Sunday, May 4, 2003

Van Dyke, Moore reunited in PBS' 'The Gin Game'

By Lynn Elber
The Associated Press

Dick Van Dyke is holding Mary Tyler Moore easily in his arms as they move to the strains of a waltz. Rehearsing a scene for The Gin Game, a PBS production that has reunited the stars of The Dick Van Dyke Show as acting partners after 37 years, they're recapturing the magic they shared.

"It's like nothing has changed," said Moore.

"I don't know where the time went," echoed Van Dyke.

Then giddiness takes over and he veers into a skillful bit of tap dancing and an impromptu concert watched by an amused Moore.

"Just what makes my little old aunt think she can smoke that cannabis plant. Everyone knows an aunt can't smoke a cannabis plant," he sings to the tune of "High Hopes".

"Sometimes we have to watch it. We get childish," he said, smiling broadly.

The actors, who played lovable young marrieds Rob and Laura Petrie on their 1961-66 sitcom, are cast in far different roles in D.L. Coburn's play about two lonely, alienated nursing home residents.

Fonsia Dorsey (Moore) and Weller Martin (Van Dyke) have been disappointed by life, their families and themselves. As they strike up a tentative friendship over a series of card games, they try to connect despite their past.

The Gin Game, airing today as part of PBS Hollywood Presents(9 and 10:30 p.m., Channel 16; 10 p.m. Channel 48), gets the spare and unsentimental production it deserves. There's no misguided effort to invoke the memory of Rob and Laura.

"Someday we may do a (The Dick Van Dyke Show) reunion, and then the audience can have their heart's desire and dream come true," Moore said. "But this was a demanding role for me and for Dick and we wanted to try it as actors, not as television favorites. ... This was purely an acting challenge."

(The sitcom could be revisited: Carl Reiner, its creator, has said he's working on a movie. "He keeps calling me up and saying, 'I'm having such fun writing this,' " Van Dyke said. He and Moore said they'd gladly participate.)

Good range of acting

Both are superb in The Gin Game, a reminder that comedy is just part of their portfolio. She received an Academy Award nomination for Ordinary People and a Tony for Whose Life Is It Anyway? He had an Emmy nomination for The Morning After and played "a murderer a couple times," Van Dyke recalled.

But he is, admittedly, best known for his comic chops. So how did Van Dyke find the anger that infuses Weller, a widower and a failed businessman?

"There are a lot of people who lead lives of quiet desperation," Van Dyke said. "I put myself in mind of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, and what it would have been like had he been a different personality and his wife had died. I have a feeling he might have fallen into that kind of bitterness."

Van Dyke and Moore, who have stayed in touch over the years, had seen the play separately and recognized it a good vehicle to share. They had not acted together since their comedy series, although Van Dyke had appeared on Moore's 1979 variety show.

'For our own enjoyment'

"We had both said, 'One day, we're going to be old enough to do that play,' " Van Dyke said. "We did it for our own enjoyment."

Was it hard to shed the memory of the acclaimed original Broadway (1977) and television (1981) Gin Game performances of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy?

"Not a bit, because I was determined I was going to make it my own," Moore said. "I was going to be my little old lady and not anybody else's."

Van Dyke, 77, relies on his mop of white hair, a cane and tentative gait to give him the look of age and infirmity. Moore, 65, spent time in the makeup chair to age her face and hide her brown hair.

Their faux infirmity makes the nursing home dance scene especially affecting.

"I was so taken away by the moment. I wasn't at all sure I was going to be able to get the line out afterward, after our little twirl around the dance floor. It was such an in-progress memory, it was quite touching.

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