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Sitcom favorites Shelley Long and Cindy Williams get to strut their comedic stuff together for the first time in the Hallmark Movie Channel's new film, "Strawberry Summer," which airs at 8 p.m. Saturday. Both stars say they are surprised it took them this long.
"It seems strange that we haven't worked together," said Long, who came to fame 30 years ago as waitress Diane Chambers on NBC's "Cheers." "I feel like I know her."
"We shared a nanny," recalled Williams, who demonstrated her uncanny mastery of slapstick as Shirley Feeney from 1976 to '83 on ABC's "Laverne & Shirley." "I had a nanny who left me and went to work for her. We were talking about Nancy on the set, who we both loved. This was eons ago when the children were babies!"
Their styles of comedy were completely different. Long won an Emmy for her first season on "Cheers" playing an overly educated college graduate who finds herself working at a Boston bar where she falls in love with its owner, former baseball player Sam Malone (Ted Danson). The wordplay between the erudite Chambers and the jock Sam has rarely been matched on TV.
As Shirley, Williams, along with Penny Marshall, who played her roommate, Laverne, were much more in the Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance mold from "I Love Lucy," always getting into trouble and scrambling to right the situation.
The styles merge in "Strawberry Summer." The story revolves around a small-town music teacher (Julia Mond) and queen of the annual Strawberry Festival, who finds love with a country singer (Trevor Donovan) she's invited to perform at the festival.
But it's Long, 62, and Williams, 64, who really are the stars of this souffle. Long plays the teacher's caring mom, who not only is a mean cook but a guiding force for her daughter. Williams is her good friend Ruth, who is heavily involved in the festival but is also fretting that she and her husband will lose the family farm.
"She has this innate rhythm," said Williams of Long. "You just know you could throw a ball and she could catch it. I don't know how to explain it."
"They are so funny and witty and clever and fast," said the film's director, Kevin Connor. "It's an absolute joy."
The Hallmark Movie Channel and its sister network, the Hallmark Channel, have hit upon a tasty recipe for its original movies - cast younger actors as the leads but pepper the cast with beloved TV and film veterans who are underused in today's youth-obsessed Hollywood. It helps that these veterans fit perfectly into the movie channel's demographic of women ages 25 to 54.
Over the last few years, Roger Moore, Angie Dickinson, the late Ernest Borgnine, Dick Van Dyke, Treat Williams, Cybill Shepherd, Jane Seymour, Dyan Cannon and Luke Perry are among those who have had projects on the cable networks.
"Here are two of the most celebrated comedic actors in television," said Michelle Vicary, executive vice president of programming for Hallmark Movie Channel, referring to Long and Williams. "Having them play off of each other reminds us of some of our favorite television shows."
But the Hallmark channels aren't the only ones that have struck gold with baby boomers using this formula. TV Land has had great ratings success with its "Hot in Cleveland" sitcom with Betty White, Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick. The show has also attracted a lot of guest stars of a certain age, from Ed Asner to Liza Minnelli to Rick Springfield.
Long and Williams aren't lacking for work. Long, who occasionally appears on ABC's "Modern Family" as Ed O'Neill's character's ex-wife, is in Canada making an indie family film called "The Wedding Chapel."
And Williams is soon to get in the habit as a singing and dancing nun on a national tour of Dan Goggins' ("Nunsense") latest musical, "Nunset Boulevard."
And maybe the broadcast networks are studying Hallmark and TV Land. "It getting a bit more competitive out there (to hire veterans)," said Vicary. "The industry is taking notice."