Tuesday, September 2, 2003

He's a real man

Belushi's character on 'According to Jim' emerges as a kind-of hero

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A scene from According to Jim.
(ABC-TV photo)
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He's a little bit overweight. He's trying to do the right thing - though that's not always within his means. And he loves his wife and kids.

In other words, for millions of men, he's one of them.

"People always say the exact same thing to me: 'I love that show of yours! You're just like me husband!' " says Jim Belushi, star of ABC's According to Jim family comedy.

Belushi's Jim - no last name - has emerged as the new blue-collar hero for American dads.

His According to Jim TV family - wife Cheryl (Courtney Thorne-Smith), their two young daughters and toddler son - heads into its third TV season Sept. 23 on a roll - as ABC's top series this summer with viewers ages 18-49, after beating NBC's Frasier at 9 p.m. Tuesday in the spring.

"It's a show that a lot of people connect with because it reflects their lives," says Susan Lyne, ABC Entertainment president.

"Jim is a very funny man, and his character is a broader example of a lot of men who are fathers, but who still are boys on some level," she says. "And he can take all of those parenting and marriage issues that a lot of people deal with, and makes them funny."

"He has this real 'everyman' blue-collar quality that makes him real to the audience," explains Jim supervising producer Bob Heath, who worked at WLWT-TV (Channel 5) in the early '70s directing locally produced programs such as the Bob Braun Show and Midwestern Hayride.

"Women find him charming and loveable, and men loves his strength and point of view. So he hits a nerve with many couples," Heath says.

Men can relate

Men can relate to Jim when he lies to his youngest daughter, Gracie (Billi Bruno), in an attempt to get her annoying pet bird out of the house. They feel his pain when Jim falls out of a tree trying to capture the bird when it flies away, after muttering: "It's been a long time since I climbed a tree - sober."

They can cheer for him when he limps to the couch, plops downs and declares: "I guess I'm going to miss the Chicago Marathon again this year!"

Jim can be a Big Kid, but he's no doofus dad, which sets According to Jim apart from other television dads seen on Malcolm in the Middle, Home Improvement, Married ... with Children or The Simpsons.

His gorgeous stay-at-home wife (Thorne-Smith from Ally McBeal and Melrose Place) puts up with his childish antics because she admires his passion for life, his children and her.

"The love that the two of us have really shows," says Belushi, 49, who grew up in suburban Chicago, where the sitcom is set.

"Look, on a lot of TV shows, the men and women don't love each other. The women are (shrews), or the guy is an idiot. On this show, the guy's not an idiot, and she's not a (shrew), and they really love each other - and I think people respond to that," Belushi says.

Cheryl may be smarter, and more organized, but she doesn't rub it in. At least, she not very much.

Once while trying to extricate themselves from a mess, Jim says: "You should take the fall for this one. I've been the bad guy the last four times."

Cheryl replies: "You were the bad guy the last four times!"

Thorne-Smith, 35, explains in an interview: "We want to show two people who love each other, and get in trouble and fight, but we miss each other and want to get back together."

At the heart of Jim, according to Belushi, is this golden rule:

"Jim should never be frightened of his wife. Never. He may not want to hear about it (from her), but it's not out of fear. And she should never be mean to Jim. And that's it."

After making dozens of films - action (Red Heat, K-9, Retroactive), heavy drama (The Principal, Gang Related) and comedies (Curly Sue, Snow Dogs) - Belushi agreed to star in a half-hour family comedy two years ago so he could spend time with his own young family. The former Saturday Night Live cast member (1983-85), and younger brother of the late John Belushi, married (for a third time) in 1998, and has a daughter, 5, and a son, 18 months.

"I'm enjoying the family life," he told TV critics. "There are a lot of men out there right now that are between the ages of 38 and 50 that are having families with young children ... and I'm one of them."

Thorne-Smith says she was surprised to see how serious the fun-loving big guy was at the studio.

"People always ask, 'What's it like to be with Jim every day?' It's nice. He's much more of an actor (than comedian)," she says. "He's not always 'on.' He's a really down-to-earth, great guy."

Cast's experiences are used

According to Jim episodes are very realistic, she says, because the cast is encouraged to discuss their personal experiences after reading the scripts.

"Jim brings that back to the writers that afternoon, and lot of that gets incorporated into the script. It's very collaborative. It's heaven. It's the best job I've ever had," she says.

"Many of our scripts are patterned from Jim's life. He works hard to keep them real, or as real as a sitcom can be," Heath says.

On a show this fall, Jim worries that his infant son will grow up to be a fan of the Green Bay Packers, the archrival of the Chicago Bears. He'll also cheat at church bingo, and lie about taking the girls to a scary movie when they have nightmares.

Belushi doesn't have any deep theories about why America loves Jim so much. He's just glad they do.

"I've come to a place where I feel very good and secure," he says. "And when Courtney walks into the relationship, there's a spark. You know, I can't define it, but we're having a ball. We're having fun, and maybe they (viewers) pick up on that."

Homely hubbies, lovely wives a long tradition on television

Homely men with attractive wives have been a television tradition since the advent of the medium:

• The Honeymooners: Jackie Gleason, Audrey Meadows (1952-57).

• The Life of Riley: William Bendix, Marjorie Reynolds (1953-58).

• Arnie: Herschel Bernardi, Sue Ane Langdon (1970-72).

• Webster: Alex Karras, Susan Clark (1983-87).

• Roc: Charles S. Dutton, Ella Joyce (1991-94).

• George: George Foreman, Sheryl Lee Ralph (1993-94).

• Tom: Tom Arnold, Alison LaPlaca (1994).

• King of Queens: Kevin James, Leah Remini (1998-present).

• According to Jim: Jim Belushi, Courtney Thorne-Smith (2001-present).

• Still Standing: Mark Addy, Jami Gertz (2002-present).

On the air

What: According to Jim

When: 9 p.m. today

Where: Channels 9, 2

Season premiere: 9 p.m. Sept. 23


E-mail jkiesewetter@enquirer.com

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