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WOODY ALLEN CALLS RETURN TO TV A FLUKE

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For the first time since in 24 years, Woody Allen is doing television.

Not that "Don't Drink the Water" (Sunday, 8 p.m., Ch. 4), which Allen both directs and stars in, is an original production. It's the first play he wrote for Broadway, opening there 28 years ago.And Allen wasn't exactly looking to get back into the medium he abandoned more than two decades ago. In a recent interview with television critics, Allen said his return to TV came as quite a fluke. He had just finished filming the movie "Bullets Over Broadway" and had several months before beginning production on his next movie.

"And I happened to be on the phone with (his friend, producer) Jean (Doumanian) and my sister Letty (Arronson, a vice president of Doumanian's company)," Allen said. "And I just mentioned casually that I had always felt that `Don't Drink the Water' would make a funny movie. And then 24 hours later I got a phone call from (Letty) saying that ABC would like to do this movie."

But, at that point, he wasn't sure if he wanted to or if he was up to the quick shoot a TV movie requires.

"I didn't realize how difficult filming for television would be. I'm used to a very, very leisurely schedule and a sufficient amount of money to make the film and all of that," Allen said. "And in television, one has to shoot very quickly. I had three and a half weeks to make the whole film. So that was a challenge to me. I mean, it was very, very difficult. I didn't think I was going to be able to do it at all at first."

The premise behind "Don't Drink the Water" is dated, and Allen has made no attempt to update it. It's set during the Cold War years of the 1960s, when an American tourist (Allen) in a communist country inadvertantly takes a picture of something the government deems classified and is forced to flee with his family to the American Embassy.

"Years ago, my parents went to Europe . . . and I thought to myself how amusing it would be if they had to run into the embassy and seek asylum there," Allen said. "They would turn the place upside-down.

"So I was really able to play this character because I was playing my own parents, in a way."

This isn't the first time "Don't Drink the Water" has been made into a movie. With a woefully miscast Jackie Gleason in the lead, a theatrical version was released in 1969.

"I never even saw the movie until about two weeks before I shot this one," Allen said. "I was very happy to get the paycheck for the sale (of the movie rights), but I was never consulted about any aspect of it.

"And then the movie came out and loved ones said to me, `Better don't see it.' "

And, when he did finally watch it 25 years later, he was indeed disappointed.

"I don't think that Jackie Gleason, who I worship as a comedian, was good casting for that. Nor did I think the approach to it was correct at all," Allen said. "I mean, it didn't look in any way real. It didn't have any pace to it. It was not properly executed."

Obviously, he's more pleased with the way his version turned out. And he described the actors he assembled as a "dream cast."

Julie Kavner, who's co-starred in several of Allen's theatrical films, plays his wife, and Mayim Bialik ("Blossom") as his lovesick daughter. The embassy is staffed by the ambassador's incompetent son (Michael J. Fox) and a stuffy bureaucrat (Edward Herrmann). And there's a defecting clergyman (Dom DeLuise) who's so bored by his long stay in the embassy that he's boring everyone else to death with his magic tricks.

As for Allen, he's perfectly cast as the nebishy caterer-turned-alleged spy.

"I had always had the fantasy years ago when I saw it played on Broadway with Louis Jacobi and Kaye Medford that I would be a good character to play the lead when I got older," he said.

It is the sort of role he's perfected over the years.

"It wouldn't bother me at all if I wrote 10 movies in a row and there were no parts for me, because I'm not looking to be an actor," Allen said. "I'm not really an actor. I'm not an actual actor. I'm a personality who can be amusing under certain circumstances. But I can't really act. I can't play in a great number of things. I have no range at all.

"You'll notice in my movies I'm almost always playing the same kind of character, the same narrow range."

Allen's version of "Don't Drink the Water" has a great deal in common with his theatrical films - hand-held cameras, people walking in and out of camera, few closeups. Techniques that make it somewhat jarring to a television audience.

But the greatest failing of "Don't Drink the Water" is just that it is dated, and is more nostalgic than topical in the 1990s.

Even Allen sees problems with the script itself.

"It's full of flaws, but it's funny," he said. "And that's what its strength was on Broadway when it first opened.

"The weakness, to me, is that it's something that I wrote 28 years ago and I just was not skillful enough to do any better at the time," Allen said. "I mean, problems of character and construction. I won't get into it because it's tedious. But there's a million mistakes I made with it."

As for his return to television, it would appear to be a one-shot deal.

"I have no other plans. And I don't know of anything I own or have written that would be appropriate," Allen said.

But he didn't rule it out altogether.

"I might. It would have to be something that I could fit in between the movies that I do," he said. "I wouldn't hesitate. I think the short shooting schedule would be a little easier for me next time. I think I'd be a little less intimidated because I found that I could do it."