New roles are old hat for TV actors STAYING IN CHARACTER

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What's Miles' girlfriend doing taking care of Frasier's father? What are Eli and Denise doing an entire continent away from the IRT? And why is that Designing Woman from Atlanta manning the kitchen of a restaurant in New York?

What's going on here?

TV characters increasingly are traveling into the alternate universes of shows other than their own.

Often, it's a one-shot thing, a TV character making a quick cameo on another show. Other times, it's a matter of a TV character making such a strong impression, he or she turns up again and again -- in a different show, with a different name but essentially playing the same character. (Doesn't Mr. Feeny of this season's "Boy Meets World," for example, really remind you of Dr. Craig from the old "St. Elsewhere"? Actually, they're both William Daniels.)

With the particularly heavy cross-pollination going on during this still-new fall season, here's a guide to who's where and what's what. Looking for a forwarding address for your favorite characters, now that their old series have been canceled? Wondering where or when you last saw that vaguely familiar character?

Get out your score cards.

* Familiarity breeds "Frasier"

Not only is the title character a refugee from another show -- the late "Cheers" -- the rest of its cast seems to have been plucked from all sorts of other sitcoms, dead and alive.

Frasier, the psychiatrist who hung out at the Cheers bar in Boston, has moved back to his native Seattle after his divorce from the chilly Lilith. Frasier's aging father comes to live with him, prompting the need for a home care worker: Enter a daffy English woman played by Jane Leeves, who formerly played Miles' daffy English girlfriend on "Murphy Brown."

And Frasier's brother is played by David Hyde Pierce, reprising the sort of character he played on the short-lived "Powers That Be" from last season: He's unhappily (if comically) married to the "right" kind of woman, but attracted to the "wrong" kind (read: household help). Provincial local note: Mr. Pierce also played a Peabody Conservatory musicologist and brother to Meg Ryan's Baltimore Sun reporter in the movie, "Sleepless in Seattle," and he looked none too happy there either.

Appropriately enough, Frasier himself has visited other shows in the past -- actor Kelsey Grammer even was nominated for an Emmy for a cameo he did on "Wings" last year, in which the "Cheers" shrink turned up as a "Wings" passenger.

* Hills Brothers

"Hill Street Blues" lamentably is gone, but Detective Norman Buntz lives. He's been reincarnated as Detective Andy Sipowicz of "NYPD blue." essentially, though, sipowicz is buntz redux, with actor Dennis Franz playing yet another half-crazed rogue cop willing to break the law in the course of enforcing it. As long as Steven Bochco keeps creating cop shows, Mr. Franz will never have to worry about unemployment.

And while "NYPD Blue" has gotten all the attention this year -- its nudity and profanity has drawn protests from some groups -- another "Hill Street" alum has returned more quietly this season. Daniel J. Travanti, though, has done less well in his move: The beloved Captain Furillo of "Hill Street" is now the deservedly less-beloved Lieutenant McAuliffe, of the Chicago P.D.'s "Missing Persons" unit. Suspiciously, though, "Missing Persons" itself soon could be missing in action -- as in, headed toward Cancellation City.

* Legal maneuvers

Small world. Turns out that the huggable Eli, the "Civil Wars" lawyer who went bonkers after handling too many divorce squabbles, is a cousin of that equally lovable mensch, Stuart Markowitz of "L.A. Law."

After "Civil Wars" got canceled last season, it was only a matter of time before Eli (played by Alan Rosenberg) found himself at cousin Stuart's law firm. After all, former "Civil Wars" executive producer William Finkelstein is now in charge of "L.A. Law."

And small world, Part II: The Queens-squawking secretary from "Civil Wars," the always wonderfully decked-out and made-up Denise, just happens to have moved to L.A. herself after a between-TV-seasons divorce from her bicycle messenger/poet husband. Turns out there's a job for Denise (Debi Mazar in real life) at McKenzie, Brackman too!

Weirdly flavored bagels and car co-dependency notwithstanding, L.A. -- and "L.A. Law" -- looks like a perfect fit for these New York emigres.

* All's fair in "Love & War"

After one season, the dreary Susan Dey character moved to France, leaving behind her series, "Love & War"; her restaurant, the Blue Shamrock; and her guy, Jay Thomas.

Stepping in on all three is the sassy Annie Potts. You might not have recognized her at first, though, until she opened her mouth and that familiar twang came out. As one of the "Designing Women" of Atlanta, she had the appropriate big hair of the South but now, befitting her move up to the Big Apple, she has a chic, closely cropped brunet do.

And will she end up a deux with Jay Thomas? Probably -- he's making a career out of playing tabloid journalists who get the pretty girl. On "Love and War," he's Jack Stein, a columnist for a New York Post-like rag, not to be confused with Jerry Gold, a Maury Povich-like broadcaster who romanced "Murphy Brown" a couple of seasons ago.

But don't worry about Ms. Dey being left out in the cold in all this -- now that she's in France, maybe "Cafe Americain" will hire her as chef.

* Seinland

Whenever Jerry and his pals leave their familiar Manhattan turf, awful -- or awfully comic -- things happen: They've lost their car in a mall parking garage, they had a nasty run-in with a "bubble boy," there have been fires and deaths and mob scenes, even.

But, at least once, there was a happy ending: Last season, Kramer got the acting bug and drove to Hollywood. One night, his friends back home are watching "Murphy Brown" on TV, and who should turn up as one of those secretaries Murph can never keep for more than a day? Kramer, of course.

"Seinfeld" has welcomed outsiders onto its turf as well: Fellow comedian-turned-sitcom-star Paul Reiser of "Mad About You" did cameo. Turns out he used to be Jerry's neighbor, got married and sublet his apartment to Kramer. So, let's get this straight: If Helen Hunt didn't marry Paul Reiser, there would be no "Mad About You," no sublet and -- omigod -- no Kramer?

* Miami Nice

Saturday nights can be rough, you know? Sometimes you can't even get a date within your own series: That must be why Richard Mulligan of "Empty Nest" had to look southward to the next time slot on NBC, where he found Loni Anderson, new to the cast of "Nurses" this season.

Not only are the shows on back to back at 9 p.m. and 9:30, Mr. Mulligan plays a doctor and Ms. Anderson a hospital administrator, so it's not too much of a leap for them to meet. (The real leap is the casting of Ms. Anderson -- who has spent her career playing dumb, bosomy blonds -- as . . . a hospital administrator. Talk about the need for health-care reform!)

Actually, NBC's Saturday night line-up has been mixing it up for several years now -- what with several of its shows set in Florida, it makes inter-series travel not such a big leap, either, at least geographically.

In fact, although "Golden Girls" -- about those zany gals living together in Florida -- is no longer part of the Saturday line-up, one of its characters has returned. Sophia, played by Estelle Getty, has joined the cast of "Empty Nest" this year.

* What about Bob?

Bob Newhart has to be the master of inter-related sitcoms. The guy never even changes his name when he changes series: First there was "The Bob Newhart Show" (starring Bob as a psychologist), then "Newhart" (Bob as a Vermont innkeeper) and now, "Bob" (Bob, as a cartoonist).

No matter what his profession, though, Bob basically plays Bob, the put-upon guy, the sane presence amid all the oddballs in his apartment complex, therapy group, small Vermont town or art studio.

Bob has taken self-reference to absurd heights: "Newhart" ended its run with Bob-the-psychologist waking up after having dreamed the entire Bob-the-innkeeper scenario. And in his latest incarnation, Bob -- the cartoonist -- plays poker with suspiciously familiar-looking fellows. Turns out several of them had parts on former Bob shows, such as Tom Poston, who was "Newhart's" handyman.

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