August 15, 1983 12:00 PM

Just the idea of remaking A Streetcar Named Desire for television is enough to make fans of the film classic blanch. But that doesn’t bother Ann-Margret, 42, who stars in the $4.6 million TV version, scheduled to air on ABC next February. “Why not remake Streetcar?” she demands. “The English do Hamlet every year.” And consider the alternative: For a while there were plans for a new film version starring Sylvester Stallone.

According to executive producer Keith (Sophie’s Choice) Barish, his two-and-a-half-hour production of Streetcar will be just chockablock with that unlikely Hollywood duo of dignity and decorum—at the insistence of playwright Tennessee Williams. Shortly before his death last February, Williams sold the TV rights for $750,000 and extracted cast and director approval. He had never met Ann-Margret, but she was among his choices to play the genteel Southern aristocrat Blanche DuBois. “I wanted very much to meet him,” says Ann-Margret. “I agreed to do the movie on Thursday, and on Friday morning he died. It was eerie.

For the role of Blanche’s volatile, macho brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, the names Richard Gere, Nick Nolte and Mickey (Diner) Rourke came up, but it was Treat (Prince of the City) Williams’ ability to “get to the bone of a character” that impressed director John (Roots II) Erman. Says Erman, “Everybody I have seen play Stanley since Brando just imitated Brando. I had to find somebody with enough imagination to find a new way to get at this character.” And enough muscles to fill out an undershirt. Since Treat had just finished playing boxing great Jack Dempsey in a TV movie, he had the requisite biceps for the part.

According to the producers, the TV Streetcar will be more racy than the 1951 screen version. The 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning play’s references to homosexuality, which were forbidden by film censors more than three decades ago, will be untampered with this time around, as will the scene in which Stanley rapes Blanche.

Despite these differences the ghost of Streetcar past stalked the latest production, which completed shooting in June. Erman banned paperback copies of the play that had Brando’s picture on the cover. On the first day of shooting he told the cast, “We’re all nervous about being compared. So from now on let’s put Brando and everybody else out of our heads.” Of all the actors, Williams may have the biggest challenge. Brando, who also starred in the Broadway version, is so indelibly linked to the Kowalski role that during filming passersby kept asking, “Who’s playing Marlon Brando?”

Like the irrepressible Stanley, Williams was not always a treat to deal with. He once reportedly exchanged words with Erman when a photographer unexpectedly appeared on the set, and he refused to discuss his characterization with outsiders. “It’s kinda hard talking about it while you’re doing it,” he observed. Williams was more gracious to his co-star, however, bestowing upon her a mink-trimmed picture frame.

For Ann-Margret, Blanche DuBois proved a burden as well as a blessing. To get her drawl down right, the actress studied with a dialectician and spent a weekend in Montgomery, Ala. She brunched at nearby Magnolia Crest Plantation with 20 local ladies and recorded the conversation. “On my way to work,” says Ann-Margret, “I listened to the cassette and it got me right into the part.” (The dialect also became an obsession for Beverly D’Angelo, who is cast as Stella Kowalski. She had to postpone work on an album after she started singing with a Southern accent.)The grueling role eventually wore Ann-Margret down. “Blanche has completely taken over,” she said near the end. “I overreact to everything. I shake a lot. I’m in my own little dreamland.” The actress began to call herself “Blanche DuBonkers.”

Ultimately viewers will decide whether there will be more classic theater on TV. One thing is certain. If Streetcar comes this way again, it will depend on the kindness of strangers known only to Nielsen.

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