It's one of the stranger stories I've heard in some time, but one that makes sense in a weird way.
NBC, which hosted Seinfeld for nine seasons, was the only major TV network that passed on a chance to talk to the star of that show about his new project.
"Every other network — ABC, CBS, HBO, Fox, the WB, MTV — took meetings with Jerry, Barry Marder and the agent on the project, Rob Lee," says my source. "Les Moonves saw them at CBS, Brian Graden at MTV, Chris Albrecht at HBO, Lloyd Braun at ABC. All the heads of the entertainment units. But NBC passed before it even got that far."
The project, a pilot called Letters from a Nut, is based on three bestselling humor books by the pseudonymous Ted L. Nancy. For years, the author has been rumored to be Seinfeld himself, who lends his name only to the books' introductions. This column has surmised over time that the real Nancy is comedian and writer Barry Marder, long a Seinfeld chum and collaborator. Marder has never confirmed it, and checks sent to Nancy by his publishers are filtered through a third party to protect his identity.
Last spring, the Nut books were sold to ABC for development as a series. Now I am told by sources close to the project that NBC, Seinfeld's prior home, never even got as far as having a meeting with their former star.
According to my source, NBC vice president of alternative programming Kurt Sharp turned Lee down cold, preventing the group from seeing NBC entertainment chief Jeff Zucker. "He said to Lee, 'Letters from a Nut Didn't we see those books already?' This was even after they were offered a meeting with Jerry." Calls to Sharp at NBC in Burbank yesterday we were not returned.
The bidding for the pilot was apparently intense, with all parties making an impressive case. "All the offers were for huge numbers," says my source. But Marder, Seinfeld and the enigmatic Nancy — who I understand was present at the meetings — settled on ABC's Lloyd Braun in the long run because during their meeting "they really liked the energy in the room," my source said.
Sharp's early rejection of the project is said to have infuriated Zucker, who is trying to establish himself in entertainment after mega success running the Today show. The whole business has become a hot topic for gossip at NBC's Burbank offices and at comedy festivals.
It didn't hurt that Braun was also a former Seinfeld character. (In the "Serenity Now" episode, Mr. Costanza hires "Lloyd Braun" to sell computers from his garage. In previous episodes, "Lloyd Braun" was a mayor's assistant, dated Elaine and thought George was mentally ill.)
Since Braun took on the show, a pilot was filmed with a sequence at Mickey Mantle's restaurant on Central Park South. (Don't ask about the plot points. Like Seinfeld, it's funny but hard to explain.) Seinfeld spent the day on the set, posing for pictures and graciously signing autographs for fans. He's very involved in the show, I am told, although he's not necessarily taking a credit.
"His credit is still a mystery, since Marder is listed as Executive Producer," my source says. "Although you may see him darting about in the background during segments, sort of like 'Where's Waldo?'"
Last night Edie Falco, who plays Carmela on The Sopranos, opened to rave reviews on Broadway in a revival of the two-character play Frankie and Johnny at the Clair de Lune with Stanley Tucci. Both actors are already bathing in kudos and air kisses, but let me tell you — you'd be hard-pressed to find such a perfect theater experience. Falco and Tucci are revelations. Each gives a mesmerizing performance which will certainly earn them Tony Awards, and all that stuff.
Even more mesmerizing though was the turn out of Sopranos co-stars to support Falco. James Gandolfini came with his new girlfriend, an elegant brunette named Laura; Lorraine Bracco, looking tanned and happy (and now completely divorced from Edward James Olmos) arrived with one of the show's producers, Ilene Landruss. At one point Dominic Chianese, Tony Sirico and Vince Curatola, along with their spouses, girlfriends and Gandolfini, took a round table for eight at the after party and had their own "sit down." Whoever heard of a cast getting along like this? Aida Turturro, Joe Pantoliano, Robert Iler, Federico Castellucci, Cathy Narducci, John Ventimiglia, and Jamie-Lynn Sigler all made the scene too, at the theater and the hot-as-a-pistol after-party at Laura Belle nightclub.
So what's the story, I wondered? Don't these people spend enough time together when they're filming? That's always the "story" you get from other "happy family" TV casts.
"We love each other," said Turturro. "We spend 16-hour days together, that's what it is. And we're really a family."
This may be a first in TV history. Curatola, who plays Johnny Sack, has a theory: "Everyone in the cast, they know how hard they worked to get here. We've all been through a similar experience. And it's bonded us."
Curatola, by the way, now spends his off-hours moonlighting with the rock group Chicago. His next gig is Sept. 21 and 22 at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.
The only member of the Sopranos crowd who couldn't make it was Steve Van Zandt. He had to go back to his "real" job — playing lead guitar with Bruce Springsteen. On Monday night at Madison Square Garden, Van Zandt can expect almost the entire Sopranos cast in the audience and backstage, cheering him on.
As for Frankie and Johnny, well, what can I say? Tucci and Falco are amazing, wonderful, the real thing. Edie told me at the after-party that the opening night show "was not our best, either. We were very nervous. We've had better shows and we will again." I don't know what she was talking about — actors, urrrrgghh!
I should also tell you that the producers of F&J, including the indomitable, feisty, and brilliant Jean Doumanian put on quite a spread at Laura Belle. One of the best parties of the season. The non-Sopranos included playwright Terrence McNally, Nathan Lane, Barbara Barrie, and — sitting right in front of yours truly — our beloved Yankee manager Joe Torre. (I don't know what he made of all the nudity in the show, but I'm sure Joe admired the actors' uncanny faculties of concentration.) Even when you thought the party might be over, Steven Weber, from The Producers, and new dad Richard Kind, from Tale of the Allergist's Wife, popped in after taking their final curtain calls. It was an old fashioned New York night. And not a moment too soon.