Director was eager to take on the remake of Neil Simon’s romantic comedy

Director Richard Benjamin wasn’t intimidated by the idea of remaking the beloved 1977 Neil Simon romantic comedy The Goodbye Girl.

“Why not?” he said by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s almost 30 years later, there’s a new audience out there.

“We felt the story is universal – a guy coming to New York to try to make it will always happen, and falling in love will always happen. The difference here is that the actors are a little older, and that makes it a little more poignant.”

The new version will be shown at 8 p.m. Friday on TNT, then repeated next Saturday and Sunday as well at the same time.

Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond) plays former Broadway dancer Paula McFadden, whose latest disastrous romance leaves her soured to the notion of ever dating an actor again. But her ex-boyfriend rented out their apartment to someone else before he left town, and she now has an unwelcome roommate – and, of course, he’s an actor. Elliot Garfield (Jeff Daniels) has come to New York to pursue a Broadway career. He’s eccentric, a bit neurotic, and – in Paula’s opinon, at least – obnoxious. Needless to say, sparks fly.

Hallie Kate Eisenberg plays Paula’s worldwise 10-year old daughter, Lucy, who sees the good in Elliot that her mother is determined to ignore. Alan Cumming (X2) plays Mark Bodine, the bombastic director of Elliot’s first off-off-Broadway production, who is determined that the best way to reinterpret Shakespeare’s Richard III is to have Elliot play King Richard as flamboyantly gay as possible.

Benjamin – who acted in films including Catch-22, The Sunshine Boys and Love at First Bite before directing such films as My Favorite Year, Mermaids and Mrs. Winterbourne – has a cameo as a film director whose job offer complicates the budding romance between Paula and Elliot.

Benjamin had previously worked with Neil Simon on several projects, including the Emmy-nominated Showtime movie Laughter on the 23rd Floor, and he was receptive when Simon called him about remaking Goodbye Girl.

“Whenever he calls on me, I’m always excited,” Benjamin said. “There’s just nothing better than to work with him.”

When they discussed who should be in the new production, Simon suggested that Benjamin watch Heaton’s performance on Raymond.

“He said ‘she’s really good, you should watch it concentrating on her. She does something different: She doesn’t care whether you like her or not, and because of that you really like her,'” Benjamin said. “I saw what he meant when I watched it. When we offered it to her, she leapt at it.”

Daniels, on the other hand, took longer to accept the job offer.

“Jeff asked a few questions,” Benjamin said. “I said that really, I believe it’s a love letter to the theater. It’s about an actor who’s completely dedicated to what he’s doing, and the integrity of all that. Jeff has his own theater in Michigan, and he almost on some level is this character.”

The next – and toughest – step was finding a 10-year-old who could convincingly play Lucy.

“There really was a search,” Benjamin said. “We saw some really good 10-year old little girls, but they came from the Midwest or the South or California. There was some New York thing that you can’t imitate…. Hallie is from New Jersey, so she got those rhythms right way.”

Benjamin knew of Eisenberg’s performances several years ago in Pepsi commercials, but didn’t know if she had the acting chops to handle such an integral role. Then they got an audition tape she had recorded.

“Neil Simon and I looked it and said ‘we don’t have to look any further,'” he said. “We just cast her.”

With his cast in place, Benjamin decided he would avoid re-watching the 1977 version, which featured Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss in the lead roles (it will be shown at 10 p.m. Thursday on TNT’s sister station TCM).

“We knew it was good, but we were doing our own thing,” Benjamin said.