THE CURSE OF THE SHOW KILLERS

After years of breathing HBO's fumes, Showtime thinks it may finally have a drama worth talking about. "Huff" stars Hank Azaria as a psychiatrist with more problems than his patients. He's got a racist mother (Blythe Danner), a sexaholic best friend (Oliver Platt) and, when we meet him, a patient who commits suicide in his office. And you thought Tony Soprano had headaches? When network executives introduced the drama to TV writers last July, they trotted out all the standard superlatives. "We think it's spectacular," said Showtime entertainment president Robert Greenblatt. Then Greenblatt did something genuinely impressive: he picked up "Huff" for a second season--even though it wouldn't debut until Nov. 7. There's apparently only one thing standing between "Huff" and success: Paget Brewster. Brewster plays Azaria's wife, though her acting isn't the issue. It's her karma. "When I got 'Huff'," she says, "I thought, 'Well, this poor thing is going to go down in flames now because I'm onboard'."

Brewster is the Red Sox--wait, now it's the Cubs--of TV actresses. She's cursed. After eight years in the business, she's starred in four programs and 16 pilots, all with the half-life of a gnat. Hollywood has a name for such people: show killers. They're actors like Jason Gedrick, late of "Boomtown," who has been on seven failed programs without a hit, and Jon Tenney ("Kristen," "Brooklyn South") who's struck out five times. (To make matters worse, Tenney's ex-wife, Teri Hatcher, is a star of ABC's megahit "Desperate Housewives.") These if-at-first-you-don't-succeed actors sometimes hit pay dirt. Before "ER" George Clooney was known as a "pilot killer," which means his shows were so bad, they never even got on the air. "I'm bad luck," he said 10 years ago. "Don't fly with me." You've got to wonder--where did all these show killers come from? What's it like when your career is partly defined by failure? And how come these people keep getting work?

Before we start getting angry letters from Jon Cryer's father, let's be fair. Television is a collaborative medium. Actors may be the most visible component of a show, but they're hardly alone on the sinking ship. "I've really come to learn it starts with the writing and the schedule," says Marcia Shulman, Fox's head of casting. "I don't believe it's ever the actor's fault." Some Hollywood executives say that the more failed shows an actor does, the better an actor he is. "It's a badge of honor," says Peter Golden, head of casting at CBS and Paramount TV. "An actor who keeps working works for a reason. You believe in him and hope the material is going to be the right fit." Which isn't to say there aren't less charitable reasons that the usual suspects sink year after year. Pretty faces often get hired in inverse proportion to their talent--how else to explain the cast of "Coupling"? Networks also sign holding deals with some actors to keep them from working for rivals. Executives will sometimes hire those actors to justify the investment. "I will give you that there are bad actors," says Golden. "I could definitely see the point of view of the audience who sees the same actor over and over and goes, 'Again?' "

Many actors insist they aren't bothered by the show-killer stigma. Or maybe they really are good actors. "At one point last year when I went for a meeting, I said, 'I just want you to know that I've never been on a show that's lasted for more than 13 episodes'," says Paula Marshall. "It was me making fun of the fact, because it's so not about me and everybody knows it." In La-la Land there are no bad actors, only bad roles (or time slots or directors). "It's like that old joke," says Tenney. "The musical isn't working so let's fire the lighting designer."

No one has had to live down the show-killer label more than Ted McGinley. McGinley has actually been on several successful shows, from "Happy Days" to "Hope & Faith." But he tends to come onboard during the middle of a show's run and stay until the bitter end, so people blame him. "Every time I'm on a show I'm supposed to kill it, but it took me 7-1/2 years to kill 'Married With Children' and 4-1/2 years to kill 'Happy Days'," he says. "It's my own fault. I used to make the joke that I sank 'The Love Boat.' And now it's grown into this monster."

Despite evidence and salaries to the contrary, actors are human. It hurts to get fired. Cryer used to laugh about his losing streak; he even made an on-air bet with an L.A. radio station that ABC's "The Trouble With Normal" would survive until November. "I won the bet," Cryer says, "but then the show was yanked after the first week of sweeps--so really they won." But around that time, Cryer's extralong resume stopped being so amusing. In the two years after "Normal" died, he worked only three weeks. "That was the first time where I actually experienced that a stigma had fallen on me," says Cryer. He almost didn't get in to audition for a new sitcom starring Charlie Sheen. "The network was not excited about seeing me," he says. But now that "Two and a Half Men" is a hit, the past is, as they say, passed. "It's been incredibly sweet, but mostly just relaxing," he says. "It comes from feeling like, Yeah, it wasn't a mistake getting into this business."

It wasn't for Brewster, either. "Huff" is a terrific show: funny, emotionally complex and surprising in ways that echo HBO's "Six Feet Under." Hands down, it's the best program Showtime has ever produced. And the cast--Brewster included--is wonderful. Not that Brewster is likely to believe us. "I've always been astonished year after year that I would get jobs," she says. "I thought, This has to come crashing down soon. People are going to figure me out." With any luck, they will--and she'll never be unemployed again.

THE CURSE OF THE SHOW KILLERS | News