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Hotshots, has-beens find roles in games

Gary Coleman is trying out a much different role from the angel-faced adolescent Arnold he played on the 1970s-80s sitcom Diff'rent Strokes. The 34-year-old actor is starring in the upcoming PC shooter game Postal 2 as a bad guy.

"In real life, I can't stand the sight of blood," Coleman said. But "I love weaponry. I like artillery and explosions and fire _ anything that can maim, burn, shoot, claw, kill _ I like it. And I like it in a good way. I'm so sick of (Rep. Dick) Gephardt and that other stupid idiot in Senatorland picking on video games. You and I grew up on video games, and have we killed everybody? No. And you know why? We're sane!"

Coleman, who hasn't had a starring TV role since Diff'rent Strokes went off the air in 1986, is among a growing number of Hollywood hotshots and has-beens who are looking to cash in their celebrity in the burgeoning field of video game acting. Makers of video games boast of the star power they're bringing to games.

It's part of a broader reversal of fortunes for the video game industry. Gone are the days when video games simply aped Hollywood titles with mostly lame results. Now video games, such as Tomb Raider, Resident Evil and a handful of others, inspire mostly lame movies.

The folks in TV land have discovered there's gold _ $10.8-billion annually _ in video games, too. There have been a handful of attempts at video game-related programming over the years, mostly cartoons and a Nickelodeon game show, but nothing ever stuck.

The first full-time video game programming network, G4, was picked up by Time Warner Digital cable in 2002 and is in 9-million homes. The network's shows range from coverage of special events such as the launch of the Xbox Live network to the video game review show Judgment Day.

Actors have lent their likenesses or voices to video games for the past 10 years. In the early days, performances were awful _ actors who couldn't get a part in a Guatemalan soap opera mangling lines in soulless tones. At times it seemed as if the game's producers had gathered their buddies around a microphone to save a buck, and they probably did.

The first semicelebrity out of the gate was the late Dana Plato, who played Coleman's older sister in Diff'rent Strokes. She starred in one of the first video games to feature filmed footage, Sega's horrible Night Trap for the Sega CD. Her last appearance before that? Security camera footage of a Las Vegas video store armed robbery for which she was sentenced to probation. The game deservedly disappeared without a trace, but the ice was broken.

Over the next few years, HBO comedian Dana Gould (who also co-starred with Fred Savage from The Wonder Years on the NBC sitcom Working) lent his voice and wit to Gex the Gecko in a series of video games.

Mark Hamill reprised his Star Wars role in spirit if not name in the Wing Commander series of PC games. Character actor Vincent Schiavelli (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ghost, Tomorrow Never Dies) was a video-captured mad scientist raising an undead army in the multisystem hit Corpse Killer. Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft, was the voice of a voodoo warrior in Akuji the Heartless. Even Christopher Walken turned up in a couple of forgettable games.

Then in the mid '90s, Activision announced a digitized Bruce Willis would star in its run-and-gunner Apocalypse. The game was delayed for ages, though, and abysmal on arrival. After that, no self-respecting Hollywood A-lister would be caught near a video game set, at least for a while.

Now Tinseltown-types are clamoring to perform in video games. Joe Pantoliano, one of the top goombas from The Sopranos, led the way when he took a starring turn in 2001's Grand Theft Auto III.

This year's version of GTA, the acclaimed and reviled Vice City, boasts an eye-popping list of Hollywood's best and broken. The lead character is voiced by Ray Liotta (Goodfellas). The legendary Dennis Hopper shows up, too. The cast also features Burt Reynolds, Gary Busey, Philip Michael Thomas (Miami Vice), Lee Majors, singer Debbie Harry (from the new wave band Blondie), former NFL standout Lawrence Taylor and porn star Jenna Jameson.

Tim Conway and Don Knotts reprised their roles in famous '70s Scooby-Doo episodes in the recent Scooby-Doo: Night of 100 Frights. Tim Curry (Rocky Horror Picture Show, Clue, the recent series Family Affair) also joined in the fun as a new character, the villain Mastermind, and even belts out a tune during the game's final confrontation.

But it's not just Hollywood's gray-haired contingent lining up for video game paychecks. Kingdom Hearts, a joint venture between Squaresoft (Final Fantasy) and Disney Interactive, features a heartthrob cast that includes Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense, A.I.), pop star Mandy Moore, 'N Sync's Lance Bass, Billy Zane (The Phantom, Titanic), David Gallagher (7th Heaven), Hayden Panettiere (Ally McBeal), Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings), Christy Romano (Even Stevens, Kim Possible) and David Boreanaz (Angel, Valentine).

It's understandable why celebrities would want to take the plunge into video gaming: "I needed money," Coleman said. "I like model trains too much. In order to buy model trains I needed to keep working."

The industry and performers stonewall any questions about the pay scale for acting in video games.

Kevin Hooper, product marketing manager for THq, which holds the Scooby-Doo video game license, said the company lined up Conway and Knotts because "We wanted to make the game have the classic look and feel of the old cartoons."

Hooper says the celebrity hook is both good business and creative homage. The game gets a boost, and its producers tip their hat to a pair of comedic legends. He says the performers are happy because "The sessions are actually quite short. You're in and you're out and the check's in the mail."

And there's a side benefit. "A lot of actors are doing (video game) stuff for their grandkids and children."

Scott Innes, a Baton Rouge DJ who has been the voice of both Shaggy and Scooby-Doo in cartoons, movies and video games since 1997, says video games are hard work, despite the short time commitment.

"Doing video games is much harder than doing movies," Innes said. "When you go in to do a movie, you sit around with a bunch of other actors and you're in there for eight hours a day for two days. There's downtime, lunch break, playing off the other actors and having some fun. For a video game, I'll go in alone five straight days. I'll be in there four hours each day, nonstop, and I'll be doing Scooby and Shaggy lines from the top of the script down."

For Innes, lending his voice to video games is more than just another day at work, though.

"People love Scooby-Doo and Shaggy," he said. "To step into those paws and be doing movies and video games, to sit home and watch your 2- and 3- and 15-year-old sons play video games with your voice in them, how cool is that? I'm a video game fan myself, and to be able to sit back and play as yourself, how cool is that? It's a dream come Doo for me."

_ Chip Carter is a syndicated video game columnist who lives in Tampa.