HOLLYWOOD – Stephen King vampires! Sister-act morticians! Samurai bass fishing!

Just another opening day here at the TV industry’s winter preview marathon for critics.

These January and July promotional events are like whole TV seasons crammed into just two or three weeks. And this one – which began Tuesday with the first of four days devoted to cable and will continue with 10 days of network presentations – reflects the ever-more-frantic search for something different with which to tempt jaded viewers.

Something, perhaps, like the Outdoor Life Network’s (OLN) “Samurai Sportsman,” scheduled to debut Jan. 31 and resembling a legendary John Belushi routine from “Saturday Night Live” played straight.

Well, sort of straight.

“There’s a humorous side to it, yes,” OLN programming chief Peter Hall Englehart said of the show, which will have martial arts expert and samurai swordsman Yoshi Amao trying a different outdoor sport each week.

Meeting champion bass fisherman Bill Dance in the first episode, for instance, the playful Amao, who trained in his native Japan but moved to New York in 1990, couldn’t resist waving his sword and slicing right through the startled Dance’s fishing line.

Not that he bears Dance any ill will, said Amao, who has also tried more strenuous sports for the series.

“Bass fishing is fun,” he told critics. “Bull riding is hell.”

Had Amao, who is featured in the show striking classic samurai poses – sword arm extended dramatically, eyes glaring with ferocity – ever seen Belushi in such classic “SNL” skits as “Samurai Dry Cleaner”?

Yes, he nodded firmly: “Belushi very, very popular in Japan. Japanese people love those (skits).”

‘Dearly Departed’

While OLN hopes Amao will reel in the elusive 18-to-49-year-old male, A&E’s “Dearly Departed” is more of a family affair.

The reality series, scheduled to start sometime this spring, features sisters Shonna Smith, Emily Vigney and Melissa Wissmiller; their father, Clarence Wissmiller; and Melissa’s fiance, Rick Sadler. Like the brothers and others of HBO’s fictional “Six Feet Under,” all five work at a Southern California funeral home.

Smith, head mortician at the Poway Bernardo Mortuary, said she had wanted to be in the business ever since she went to a funeral as a young girl and saw how “peaceful and serene everything was.”

The producers interviewed workers at some 500 funeral homes before selecting the Wissmillers. The sisters’ striking good looks didn’t hurt.

As for the family’s interest in the project, Sadler said their business is “a part of everyday life that has always been shrouded – no pun intended – from view, and we hope to give you some insight into how it works.”

Moving from the dead to the undead, Rob Lowe talked about playing a reluctant vampire hunter in a remake of Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot,” scheduled for June on TNT.

The horror movie will also star Samantha Mathis, Andre Braugher, James Cromwell and Donald Sutherland, with Rutger Hauer as the vampire-in-chief.

Critics being a critical lot, Lowe was asked about the recent cancellation of “Lyon’s Den,” the low-rated NBC series he made after leaving the successful “West Wing.”

“I’m very proud of “Lyon’s Den,’ ” the actor said.

In other sessions, Tom Selleck talked about losing his famous mustache to play Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in A&E’s “Ike: Thunder in June,” a D-Day docudrama scheduled for A&E in the spring, and Madison native Chris Noth, the ultra-suave Mr. Big of “Sex and the City,” talked about getting down and dirty to play a morally compromised undercover agent in “Bad Apple,” premiering Feb. 16 on TNT.



E-mail Joanne Weintraub at jweintraubjournalsentinel.com.



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AP-NY-01-07-04 0831EST



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