Young, successful and . . . disposable?


LOS ANGELES -- Disposable diapers. Disposable cameras. Disposable lighters. Disposable razors.

Disposable TV actors?

Yes. Welcome to the 1992-'93 network TV season.

"The problem is -- and I hope this doesn't depress my gang -- young actors are forgotten sooner," says producer Aaron Spelling, currently the biggest employer of twentysomething actors. His prime-time shows this season include "Beverly Hills, 90210"; "Melrose Place"; and "The Heights," all on the Fox network.

"It's something that I think about all the time," says actress Cheryl Pollak, one of the stars of "The Heights."

"There is a disposability about actors, especially in prime-time television," adds actor Doug Savant, a star on "Melrose Place." "You are used for everything to the benefit of that show. When that show no longer exists, you are disposed of and the only thing we have in our control as actors is the quality of our work."

To satisfy advertisers this fall, network executives are offering an unprecedented number of prime-time programs to lure twentysomething viewers. They're doing it with an army of twentysomething actors with flat stomachs, hourglass figures and short resumes.

Scheduled for September and mid-season are eight one-hour dramas and six comedies, all starring actors in their 20s.

"Young actors get trapped by television," says Oscar winner Rod Steiger.

"Young guy comes along, he's developing his craft and suddenly gets a television show. In three or four years he's a star.

"Meanwhile, he never really learned it," Mr. Steiger explains. "He developed bad habits, but he's a star. He's got a beautiful house and he's all over the covers of the magazines. All of a sudden it cuts off on a Monday morning."

Aaron Spelling's legacy is rooted in young, unknown actors, going back to the '60s with "The Mod Squad" and '70s with "Charlie's Angels." But never before has he hired so many young actors as this TV season.

It was his 1990 Fox ensemble show, "Beverly Hills, 90210," that started the network stampede to youth.

This season Mr. Spelling is producing, along with his four Fox twentysomething shows, "The Round Table" for NBC about young professionals in Washington, D.C., and "2000 Malibu Road," a drama for CBS, in part, about young adults trying to break into show business.

"It's when they become a star and not an actor," he says, "then it becomes a problem.

"I think they have to keep working, keep studying. I know what Peggy Lipton ["Twin Peaks"] is doing, but I don't know where Clarence Williams III is or where Michael Cole is from the 'Mod Squad.' It's sad."

His biggest "Beverly Hills, 90210" stars ["my kids"] seem to understand fleeting fame, he says. Shannen Doherty, Jason Priestly and Luke Perry have each completed a film recently.

"You're [asking] what happens to somebody like Luke Perry or Jason Priestly, who can't go out anywhere," Mr. Spelling says, "and two years later no one knows his name.

"How do you live with that? I don't know. It would kill me."

Mr. Spelling remembers when his career turned to ice during the late '80s. The phone didn't ring. He was yesterday's news for nearly two years. "In the down period of my life it hurt, really hurt. To an actor's psyche, oh God."

Doug Savant plays Matt Fielding on "Melrose Place." The 28-year-old remembers five years ago when he was cast in the feature film "Masquerade" with Rob Lowe and Meg Tilly. At the time, he received a three-picture option with MGM and thought he was on his way.

"I was kind of told I was going to be, not the next Tom Cruise," he says, "but certainly sought after for all the supporting, leading roles. 'We're going to make you a star.' None of that happened."

"Masquerade" bombed and all the agents who pursued him suddenly wouldn't return his calls once the box office receipts were in.

Mr. Savant surveyed what was happening and went back to what got him to 'Masquerade" -- acting classes and stage work, no matter the pay.

"Hopefully, I won't fall into that trap again," he says.

In today's Hollywood, he learned, "when you're hot everyone wants you because you're an easy sell."

Mr. Savant's current credits are varied. He has had the recurring role of Mack McKenzie on "Knots Landing" and has appeared in "China Beach," "Cagney & Lacey" and "In the Heat of the Night." He stars in the upcoming Fox network film "Bonnie & Clyde: The True Story."

But Mr. Savant is the first to admit it isn't easy to suck it up after some success and return to acting class.

"You have to be able to put that ego aside," he says. "There's an insecurity thing. 'Well, gee, I'm out there making a living at this and I'm going to come into a class and allow myself a vulnerability to be critiqued and corrected and fall on my face in front of a group who might be very critical or jealous?'"

The truth may hurt, he concludes, but instant obscurity hurts worse.

"These series end. They all do. It might be tomorrow, it might be 10 years. But they all do come to an end. If you haven't prepared yourself for that end and what is beyond, you're doing yourself a great disservice."

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