October 25, 1982 12:00 PM

Richard Benjamin has hit on a smashing idea to mark his transformation from actor to director: recreate the golden age of “live” television. The year is 1954, when Sid Caesar, Cari Reiner and Milton Berle were the kings of comedy and such brash young writers as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen fed them the jokes. Benjamin, who was an NBC page at the time, doesn’t appear onscreen himself, but he sets up the ’50s Manhattan atmosphere exactly right, from the Rockefeller Center studios to the Stork Club nightlife. And with newcomer Mark Linn-Baker as a writer, Joe Bologna as top banana and Peter O’Toole as a boozing matinee idol doing a guest shot on their show, the elements are set to mesh. But Benjamin and screenwriters Norman (Blazing Saddles) Steinberg and Dennis (Welcome Back, Kotter) Palumbo are fatally perfunctory about structure, pace and characterization. Many of the sight gags, some older than the 1950s, are blah when they should be boffo. Nevertheless, the actors do a lot to retrieve the project, except for Linn-Baker, who tries haltingly to substitute a genial grin for grit. Lainie Kazan is fat and sassy as Linn-Baker’s Jewish mama, and Bologna’s send-up of Sid Caesar is a withering, wicked caricature. Still, it’s the triumphantly mannered O’Toole who walks off with the picture. Whether he’s swilling Scotch to allay his fear of the live TV camera, unapologetically using a ladies’ room, or excusing his behavior by declaiming, “I am not an actor—I am a movie star,” O’Toole performs with an irresistible nippy panache. In a film of only flickering fun, he’s the light that never fails. (PG)

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