There used to be a rule in American television: comedies were half an hour, dramas an hour. And then came Moonlighting, the 80’s ‘dramedy’ that took glee in flouting conventions and signalled a new era of TV smarts (Yes, even before Twin Peaks).
Dream sequences; characters breaking the fourth wall; black and white episodes, film production values; pop culture references; musical numbers; arch self awareness... in a nutshell, all the good bits in your favourite TV shows of the last decade, Moonlighting did them first.
Which makes this six disc box-set of the first two seasons something of a must-buy. Season one (six episodes) is the warm up, season two the real deal as everyone gets into their stride and Willis and Shepherd take sexual chemistry to heights not seen since a Howard Hawks movie.
Cast and crew commentaries and some tidy featurettes round off an essential package.
I found this old interview I did with Cybill Shepherd - for DVD Review, I think, circa 1998...
Cybil Shepherd has a point to make. You can tell, even over a transatlantic phone line, because she turns up her Georgia vowels until they positively sing in the key of southern belle.
“I tell ya,” she insists. "I was not happy to think of mah-self as buried alive!"
The actress, with maybe a hint of self-pastiche, is referring to her award-sniffing sitcom Cybill, which finally hits DVD this month, almost a decade after a studio exec told her it was “buried in the salt mines of Utah”.
But, really, she could be talking about any stage of her career. Over the years, critics have kept shovels marked 'Shepherd' in their bottom drawers, ready to dig her a fresh grave whenever she appears on screen.
“Oh, I have died so many times...” she acknowledges, remembering them all, the blunt reviews (“She cannot walk or talk, much less act or sing”), the vivid denouncements (“She has all the charm of a hamster”), even the vitriol bordering on metaphysical (“Nothing is quite so wrong as Cybill Shepherd”).
Truth is, she's made at least three bona fide film classics with The Last Picture Show, Taxi Driver and The Heartbreak Kid (she'd claim it was five - adding the likeable Chances Are and the unfairly pilloried Daisy Miller). Plus two TV shows that should stand the test of time: the phenomenon that was Moonlighting and the ‘comeback’ show Cybill which, as well as winning its cast and crew a variety of baubles and gongs, can now be seen (if you squint) as something of a precursor for the likes of verité-tinged fare such as Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Playing Cybill Sheridan, a 40-something actress who can't get a break, Shepherd became a small screen role-model for older women as well as occasionally scandalising the nation with her frankness. The show's ripe depictions of divorce, showbiz and the menopause generated many a network executive note.
“It was an old concept,” says Shepherd. “I mean, going back to say Lucille Ball which is the breast of comedy I was weaned on, to use a twisted metaphor. But we definitely broke new ground. And we kind of got away with it until the Valentine's issue...” (They used the word 'cervix', America almost crumbled).
“It was kind of a countdown from then on. Nowadays you've got the likes of HBO for shows like that. But at least with DVD, it's going to see the light of day. I feel vindicated, I guess.”
Like pretty much everything Shepherd has worked on, the show was dogged with rumours of backstage strife. Between Cybill and her co-star Christine Baranski, who played the outrageous Maryann; between Cybill and her on-screen daughter Zoey (Alicia Witt); between Cybill and the writers and producers; between Cybill and... well, you get the picture.
“It's water under the bridge now,” sighs Shepherd. “But at the same time, I think it made it excruciatingly difficult do the show for everybody. A lot of it was just useless drama. There was a lot of unwarranted behaviour, a lot of painful memories. There was no loyalty on the show from the other performers. But regardless of what anyone says or writes, I'm proud of how I handled myself."
She continues her not-quite-confession, not-quite defence.
"I did a lot of therapy between Moonlighting and Cybill. And while I wasn't perfect every moment, I was certainly respectful. From the very beginning of my career, right from The Last Picture Show, I've known how crucial the people opposite me are. On Cybill, I truly worked as hard as possible to make everybody's part great. It almost killed me, quite literally. Ten days after the end of production, I was in the hospital with a double twist of my small intestine.”
The hospital dash was just another drama in a life that reads like soap opera, or a trashy best-seller. Which it became in her bluntly candid autobiography Cybill Disobedience, where she manages to reveal (nearly) all, without blaming everyone else for her mistakes. (“I saved that for this interview,” she laughs).
Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Shepherd began her career as a model (she won ‘Model of the Year’ in 1968) and appeared on the covers of Life, Vogue, Glamour and People magazine. On the surface, a wholesome former beauty queen, she was - in her own words – “a very, very bad girl” who was keen to have sex. A lot.
The book details threesomes with stunt men, dalliances with her leads and even some flirting with a future president (“You'd better stand on the other side of the room,” she told Bill Clinton. “You don't need any more trouble...”).
She’s unrepentant about any furore caused.
“The whole thing with sex,” she states matter-of-factly, “is that all the mistakes I made, all the pain I caused, all the pain that was caused me, all the craziness, came about from not talking about it! That's the whole point of my book. And I guess talking about sex is now part of my professional persona. In some ways I like to think of myself as a completely different version of Mae West. I can have fun with sex and make jokes but also be very serious."
"And, anyway," she adds. "The book would have been boring otherwise. A book is like any other journey in life - it's no good if you don't learn, or at least try and make sense of things. Writing it was the hardest thing in the world... other than giving birth to twins - without drugs! I discovered things about myself that were not so pretty but that's what keeps it interesting.”
It was, in a manner of speaking, sex that led to her first break - after seeing her on the cover of Glamour, Peter Bogdanovich was so impressed by what he called her “fresh, sexual, threat” he cast her as teen temptress Jacy Farrow in The Last Picture Show. By the end of filming, the director had left his marriage and moved in with his star.
For a while ‘Peter and Cybill’ became Hollywood's couple du jour. Although Shepherd still found time to date Elvis. (“Elvis didn't go down on women... until he met me,” she revealed gleefully.)
Over the next few years Shepherd and Bogdanovich would make a couple of badly-received flops, signalling the beginning of the end (at least temporarily) of both their film careers and relationship.
There was was a brief respite for Shepherd with Scorcese and Taxi Driver (“De Niro invited me to get some barbecue food, I turned him down and he never spoke to me again during filming, except as Travis Bickle”). But by the ’80s, she was a star in need of a vehicle.
And then came Moonlighting. Disproving, like many a Hollywood figure, the old F. Scott Fitzgerald maxim that “there are no second acts in American lives,” Shepherd was reborn in the role of Maddy Hayes. Helped no end of course by a then-unknown actor named Bruce Willis. At his audition the former bartender practically blanked Shepherd but she claims she knew she had found her David Addison.
“Doing serious work, and Lord knows, nothing's as serious as comedy, it's not about how comfortable you are,” she insists. “We always call it chemistry, but it's tension too. There was a sexual tension with Bruce, and a tension through him kind of ignoring me. I mean, I was amused by it and I could feel the potential. Because if you don't have conflict, if you don't have personalities that can fill roles, that actors bring along with them, then you're not likely to succeed.”
The show did succeed, enormously. And is still proving a hit today, in syndication and now on DVD. Although some of the old tensions remain.
When Shepherd was recently reunited with her co-star to do an interview for the forthcoming season three release on disc, things didn't go entirely smoothly. Mainly because, as well as Willis and Glenn Caron (Moonlighting's creator), an old foe of Shepherd’s, Jay Daniels (who worked with her on both Moonlighting and Cybill) had also been invited along.
“I felt really uncomfortable,” admits Shepherd more in sorrow than anger. “I hadn't been told that Jay was going to be there, so they sabotaged me. He had been public with why he had to leave Cybill and his take was both devastating to my professional character, and ridiculous. I heard he was coming just before I did the interview with Glenn and Bruce and it totally changed everything. I was so uptight. You can see it in the interview. I had the right to cut it out but you know, I thought, ‘that's what it is...’ It was a recreation of some old dreadful feelings... and I'm sorry that it was.”
More happily, her career is still keeping her busy. She has a one-woman show based on her memoirs and favourite songs (she’s released a number of albums), she recently starred in two biopics of fallen domestic guru Martha Stewart (“It’s a great part, based on such a complicated and extraordinary woman. Although, if she walked in the room right now, I might make a fast exit…”) and next up on the big screen is Hard Luck, where she stars alongside Wesley Snipes. "It's really different to any character I've played before. I'm a serial killer who makes snuff movies"
She laughs devilishly. "I think you'll be entertained..."
What you won’t see her doing, probably, is any reality TV. Despite the fact she keeps getting asked.
“I think I’ve turned down about eight so far. The last one was Kept, the Jerry Hall one. And I think I turned down one that Faye Dunaway did.” (Starlet, where wannabe film stars go through a gruelling boot camp to win a management deal and - gasp! - a guest role on adolescent drama One Tree Hill).
“If I was going to do something like that it would have to be something fresh, that has something a bit different to offer. It's all just concept ”. She says the word ‘concept’ the way a pope might say contraception.
Right now, she's considering a return to the stage, with Tennessee Williams' last play, the previously unproduced In Masks Outrageous And Austere.
“I had the idea to take it to London first,” she enthuses. "I haven't signed any papers yet but Peter Bogdanovich is set to direct it - isn't that amazing? I turn down everything on stage because I don't want to be away from my children that long but now they're off to college, I'm ready to take it on!”
And she hasn't ruled out a return to the small screen.
"Cybill was cancelled in 1998. That year was the Bermuda Triangle for women on TV - there were at least half a dozen shows killed and they all had women over 40 at the centre of the story. (Cybill, Roseanne, Ellen, Murphy Brown, Grace Under Fire, Dr Quinn Medicine Woman). We just disappeared from the face of the earth and we really haven't been back..."
She laughs. "Who knows... maybe I'll have to make another comeback!"