LOS ANGELES (AP) – Dick Van Dyke is holding Mary Tyler Moore easily in his arms as they move to the strains of a waltz.

Rehearsing a scene for “The Gin Game,” a PBS production that has reunited the stars of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” as acting partners after 37 years, they’re recapturing the magic they shared.

“It’s like nothing has changed,” said Moore.

“I don’t know where the time went,” echoed Van Dyke.

Then giddiness takes over and he veers into a skillful bit of tap dancing and an impromptu concert watched by an amused Moore.

“Just what makes my little old aunt think she can smoke that cannabis plant. Everyone knows an aunt, can’t, smoke a cannabis plant,” he sings to the tune of “High Hopes.”

“Sometimes we have to watch it. We get childish,” he said, smiling broadly.

The actors, who played lovable young marrieds Rob and Laura Petrie on their 1961-66 sitcom, are cast in far different roles in D.L. Coburn’s play about two lonely, alienated nursing home residents.

Fonsia Dorsey (Moore) and Weller Martin (Van Dyke) have been disappointed by life, their families and themselves. As they strike up a tentative friendship over a series of card games, they try to connect despite their past.

“The Gin Game,” airing as part of “PBS Hollywood Presents” at 9 p.m. EDT Sunday (check local listings), gets the spare and unsentimental production it deserves. There’s no misguided effort to invoke the memory of Rob and Laura.

“Someday we may do a (‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’) reunion, and then the audience can have their heart’s desire and dream come true,” Moore said. “But this was a demanding role for me and for Dick and we wanted to try it as actors, not as television favorites. … This was purely an acting challenge.”

(The sitcom could be revisited: Carl Reiner, its creator, has said he’s working on a movie. “He keeps calling me up and saying, ‘I’m having such fun writing this,”‘ Van Dyke said. He and Moore said they’d gladly participate.)

Both are superb in “The Gin Game,” a reminder that comedy is just part of their portfolio. She received an Academy Award nomination for “Ordinary People and a Tony for “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” He had an Emmy nomination for “The Morning After” and played “a murderer a couple times,” Van Dyke recalled.

But he is, admittedly, best known for his comic chops. So how did Van Dyke find the anger that infuses Weller, a widower and a failed businessman?

“There are a lot of people who lead lives of quiet desperation,” Van Dyke said. “I put myself in mind of Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,’ and what it would have been like had he been a different personality and his wife had died. I have a feeling he might have fallen into that kind of bitterness.”

Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy starred in the original 1977 Broadway production, which earned Tony nominations for each and an award for her. They also appeared in PBS’ 1981 “American Playhouse” version.

Van Dyke and Moore, who have stayed in touch over the years, had seen the play separately and recognized it a good vehicle to share. They had not acted together since their comedy series, although Van Dyke had appeared on Moore’s 1979 variety show.

“We had both said, ‘One day, we’re going to be old enough to do that play,”‘ Van Dyke said. “We did it for our own enjoyment.”

Was it hard to shed the memory of the acclaimed performances of Cronyn and his late wife, Tandy?

“Not a bit, because I was determined I was going to make it my own,” Moore said. “I was going to be my little old lady and not anybody else’s.”

With an encouraging Coburn on hand during the rehearsal and filming, she had the support “to continue along my instinctive path,” Moore said.

She and Van Dyke also lauded the director, Arvin Brown.

The play presented its own challenges.

The roughly 30 gin games were a chore because the cards in hand did not match up with those referred to in the dialogue, according to the co-stars.

“You’re trying to think on two levels and it drove us both bananas,” Van Dyke said. “I talked to the man who directed the original, and he said Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy had lines written on the table, on the cards, on the wall.”

There’s also the question of language – specifically, the profanity that Weller freely uses. Van Dyke wants viewers to know the program isn’t for children.

But he didn’t welcome PBS’ decision to make a profanity-free version of the film available to stations looking for a sanitized version. “Without that (language), the play wouldn’t really work,” he said.

“It’s certainly not done in a salacious manner,” said Moore, whose repressed character has her own, brief outburst.

Van Dyke, 77, relies on his mop of white hair, a cane and tentative gait to give him the look of age and infirmity. Moore, 65, spent time in the makeup chair to age her face and hid her brown hair under a gray wig.

Their faux infirmity makes the nursing home dance scene especially affecting. Not in the original production, it was added for a 1997 version with Charles Durning and Julie Harris, said Moore, who delighted in it.

“I was so taken away by the moment. I wasn’t at all sure I was going to be able to get the line out afterward, after our little twirl around the dance floor. It was such an in-progress memory, it was quite touching.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE – Lynn Elber can be reached at lelber”at”ap.org

AP-ES-04-28-03 1528EDT

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