‘Mr. Bill’ in Family way

He's starring in a new primtime series

Looking to court a new audience with a couple of names from the past, the evolving Fox Family Channel is giving the 1970s’ “Saturday Night Live” clay legend Mr. Bill his own primetime series and has acquired the National Lampoon TV franchise that it plans to spin into a pair of telefilms.

Deals are part of an ambitious revitalization project currently under way intended to transform the Family Channel cabler into a primetime player once it relaunches as the Fox Family Channel on Aug. 15, with some $500 million earmarked for original programming during the 1998-99 season alone.

Priming Mr. Bill

One effort will include primetime play for the first-run “Ohhh, Noooo!!! Mr. Bill Presents,” a weekly sketch comedy starring the perpetually-cheery and abused hunk of Play-Doh, Mr. Bill.

Walter Williams, the original creator whose crudely wrought Mr. Bill eight-millimeter segs were an early hit on “SNL” in the late 1970s, has been hired to write and direct the new Mr. Bill shorts. The shorts will again find the clay boy interacting with arch-nemesis Sluggo and the well-meaning Mr. Hand.

New segments will have Mr. Bill moving to Los Angeles to become a film actor and encountering the inevitable trials and dismemberment along the way. The character has starred in various TV series and specials since his debut on May 29, 1976, with the “Mr. Bill Video Collection” series and “The Mr. Bill Show Book” both major successes.

Crossover aims

Eytan Keller, senior VP of reality programming and specials for Fox Family Channel, calls Mr. Bill “an icon who has real crossover appeal for kids and adults, particularly our target audience 18-49.”

“Mr. Bill Presents” will also feature comedy snippets culled from shows around the world, including Rowan Atkinson’s “Mr. Bean” that has played on HBO.

Meanwhile, Fox Family has also grabbed the National Lampoon name — most recently associated with Showtime and the Movie Channel — retaining the option to produce original movies, series, specials and other materials in conjunction with the Lampoon brand.

First announced projects under the deal are the original films, “National Lampoon’s Men in White” and “National Lampoon’s Golf Punks.” They will be the first two productions made under the redesigned channel’s recently announced $125 million commitment to produce 26 movies.

Fox Family plans to have 10 original series in place in primetime for its Aug. 15 relaunch.