"Thrice-Told 'Tales'
Armistead Maupin and Friends Return to San Francisco
For the Third TV Installment of 'Tales of the City'"


by Ruthe Stein, San Francisco Chronicle, 31 July 2000

A Barbary Lane street sign suddenly appeared on Russian Hill — a tip-off that Mary Ann Singleton, Michael "Mouse" Tolliver and the rest of the "Tales of the City" gang are back in town. They've been here since Friday, shooting the third miniseries based on Armistead Maupin's ribald serial about post-sexual-revolution San Francisco.

Although the new installment unmistakably is set here — with characters loosely based on prominent circa-1981 locals such as Pat Montandon, Father Miles Riley and Wendy Tokuda — almost all the scenes were shot in Montreal to save money. Trees and plants were brought into a city park to make it appear as lush as Golden Gate Park. And lots of plaques were hung on the walls of a neighborhood watering hole to make it look like Perry's, the Union Street bar where "Tales" regulars hang out.

When director Pierre Gang realized that his $7.5 million budget would allow for only four days in San Francisco, he scouted out locations that would both establish a sense of place and offer glimpses of locals in their native habitat. Along with Russian Hill he chose Twin Peaks and the Conservatory of Flowers and Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park.

Chronicle photos — Jerry Telfer

Author Armistead Maupin (left) laughs with director Pierre Gang while filming shots on Macondray Lane in San Francisco for the third miniseries based on Maupin's "Tales of the City" serial.

"I don't want to look at the city as a tourist, so I'm not showing too much of the Golden Gate Bridge or Coit Tower. For me, it's more bay windows on houses. I want to show the vision of San Francisco from the inside," Gang said.

It doesn't get much more San Francisco than Macondray Lane, the steep tree-lined block Maupin rechristened Barbary Lane. Mary Ann, her gay best friend Michael and their no-longer-so-mysterious landlady, Mrs. Madrigal, all reside in a mythic apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane. The scenes shot there Friday are meant to convey how comfortable the once-naive Mary Ann has become with gay culture. Laura Linney, who originated the role, shows up on the set in a dress- for-success navy suit and Dianne Feinstein-like white blouse complete with bow, in which Mary Ann hopes to wrangle a promotion. Maupin takes one look at her and quips, "You look like a literary dominatrix."

"Really, I think I look like a librarian who's a present for someone," she replies, laughing.

Linney takes her place on the steps ostensibly leading down to Mary Ann's apartment (which is actually on a soundstage in Montreal). Paul Hopkins, reprising his role as Michael, stands next to her. When Gang yells "action," Mary Ann begins grilling Michael about what it signifies if a gay man stuffs a handkerchief into his right back pocket versus his left one. His graphic explanation will be broadcast in its entirety thanks to the new freedom on cable TV. (Showtime will air "Armistead Maupin's Further Tales of the City" in the spring.)

BEST LAID PLANTS

Michael is dressed in green coveralls with Best Laid Plants emblazoned on the back. That's the plant store where he is employed. When the "Tales" ran in The Chronicle, the shop was called Plant Parenthood. In an example of life imitating art, 10 stores around the country appropriated that name, and the film company couldn't get clearance to use it.

Actress Laura Linney reprises her role as Mary Ann Singleton, a once-naive transplant to San Francisco.

In a scene shot later in the day, Mary Ann sends Michael off to an all-male Hollywood party hosted by Cage Tyler, a famous closeted actor whom Michael has met through a mutual friend.

"If I'm not back in three days, send in the (Royal) Canadian Mounted Police," Michael shouts to her.

"Just what you need: more men," Mary Ann teases him.

Watching this exchange, Maupin, co-writer on the miniseries (with James Lecesne), admits to getting "an eerie deja vu feeling." In the '70s, he attended parties given by Rock Hudson, on whom Cage is affectionately based. His name reflects the studly monikers, such as Rock, Tab and Troy, that Hollywood used to give actors. Michael — who as followers of "Tales" know is Maupin's alter ego — is destined to have a fling with Cage, much as Maupin says he had with Hudson. "It was just sex. It was playtime."

A FAILURE IN BED

His first time with Cage, Michael is a complete failure in bed. "This grew directly out of my own experience," Maupin says. "I was so thoroughly intimidated by being with Rock Hudson.

A gaffer (sic) rigged lights and diffusers for scenes to be shot on Macondray Lane, which author Armistead Maupin called Barbary Lane in "Tales of the City."

"Rock was so generous. He basically said, 'It's OK. It happens all the time.' Then he went downstairs, got a plate of lasagna for me and brought it back to bed." All of this makes it onto the show. Maupin is delighted that pretty much anything goes on cable TV these days. "The treatment of gay subject matter is much more matter-of-fact. But I don't want to shut out the straight folks, so we are allowing them to keep up on a par with the gays. There are a lot of straight love scenes this time." Linney thinks these scenes serve an important function. "The point of the display of sex is to let the audience in on how the characters relate to sex. It is more a mirror into the time and place and into the makeup of the characters.

A CHANGING WORLD

"It is very important to look at it that way because otherwise it is just gratuitous sex on television, and that is just not what the series has ever been about. It is about a group of people who are struggling to find love and trying to find themselves in a world that is changing very quickly."

©2000 San Francisco Chronicle



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