More C-list stars refuse to fade away, and cable obliges

By Thomas Nord
Associated Press
The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

Playing the old "Whatever happened to?" game isn't what it used to be.

That's because, with increasing frequency, celebrities aren't fading away like they should.

They are sticking around, refusing to go gentle into that good night and, instead, are showing up to eat some bugs on "Fear Factor."

At any given moment, television offers Anna Nicole Smith stumbling around the lamé and brocade of her Hollywood condo and Nipsey Russell mocking himself on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."

Andy Warhol's bromide about our "15 minutes" of fame has been rendered moot by such people as "Partridge Family" moppet Danny Bonaduce, who has stretched a career that once seemingly had the shelf life of milk into quadruple overtime.

Need someone to fight Barry "Brady Bunch" Williams on "Celebrity Boxing"? Danny's there. Looking for someone to banter with Dick Clark on "The Other Half"? Danny's available. Heck, sometimes it seems as if Bonaduce lives in Howard Stern's green room, on call should the show hit a lull and they need someone to ridicule.

Tina Yothers. Todd Bridges. Morgan Fairchild. Mr. T. Charles Nelson Reilly. Tonya Harding. Dustin "Screech" Diamond. Tiffany. Any one of the Monkees.

Weren't these people supposed to disappear? Weren't they supposed to take up residence, Norma Desmond-like, in some dusty manse somewhere and appear in public long enough to buy cat food and cigarettes at Sav-a-Step?

Maybe. If only we'd let them.

"We've all sat around and wondered whatever happened to so-and-so," says James Morel, a guy with more than just a passing interest in these C-list celebrities. "Somebody somewhere along the line flipped a switch and realized that they can make money off this latent fascination."

Somebody like, for instance, James Morel.

Behind every Butch "The Munsters" Patrick or Mindy "The Facts of Life" Cohn, there is a guy like Morel, someone whose fascination for disposable culture is matched only by his penchant for making money.

For several years in the late 1990s, Morel ran POPsmear, a magazine devoted to skewering celebrity culture and all its excesses. A combination of People and National Lampoon, POPsmear made a lot of waves — it once printed USA Interactive CEO Barry Diller's private phone number, just for kicks — but no money.

Then one day the proverbial switch flipped in Morel's head.

He moved to Hollywood, a place he once loathed, and came up with "Star Dates" (Sundays, E! Entertainment Television) a show that promises to push our C-list obsession to even more mortifying extremes.

"Star Dates" sets up has-been celebrities on dates with ordinary people, then sends a camera crew to record the results.

It is horrifying. It is embarrassing. It is pure genius.

"If you have an ounce of fame, somebody in America is going to have a fascination with you," says Morel from his Hollywood office. "This recycling stuff is like a pension plan for these celebrities."

He has a point. A couple of years on a sitcom can bring in some cash, but not nearly enough to retire on, let alone pay a therapist to help you deal with that job at Wal-Mart.

Anyone who grew up watching "The Little Rascals" knows the tragic tale of Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, who got cheated out of residuals from the films and was shot to death at age 31 in a dispute over $50. If only there had been "Celebrity Weakest Link" around to save him.

Morel even has a term for this trend of recycling old celebrities. He calls it "churning," and it's more aggressive than ever.

"We're starting to churn so much stuff," says Morel, 32. "In the '70s, you weren't churning your '50s stars, and in the '60s, you weren't churning your '30s stars. Now we're churning people who had been stars only three years ago."

People such as Dustin Diamond, who could be a case study in the inevitability of celebrity recycling. For the better part of a decade, Diamond exploited his terminal geekiness as Screech, the kid with the voice that wouldn't stop cracking on "Saved by the Bell."

The 'Screech' factor

He played Screech as long, or longer, than it seemed imaginable, growing from geeky student to geeky school administrator while castmates such as Tiffani-Amber Thiessen and Mark-Paul Gosselaar moved on to other roles.

Now, for all intents and purposes, Diamond is Screech, reprising the role everywhere — sitcoms, feature films, "Wrestlemania" and, yes, "Star Dates."

"He's not even trying to put 'Screech' behind him," Morel says. "But what are you going to do? He's very self-deprecating, and that kind of self-deprecating humor is the only way to survive. Everybody looks at him as 'Screech,' and that's that."

The inaugural installment of "Star Dates" took viewers on two dates with Butch Patrick, who played Herman Munster's werewolf progeny Eddie on "The Munsters" in the mid-'60s. Although only 70 episodes of the show were made, endless reruns have etched the show into our consciousness.

Which can only be good for the 49-year-old Patrick, who continues to milk his brief TV career by selling autographed glossies of himself, circa 1965, as Eddie, and as a self-proclaimed haunted-house consultant.

Alas, he is looking less like the hilarious Ben Stiller parody of him from "Saturday Night Live" some years back and a little more shopworn. The cute kid with the widow's peak and werewolf fangs has turned into that guy who sits at the end of the bar trying to pick up divorcées.

"I'm not a Hollywood type — I'm a regular guy," he told E!, as if his exile from stardom were a choice. "I like cars, motorcycle sports. ... I like kids, animals. (I'm) God-fearing. I think I lead a pretty good life."

Patrick, who also likes the Beatles and Carrie Fisher, added that he is not bothered when people mistake him for the kid who played Pugsley on "The Addams Family."

"It doesn't tick me off. People just get mixed up. Their hearts are in the right place. ... I just say I'm not the little fat kid."

Stars who subject themselves to such potential humiliation are much more well-adjusted than you might think, Morel says. They know they are being made fun of, but maintaining their fame — even a radically abridged version of it — keeps sucking them back in.

"There is this whole capacity for self-delusion," he said. "If you can make that work, if you can prop that up, then that becomes your reality, and you've won the game."

Self-delusion is the ticket

Morel says the most well-adjusted C-lister he has encountered is Marc Price. You remember him, don't you? The kid who played that dorky neighbor kid, Skippy, on "Family Ties"? No?

The grown-up Price, Morel says, now lives in a trailer somewhere in West Hollywood, scraping by on standup comedy gigs. If you don't remember him from "Family Ties," that's OK — he'll probably bring it up soon enough.

"This guy cannot go three minutes without talking about the fact that he is Skippy from 'Family Ties,' " Morel says. "It becomes ingrained in their identities."

Price is the inspiration for "Star Dates," which grew out of a proposal to film C-list stars and show the world how they live. The pitch evolved when Morel and his partner, Doug Chernack, hooked up with George Verschoor, one of the original directors of MTV's "The Real World," who narrowed the focus to a dating show.

"I wanted to explore these people's entire lives, but it was easier to just do the dating thing," Morel says. "It's an angle, and television needs an angle."

Subsequent episodes take us on dates with Diamond, Gary Coleman, Kim "The Facts of Life" Fields, Jill "The Love Boat" Whelan and (God help us) Phyllis Diller.

"She's looking for company," Morel said. "She nearly hits it off with one of her dates."

As videotape technology gets cheaper and cheaper, and as long as there is plenty of room on the cable-TV spectrum to fill, Morel predicts that C-list stars will continue to find work — however humiliating.

We have Ozzy to thank

Everyone is looking for the next "The Osbournes," a show that has exploded well beyond MTV's expectations and spawned such imitators as "The Anna Nicole Show" and an aborted VH1 venture with Liza Minnelli.

Although he expresses the usual worries about "throwaway culture" and the "downward spiral," Morel says at the same time he looks at this era as something of a triumph for C-list celebrities, who, in the end, only want people to pay attention to them.

"I love the underdog," Morel said.

"Nobody cared about Ozzy Osbourne anymore. Now even President Bush is acknowledging him. It's almost like a comeuppance, like Ozzy is saying, 'See, Bush, even you have to pay attention to me now.' "

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company