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HE'S ALIEN TO TV SITCOMS, BUT LITHGOW GIVES IT A TRY

Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated actor John Lithgow is coming to television in a weekly sitcom in which he plays an alien who assumes human form and struggles to understand mankind.

(I am not making this up.)So, what exactly would attract an actor of Lithgow's calibre to a show like "3rd Rock From the Sun," an NBC midseason replacement show? In part it was the advice of one of Lithgow's old friends, John Mahoney ("Frasier").

"He's also very much from the theater," Lithgow said. "He sort of grew up with the Chicago Steppenwolfe Theatre, and he said, `Do it. You will absolutely love this. It's the closest thing to theater that you can do in front of a camera.' "

Although Lithgow has shot only one episode of "3rd Rock," he said he has indeed found that to be the case.

"The extraordinary sort of quickness, quick-wittedness and sort of headlong energy that goes into doing a show is so much like a sort of telescope version of a play," he said. "Beginning with your first reading Monday morning and ending with . . . sort of super-charged, nervous opening night on Friday. I just love the process."

(And all this for a pilot that turned out to be, well, dumb. And that's being charitable.)

BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN: Jane Curtin, one of the original "Saturday Night Live" cast members and a winner of two Emmys during her five-year run on "Kate & Allie," co-stars with Lithgow in "3rd Rock From the Sun."

(And, while she has alien experience as one of the Coneheads, she's a human in this show.)

This isn't the first show she's done since ending her days as Allie, but she's hoping that it lasts a bit longer than the brief run she had in "Working It Out" back in 1990.

That show was created, written and produced by sitcom veteran Bill Persky, whose credits include "The Dick Van Dyke Show." But it didn't quite turn out as everyone hoped.

"I think the problem was we were pursuing Billy's life, basically," Curtin said. "It was the story of Billy's relationship. And because the characters were so close to him he found it difficult to make them funny.

"There was a lot about the show that was smart and sweet. But it lacked humor, which I think is a basic ingredient for a situation comedy. It was just too close to his heart, so that he didn't want these people to appear in any way foolish.

"It would have been lovely as a half-hour situation."

Curtin has made a couple of pilots since then, which didn't get picked up as series. Which is not necessarily something she regrets, at least not in the case of something called "Mystery Dance," an hourlong mystery/drama she shot last year and which ABC aired recently.

"If anybody calls me in February when it's 30 degrees below zero at my house I'll do anything," Curtin said, explaining why she agreed to do the show. "And it was a very, very cute script and the dialogue was wonderful. But it made no sense. I had no idea who the bad guy was. Even when I was filming I had no idea who the bad guy was."

She said that she and co-star Peter Riegert "didn't have a clue" about what was going on in the script. And that they soon discovered that shooting a one-hour drama required 17-hour work days.

"It was the hardest work I've ever done in my life," Curtin said. "So when we finished shooting the pilot - even though we all really enjoyed each other's company - we were praying, praying, that it wouldn't get picked up."

GOOD ANSWER: Asked why we haven't seen a "Kate & Allie" reunion of any kind, Curtin's answer was quick and to the point:

"I think lack of interest," she said. "I think it's sort of like we ran out of things to say."