Butler does it for USA

Thesp will play a single mom P.I.

Brett Butler and USA Network are developing a two-hour backdoor pilot that could rep the former “Grace Under Fire” star’s return to primetime television.

If it’s a success, the project will lead to an hourlong series starring Butler as a single mom private investigator.

“It’s what it would be like if I dressed up as Rockford,” the comic-thesp told Daily Variety.

Project follows a previous attempt by Butler to return to primetime. In 2000, she was developing a Touchstone TV pilot for ABC with Tom Shadyac that did not go forward.

“I took a few years off from this town, and I felt certain the feeling was mutual,” said Butler, whose laffer “Grace Under Fire” went off the air in 1998 after she clashed with network brass and battled an addiction to painkillers.

Butler and Dan Petrie Jr. (“Beverly Hills Cop”), who created the USA show together, are exec producing along with Rob Lieberman (USA’s “The Dead Zone”). Petrie is writing, while Lieberman will direct the pilot.

“It’s about how you track down the bad guy — and make sure the kids are doing their homework, not watching too much TV or eating too much sugar,” said Jackie Lyons, USA Network senior VP of original series programming.

Butler’s manager, Evolution Entertainment’s Mark Burg, who has a long-standing relationship with USA topper Doug Herzog, got the show rolling at the basic cable network. He will co-exec produce, along with Evolution’s Oren Koules. Burg also manages Petrie and Lieberman.

Butler also is repped by William Morris Agency.

Show was initially conceived as a half-hour.

“Basically, USA said, ‘Brett, we don’t do half-hours. What have you got that’s an hour?,” Butler said.

Indeed, Lyons said that USA, currently reaping the rewards of two new hit dramas, “Monk” and “The Dead Zone,” is not looking to do half-hour comedy right now.

“Our goal is to do mainstream franchise hour dramas with a twist, and the twist here is Brett Butler,” Lyons said. “We reach an enormous platform of viewers, so we really need to be very broad in our appeal. We are not niche. So in many ways we look sort of like the broadcast networks, but we’re cable, which is why we’re different, why we have to stand out from the crowd.”

If it goes to series, the untitled Butler hour would likely debut summer 2003 or January 2004. The two-hour pilot, however, could air earlier than that, possibly during the net’s Crime Fridays block.

“I think Brett’s familiarity is a real asset, and yet she’s been out of the mainstream a little bit,” Lyons added. “Her concerts are sell-out, so she’s a household name, but she’s been away from TV for a while, so this is a great comeback opportunity.”

She’s been touring with her comedy and has started writing a second book, following 1996’s “Knee Deep in Paradise.” October marks her 20th anniversary as a comedian, she said.

“I was thinking maybe I’m supposed to be a comedian and maybe I had my dance,” Butler said. “I thought, OK, I’ll buy a ranch in Louisiana and ride horses. But then I realized I wanted to play nice in the sandbox one more time.

“I like the people at USA, and basic cable is really being watched right now,” she added.

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