Did they really mean to say that?

By Ed Bark / The Dallas Morning News

PASADENA, Calif. - The long, winding 1998 summer "press tour" is history. Or was it merely an illusion?

Believe what you will, but my notebooks overflow with odds, ends and oddities from 19 days of interviews, screenings and other forms of show-and-tell.

Television networks large and small have labored to convince us that the latest new season will be the grandest yet. You'll be the judge of that this fall. Meanwhile, here are some outtakes to tide you over:

* George Clooney's decision to exit ER after this season will leave executive producer John Wells without his star player.

"I hope that people believe the show remains interesting when he's not there," Mr. Wells says.

Mr. Clooney's character, dreamboat pediatrician Douglas Ross, won't be left for dead. His departure will be "very much in line with the independent nature of the character he's created," Mr. Wells says. "We're not going to take any easy roads out. He's not going to get hit by a bus or suddenly develop testicular cancer."

* Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, is developing a new animated show, Futurama, for midseason. OK, great, but what are some of the story lines for The Simpsons this season?

One of them, Mr. Groening says, is an Ally McBeal crossover episode.

"It's a Halloween episode," he says. "It's one of our 'Treehouse of Horror' segments. . . . I don't want to give too much away, but it isn't a joke. I mean, it's going to happen."

No, it's not. Fox's transcript of Mr. Groening's interview session includes a disclaimer every time he mentions Ally. To wit: "Editors please note. There will not be an Ally McBeal crossover."

In other words, Mr. Groening spoke too soon before notifying Ally creator David E. Kelley of his plans. Mr. Kelley reportedly immediately nixed the idea.

Earlier in the tour, Garry Shandling and Ally star Calista Flockhart crossed paths at the Television Critics Association awards ceremony, where he openly flirted with her while accepting honors for The Larry Sanders Show. The two later had drinks at the site of the event, the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel, before deciding to leave together.

* Producer Matt Williams, who's making a new sitcom, Costello, for Fox this season, says he knows exactly what the networks don't want. Using an unspecified network as an example, he says, "I came out of a meeting a couple of weeks ago, and they said the first rule was: nothing rural, nothing Southern, nothing dealing with country and Western, nothing dealing with anyone over 40."

Mr. Williams says he knew how to get at least one network president to "commit suicide in about 30 seconds." Proceed.

"I would go in and pitch a show about a 64-year-old man living in rural Alabama," Mr. Williams says. "And every week we come up on his porch and he's in his rocker telling the neighborhood children a story. And we dissolve into the story every week. And then at the end, there would be a nice little moral message and we would wrap it up. I promise you, presidents would be jumping out of windows if they heard that because it would scare them to death."

* Veteran actor William Devane, who will be co-starring in a midseason CBS cop series titled Turks, says his profession is being diluted by pretenders.

"The term 'actor' is taken in lesser and lesser terms," he says. "You're basically in the same bowl with ex-athletes, singers and so on. But the audience doesn't know that. The audience doesn't know that [former NFL star] Fred Dryer is not an actor, because they're watching Hunter and enjoying it. The training ground is a little different. And the audience does not educate itself.

"I mean, look at that girl on Friends [Courteney Cox]. I first saw that woman on a Bruce Springsteen video. . . . I'm not saying she's lousy. I'm just saying you come to acting from a lot of different places now. You used to come to it from the theater. It's a whole different process."

Mr. Devane also was asked whether actors awaiting midseason berths on a network schedule are inclined to check the Nielsen ratings and "see who's doing badly."

Of course, he says. "You're in there rooting for somebody to go down, obviously. What, are you crazy? No failure, we don't get on!"

* Before landing a starring role as a television reporter on CBS' The Brian Benben Show, Brian Benben shot a failed pilot in Dripping Springs and San Marcos, Texas. He owns a ranch in the area with his wife, actress Madeleine Stowe.

"The show was called My Failure, and my character's name was Brian Hangdog," he jokes. But, seriously, "it was about an actor who inherits a ranch, which he's trying to dispose of and then winds up staying there and running the place. Bruce Dern was in it. Wonderful in it, really funny. . . . It was no dramedy or any of that jazz. It was a straight-out comedy. At least, that's what we intended."

Robert Borden, co-executive producer of The Brian Benben Show, says he has an idea why the Texas-based sitcom wasn't picked up.

"I think what killed it was you had Bruce Dern with his shirt off in the poker scene," Mr. Borden says.

"Didn't help," Mr. Benben concedes.