When you're a big star, you don't pass gas for just anybody. But then the star of CBS's most hyped new sitcom is hardly just anybody. So when the writers of Bette conceived a new gag--a celebrity breaks wind in an elevator and blames it on the leading lady--they sent Bette Midler to work the phones herself.
"My writers pitch all these ideas with big stars and then wait for me to make the call," she fake-laments, snacking on cantaloupe between takes. "My God! Who knew?" Candice Bergen and Lily Tomlin were intrigued by the bit but had to pass--or rather, not pass. Finally Midler said, "Why don't we just go for the biggest star we can get? Why don't we call Jack Nicholson?" With the crew giggling around the phone, she rang up the Joker himself.
"'Jack,' I said. 'Bette. I'm doing a show.'"
She drops into Nicholson's lizardy drawl. "'I don't do TV.'"
"C'mon, it's no big deal," she pushed. "You'll get in your car, you'll come down here. All you have to do is fart. It'll be hilarious." She laughs. "Of course, I didn't get Jack." They finally got a noncelebrity actress to play the scene instead.
O.K., so there are some things even an Emmy, Grammy, Golden Globe and Tony winner can't do. But never let it be said Bette Midler doesn't have cojones. The woman who used to be lowered onto her stage show half-dressed on a clamshell has a famously unembarrassed willingness to say or do anything. It's around that bawdy, brassy presence that CBS built Bette, an old-fashioned star showcase that calls on her to sing, pratfall and generally serve up more ham than at an Easter dinner.
And the network's counting on her to deliver more than celebrity methane. This season the networks have recruited scads of established celebs to draw viewers (see box), always a risk. (Nathan Lane's crash-and-burn in 1998's Encore! Encore! hovers like Marley's ghost over star vehicles.) On Bette, CBS has placed a huge, um, wager, running it opposite Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (which provides a cute running gag in one early episode). "It's probably the most anticipated show of the new season," says CBS television president Leslie Moonves, "and that's a huge burden."
A huge workload too, as Midler has discovered, three weeks into shooting. Doing the series required Midler to leave her home in New York City for Los Angeles--the show will move East next year if there's a second season--and the unfamiliar demands of a sitcom left her rattled. "I kept thinking it was a play and I had to be letter-perfect," she says. "Today I don't feel so freaked out, but this is only Monday. By Friday I'll be freaked out again."