The WB's new It Boy: Tarzan

Published July 14, 2003|Updated Sept. 1, 2005

It's an old-school showbiz truism many modern-day TV executives ignore at their own peril: Stars don't make TV, TV makes stars.

For proof, one need only see the welcome Calvin Klein-model-turned-actor Travis Fimmel received here Sunday during the Television Critics Association's summer press tour.

Seconds after finishing a press conference on his role in the WB's hot new superhero drama Tarzan (a title shortened from Tarzan and Jane to focus on you-know-who), the barefoot Australia native was quickly surrounded by a gaggle of tape-recorder wielding journalists, all eager to know the latest trivia about the WB's hottest new star in the making. (One tidbit: His penchant for going barefoot and fishing on his family's farm Down Under earned him the nickname Tarzan as a youth.)

Already, the 23-year-old's rock-hard abs and Brad Pitt-pretty mug have graced the cover of TV Guide and a Calvin Klein ad notorious for how it showed off his, um, assets. ("Do you feel a lot of pressure on first dates?" asked one cheeky journalist.)

And given the WB's penchant for building young faces into franchise stars _ think Dawson's Creek's James van der Beek and Smallville's Superman in training Tom Welling _ most present at the network's Sunday session assumed Fimmel was the latest in a long line of WB It Boys.

"I just hope my acting's up to snuff," said Fimmel, who seems to keep the building frenzy at bay with an almost pathological refusal to dwell on anything or speak more than two sentences in a row. (He also shrugs off quips over the unhunky nature of his given name.) "It's either I sit on the farm and be poor, or get off the farm and try not to be poor, I guess."

It's an annual ritual at the critics association tour, which already has featured a week's worth of presentations from cable and public TV outlets showing off their fall wares inside the too-chic confines of the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel.

Facing critics Sunday, entertainment chief Jordan Levin admitted the youth-oriented outlet often uses old-school Hollywood methods to build success _ carefully cultivating young unknowns into stars and giving comedy series lots of time to blossom.

Comic Steve Harvey, who is black, addressed comments he made at a critics association session long past, in which he complained about the WB undervaluing his old sitcom The Steve Harvey Show and paying him less than white stars on lower-rated shows.

"Now I'm back in bed with them. . . . I guess that pretty much makes me a ho at this point," cracked Harvey, who will host a series showcasing ordinary people with oddball talents on a show called Steve Harvey's Big Time.

"The times I complained about my money . . . well, that's the game," Harvey said a little later, while still accusing advertisers of paying less for ads on shows with mostly black audiences. "If I don't cry about it, they're not ever going to pay me more."

Levin also offered a straightforward assessment of the network's decision to replace its Jerry Bruckheimer-produced drama about a young female cop without fear, Fearless, with the youth-oriented nighttime soap One Tree Hill.

"I think you'll see us trying to address the idea that fearlessness doesn't equal emotionlessness," said Levin, obliquely echoing critics' complaints over the wooden performance of the show's lead actor, Rachael Leigh Cook. (The official line is that Bruckheimer, now a TV powerhouse behind hits such as CSI and CSI: Miami, joined other producers in asking the WB to delay Fearless until midseason.)

Race became a subtle subtext at the sessions, given the WB's decision to feature black lead performers in three of its five new fall shows. But former Good Times star John Amos, who plays father to comic actor Anthony Anderson in the black-centered comedy All About the Andersons, shrugged off attempts to connect his new sitcom to any trends regarding network TV's depictions of black people.

"I became intrigued (by the script) . . . plus, I needed the money," Amos joked, when asked why he's returned to a TV sitcom so long after quitting Good Times. (He'll also appear in at least three episodes of NBC's The West Wing as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.) "I view (Anderson) not only as a great actor, but as . . . my own personal retirement account."

Levin also let slip that the network is developing a family comedy sitcom for M.C. Hammer, whose appearance last season during the network's Surreal Life reality series has sparked a minor career revival.

"I'm really tired of seeing buffoonish, dumb dads," he said. "Hammer had such authority and strong sense of morality and strength in his own belief system, I'd like to see that translated into a father on television."