BY: LYNN ELBER
LOS ANGELES – Some TV shows really know how to use the venerable tradition of stunt casting.
“All in the Family” created a classic when Sammy Davis Jr. dropped in on the Bunkers and gave racism the kiss-off. “Love Boat” trafficked in volume and variety, with an A-to-Z roll call of guest stars ranging from Eve Arden to Adrian Zmed.
Lifetime’s quirky fantasy “Drop Dead Diva” (9 p.m. EDT Sunday) is putting its own spin on the convention, boosted by a celebrity fan club that likes to do more than watch.
A partial accounting of this season’s guests alone includes Paula Abdul, Brandy Norwood, Kathy Griffin, LeAnn Rimes, Lance Bass, Quinton Aaron, Valerie Harper, Nancy Grace, Jamie Lynn Sigler and Clay Aiken.
Past visitors include Liza Minnelli, Faith Prince, Delta Burke, Tim Gunn, Vivica A. Fox and Jennifer Tilly.
Series executive producer Josh Berman, who was a longtime writer for “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Bones,” said luring celebrities to those dramas was a challenge compared to “Drop Dead Diva.”
“Stars started calling us in the first season,” Berman said, with others tweeting their yearning to drop in on “Diva.”
An element of prestige has been added: The series is among the finalists announced this month for the annual Humanitas Prize, which honors film and TV writers whose work meaningfully explores the human condition.
The comedy-drama stars Brooke Elliott as a self-absorbed model who dies in an accident and finds her soul shifted to the body of a newly dead, plus-size attorney. In this week’s episode, Elliott’s character, Jane, represents a lesbian couple banned from a high school prom. Bass, Aiken, Wanda Sykes and Amanda Bearse, all openly gay, guest star.
Berman acknowledges that his show’s per-episode average of 2.4 million viewers is dwarfed by the double-digit pull of crime shows. But stars don’t necessarily want to be plugged into a murder-of-the-week plot, Berman said — and “Diva” also knows how to play the good host.
“We try to custom-write roles for stars we pursue as well as those that ask us. We tailor a role,” he said. “I think it’s rare in which a show has a writer get together with a guest star and say, `Let’s talk about your part.’
“If Paula wants to act, sing or dance, we’ll make sure she does what she wants to,” he said of Abdul.
Formerly of “American Idol” and now part of the upcoming “The X Factor” singing contest, Abdul is the leader of the “Diva” pack with five performances that have cast her in various roles including a wedding planner and — familiar turf — a judge.
She calls the show a charmer with “characters that are rich and fun, and with a great message.” It’s also a kick, she added.
“Every time I appear on the show they make it feel like it’s a party and it’s not work,” Abdul said.
It’s also good exposure for Abdul, who said she’s interested in starring in a drama or comedy series that could fit around her “X Factor” duties, and other guest stars.
After filming a three-episode arc shaped around Norwood, Berman said he’s talking with her about joining as a series regular next year. It could lead to other roles as well, the actress said.
“This is a great opportunity for me to find my rhythm again in television. … It’s a way for people to see me in a new light who haven’t seen me on television consistently since `Moesha,’” she said.
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