NEW YORK (AP) â€” Just out, the reviews (which John Goodman said he never reads) were awful. Reports of trouble had dogged his embryonic sitcom for months.
``We're having a ball,'' Goodman said Wednesday morning, only hours before ``Normal, Ohio'' would make its bow. (It airs on Fox at 8:30 p.m. EST.)
``I have the feeling, knock wood, that we'll probably be around for a while,'' said Goodman, settling his massive frame astride a straight chair in his hotel suite. ``I don't know,'' he sighed the next moment. ``I have no idea how this show is gonna do.''
On-screen a towering combination of authority and puckishness, Goodman is an actor people love. But though he has prospered in films, his warmest reception was enjoyed as Dan Conner, the construction worker and family man on ABC's longrunning ``Roseanne.''
Now, three years after ``Roseanne'' left the air, Goodman is back with another TV series. This time, he's putting his audience good will to the test: He plays a husband and father who left home after realizing he is gay.
Further upping the ante: The small-town Ohio kinfolk to whom Butch Gamble has now returned make the squabbling, acerbic Conners seem like Beaver Cleaver's clan.
Joely Fisher and her push-up bra portray Butch's slutty, single-parent sister. Orson Bean is his homophobic father. Mo Gaffney plays his bitter, remarried ex-wife. And that's just a sample of what Butch is walking into.
``He has had a very rough time with his sexuality and the guilt that came with hurting the people he loved,'' said Goodman.
``Now he has come back, to try to make amends. But his family has to understand that it's nobody's fault, it's not a lifestyle choice. It just is. And then we see how many laughs we can have with that.'' His thought trailed off. He managed a laugh. ``It's only a damn TV show.''
But it's more: a TV show with a problem-beset past. Before the current out-of-the-closet-into-the-fire concept was arrived at, an initial pilot had been filmed, then dumped, along with Goodman's co-stars.
``The thing that concerned me most was how swell everybody said it was,'' Goodman muttered. ``They said, 'Great! Everything's great! Everything's wonderful!' And then: 'It was so great, we fired everybody.'''
He hoisted himself to his feet at the arrival of his room-service coffee. He seemed grateful for the interruption.
Perhaps an even better actor than he's given credit for, Goodman is known by fans as disarming, even irresistible â€” an ordinary Joe with extraordinary charm in whose company an audience feels well taken care of.
Reluctantly he acknowledges this image, ``but it's something I don't dwell on and can't control,'' he said. ``It's just like I was born with good hair. I didn't earn it. Just lucky: My brother's bald.
``But he's in great physical shape,'' Goodman added. ``So I guess it's a trade-off. I'm never gonna get back to the point where I won't have to shop at a Big and Tall Store, let's put it that way.
``They don't write a lot of roles for real fat guys,'' he declared moments after denying that his movie roles were drying up. His ballooning weight, he conceded, is a problem. ``I'm working out now. But I'm always bitching about something. That's not why I took this show.''
So why did he take this show?
``With movies,'' he explained, ``you have to be up unspeakably early. You're there for 14 hours. TV is really civilized, plus you see the same guys every day. It's like going to the office. It's like a 9-to-5 job.''
``Normal, Ohio'' is even shot on the same Los Angeles studio lot where, for nearly a decade, Goodman reported for work on ``Roseanne.''
``We had a ball on `Roseanne,' goofing around every day,'' he said, suddenly brightening. ``I'd see if I could get Roseanne to pee in her pants, laughing so hard.'' His smile, now ignited, blazed larger than life.
Cheered by the memory, he reached back further, back to his years at Southwest Missouri State College. It was there he first threw himself into acting, where theater consumed the banged-up former jock.
``Doors started opening, secrets started being discovered,'' Goodman recalled, almost mystically. ``Oh, God, it was so wonderful! It was a craft that I was just desperately interested in. A lot of that magic is gone now. I miss it.''
Then, at the brink of getting maudlin, he pulled back. ``Like an old whore,'' he cracked, ``been down the street too many times!'' His beaming face filled the room. ``But every once in a while, you'll find a good trick.''
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Elsewhere in television ...
`20/20 DOWNTOWN': A child named Bryan is caught in a custody battle between his two fathers. Bryan's mother died when he was just 4 months old, leaving her husband of 21 years, Ben Goeller, who assumed he was Bryan's father, to raise him. To Goeller's surprise, a former co-worker of his wife's, Richard Lorence, announced that he was the biological father and sued for custody. Correspondent John Quinones travels to Ohio to speak with Ben and Bryan Goeller, as well as the attorney for Richard Lorence â€” who DNA tests prove is the biological father. It airs on ABC News' ''20/20 Downtown,'' Monday at 8 p.m. EST.
EDITOR'S NOTE â€” Frazier Moore can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org