Bess (Ms. LaNasa). Her husband (David Alan Basche) also rants about his in-laws' annual Christmas Eve skit (a Heline family tradition) and the exclusion of his family at holidays.

        “My husband (attorney Bruce Bolkin) has the same reaction: "Oh, are we really doing the skit again? Do we have to go home again for Christmas this year? It's going to be cold and snowy in Ohio,' ” says Ms. Heline, who spent Christmas in West Chester with her mother, Patricia, a retired Deer Park elementary school teacher. Her father, Jim Heline, lives in Northern Kentucky.

        Ms. Heline and writing partner Eileen Heisler have been working on Three Sisters since 1999. They figured that siblings would be an interesting, different twist for a show about three young adult women.

        She was inspired by her mother and aunts. “They're extremely different ... yet they're like a clan. They're so tight. To show that loving relationship was really important to us,” says Ms. Heline, who met Ms. Heisler as an Indiana University freshman. They have been writing together in Los Angeles since 1989.

        “And it seemed like that adult-sibling relationship really hadn't been explored on television, and it seemed like a natural,” she says.

        Ms. Lewis, the former University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music student, also seems like a natural to play Nora, the bitter, sardonic middle sister. Yet she was the last person cast for the show after a long, frustrating search.

        “I had no idea she was from Cincinnati,” Ms. Heline admits. “I didn't know until my mother said, "I read it in the Enquirer that Vicki Lewis is from Cincinnati. It never came up (with Ms. Lewis).”

        After seeing Ms. Lewis in Chicago on Broadway last summer, they wrote a scene in Tuesday's show in which the sisters ask Nora to do her Bob Fosse-style dance.

        “We steal from the actors' lives all the time,” Ms. Heline says. “Vicki is great. She shows so much dimension in the role. She's fabulous.”

        Ms. Heline says she wasn't frustrated by the 18 months it took to assemble the show, or by NBC's decision not to premiere it last fall on Tuesday against ABC's Geena Davis sitcom.

        “They were nervous about putting a very woman show against Geena, figuring everyone would tune in to watch that show because it's Geena Davis,” she says. “I always figured that people find shows more easily at midseasons. There's not as much pressure as being with the pack.”

        The luxury of time allowed the writers to tinker with the casting. Connie Stevens played the free-spirited mother in the pilot shot a year ago; Ms. Cannon replaced her last summer.

        “We were looking for someone who is not the traditional TV sitcom mom that you've seen a million times,” Ms. Heline says. “The one thing that Eileen and I felt was lacking on television is daughters who love their mother ... to show a great, wonderful relationship.”

        The biggest change for Ms. Heline since running Ellen five years ago has occurred off camera. Both writers have started families.

        “It's hard, because being an executive producer is so much work,” she says. “The hours are intense. We're writing a lot on weekends.”

        She has two daughters: Kate, 3, and Emery, 1. One more baby, and there could be three sisters.

        “No third! No third!” she screams, waving her hands. “It's not happening!”

        Guess we'll have to settle for Three Sisters on TV.
        TV Critic John Kiesewetter is reporting from the Television Critic Association winter press tour. E-mail:


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