HOLLYWOOD -- Unless you're talking about soap operas or reality programming on Fox, most threats to marriages conceived on television are taken quite seriously -- especially sitcom marriages.
Aside from the difficulty of wringing a lot of laughs out of divorce, married couples are historically the heart and soul of half-hour comedies. Their relationships are considered sacrosanct.
Unless you're in a sweeps period. Even then, there'd better be a good reason -- and some major muscle -- to tear asunder what prime-time has joined together.
ABC's "Dharma & Greg" decided to call in the actor who played "Hercules" -- Kevin Sorbo. Sorbo, currently the star of the sci-fi series "Andromeda," will play a college professor who, in a two-part episode (to be broadcast Feb. 6 and 13), becomes a one-man temptation island for Dharma (Jenna Elfman), putting her marriage to Greg (Thomas Gibson) in brief peril.
Why now? One reason, though you won't hear it from series creator Chuck Lorre, is that NBC's "Frasier" has been kicking its butt in the ratings. "Frasier," which was shifted from its Thursday night time slot to Tuesdays opposite "Dharma & Greg," is ranked No. 9 overall in the season-to-date Nielsens. "D&G" is No. 35.
Besides, Sorbo has always wanted to do comedy.
"It's a completely different gear," said a slimmed-down and clearly psyched-up Sorbo in an interview.
"I mean, from an actor's standpoint, comedy's got to be the hardest thing to do," he said. Still, even with creator-producer Lorre beside him, Sorbo couldn't help tossing in that his guest-starring role was something of a vacation. "Most sitcom actors do in a week what I do in a day and a half on my show," he said, "and they know it."
As history professor Charlie Sumner ("You were hoping for mythology, weren't you?" he jokes), Sorbo gets to put Dharma Freedom Finklestein-Montgomery's three-year marriage to the test.
"We both sort of develop a crush on each other," Sorbo said. "I'm going through a really, really messy divorce, and something just sort of happens. We hit it off."
The "Educating Dharma" story line, again, is only a two-episode arc -- "For now," said a perhaps too-hopeful Sorbo.
But Sorbo -- a handsome, affable and, lately, physically nonthreatening kind of guy -- clearly wants more. (He has done guest spots on "Just Shoot Me" and, about five years ago, "Cybill," where he worked with Lorre.)
Grateful for his success, Sorbo is, however, frustrated by being pigeonholed as a syndicated superhero.
"It's interesting," he said. "In Hollywood, there's a blinder effect. It's always been that way."
America, he said, didn't seem to fully appreciate "Hercules."
"I always looked at 'Hercules' as sort of a sitcom," he says. "It was firmly tongue-in-cheek all the time. We never took ourselves seriously. 'Xena' was far more violent than 'Hercules' was -- even though it's still a female 'Hercules' show. It didn't have really the humor that we had."
Apparently, the humor was lost on some of the rest of the world, too.
"I used to go out to bars in New Zealand where we filmed it and guys would want to pick fights with me because I played Hercules," said Sorbo, adding that he was forced to remind all comers, "It's just a show."
But at least they were watching. "I thought 'Hercules' should have gotten much more credit than it did, but hey, the rest of the world liked it. "
"I would love to get on a network show, I'm not kidding you," Sorbo said, though no one would have any reason to doubt him. "I would love to get into feature films."
And he's certainly putting in the work. You might say he's a new man.
"I dropped 20 pounds of muscle; I cut off eight inches of hair. Physically, I did a lot of things to make myself different."
Although there's been a price to pay for that, too. Asked what it's like to be living in his new skin, Sorbo admits, "I guess I feel a little wimpier."
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