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Mystery's new twist

Ever since CBS unveiled Edward Woodward's new starring vehicle, Over My Dead Body, to TV critics this summer, the British actor has heard his weekly whodunit cutely dubbed Murder, He Wrote. Woodward (best known as The Equalizer) was defensive with critics about the comparison of Over My Dead Body to the CBS mystery starring Angela Lansbury. He jabbed that his new drama "is not a bit bloody well like Murder, She Wrote."

But last week, in a telephone interview from San Francisco where he's filming on location, Woodward sounded mellow, joking about the He Wrote tag.

"I suppose it was inevitable," he said of the comparison. "Although I rather expected Equalizer, He Wrote."

But Woodward teasingly promised that on Over My Dead Body, unlike on Murder, She Wrote, "bodies won't be dropping like flies when I enter the room."

True, his character Maxwell Beckett is a crime novelist, as is Jessica Fletcher, Lansbury's role.

But Woodward hopes viewers will find him funny in the one-hour series, which premieres Friday in a two-hour special at 9 p.m., locally on WTVT-Ch. 13.

Woodward described Beckett as "a mess." The somewhat crabby yet amusing character teams with a young sidekick for his crime solving/writing. Her name is Nicki Page, and she's played by Jessica Lundy.

Chuckling as he mused about the role, Woodward explained: "He (Beckett) goes up and down. He's quite volatile _ down in the dumps, then excited again."

Page is an obituary writer for a San Francisco newspaper who wants to use the talents of best-seller novelist Beckett to further her own career. In the two-hour pilot, which is lively and humorous but a bit thin on mystery, the two work out this odd-couple arrangement. When Beckett is depressed about his pending divorce and unsuccessful turn with his books, Page is spirited enough for both of them. But he also reins in her enthusiasm when it could put both of them in danger.

This is in no way a May-December romance saga, Woodward emphasized.

"That is not in the cards," he said. "If so, they'd have to get another old man and another young lady," he said, explaining that the chemistry between Beckett and Page is of the literary soulmate kind.

In fact, Woodward said that his Beckett will have some "marvelous dates" in upcoming episodes.

Admirers of Woodward, who earned an Emmy nomination for each year he starred as Robert McCall on The Equalizer, may wonder about his health. The actor suffered a heart attack during the filming of that TV series, which aired on CBS from 1985-89. But the 60-year-old star of the lauded film Breaker Morant (1979) has recovered fully. He just completed another movie, titled Mr. Johnson, which was made in Africa and directed by Morant's Bruce Beresford.

He says that he's not working long hours now as he did when he was in virtually every scene in The Equalizer. He explained that he has a co-star in Over My Dead Body and added that the new series' producers are "taking great care of me."

He said that his life hasn't changed enormously, although three years ago he quit a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit. "And I miss it (the smoking) every single day of my life," he sighed.

The actor would like to have done a half-hour comedy. "But nothing came along that appealed to me," he said. "Of the sitcoms on the air, 80 percent are terrible, and 20 percent are pure genius."

Did he consider a return to the BBC, where he once starred in the popular British series Callan? "They (the BBC) hadn't asked me," he said.

The Beckett part did come along, however, and Woodward seems excited about the role. "I don't know where the character is headed," he said in his polished voice. "But then the audience determines that as time goes along. You wait for their reaction, and then set your compass."

Woodward said his goal with Over My Dead Body is to entertain. "If we hit hard luck," he said, "then we go to something else."

Woodward added that he can't be concerned that none of the new fall TV series have become a hit. "That (the ratings) is something other people have to worry about," said the relaxed Woodward before hanging up the telephone to eat his healthy tuna sandwich lunch.

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