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IMAGE: Actors
Ric Francis  /  AP
Actors Bill Fagerbakke, left, Craig T. Nelson, center, and Jerry Van Dyke are staging a reunion of sorts in "The District."
updated 3/29/2004 4:08:28 PM ET 2004-03-29T21:08:28

Craig T. Nelson, Jerry Van Dyke and Bill Fagerbakke keep cracking up on the set of the CBS drama “The District.”

The actors, who played football coach Hayden Fox and his goofball assistants Luther Van Dam and “Dauber” Dybinski for nine seasons on the ABC sitcom “Coach,” are staging a reunion of sorts.

Van Dyke, playing a small-town judge described in the script as “cranky and brusque,” is berating the imposing-looking Nelson, who plays tough-minded Washington police Chief Jack Mannion. At this moment, though, the chief seems to be having trouble hiding a smile.

Fagerbakke hovers as a good-natured officer, described in the script as “better suited to being a florist.” He’s designated to escort Mannion, whose demeanor riles the judge, to the town jail.

The courthouse scene, filmed on a sound stage 3,000 miles from the District of Columbia, occurs during a murder investigation Mannion is conducting.

Titled “The Black Widow Maker,” this episode of “The District” airs 10 p.m. EST Friday. The series, now in its fourth season, usually airs on Saturday but is pre-empted this week.

Jonathan LaPaglia, who portrays Kevin Debreno, a member of Mannion’s squad, is directing for the first time. He keeps a cautious eye on the proceedings as Nelson and his guest stars display their improv skills.

“On ‘Coach’ we went off-script, came up with ideas. We laughed at ourselves more than people laughed watching the shows,” says Van Dyke. “We were such friends and we just found each other funny. We had lunch together almost everyday. We were so close, really close, we knew each other’s every move and life history.”

Staying in touch
“Coach” ended in 1997 after 200 episodes. The stars have stayed in touch, but haven’t been able to spend much time together.

Van Dyke, 72, who now lives in Mexico, is currently playing the recurring character of the granddad, Big Jimmy, on the CBS sitcom “Yes, Dear.” He will soon star alongside his famous brother, Dick Van Dyke, and other surviving cast members in the CBS special “The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited.”

Fagerbakke, 46, is now the voice of the doofus starfish Patrick on Nickelodeon’s hit cartoon “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

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Later this year, the 57-year-old Nelson will be heard as the voice of an undercover superhero in the Disney/Pixar animated movie “The Incredibles.”

Van Dyke praises Nelson’s versatility: “He’s a great actor. It’s very difficult to go from playing a buffoon like he was on ‘Coach’ to playing this. It’s quite a stretch, but people bought it right away. I could never do a serious role. People wouldn’t buy me. I’m not an actor. I pretty much play myself.”

Van Dyke was worried about being believable as a judge, but says he was helped by the clever way his speeches were already infused with humor.

Nelson says it was hard to come up with suitable guest roles for his two comedic friends, but he was determined to make it happen: “You’ve got to do it at some point, get people back ... we had such a great connection and so many memories. It’s fun to do.”

Things have not always been fun on “The District” — a show Nelson believes is under-appreciated, even though it’s consistently top-rated on Saturday nights. Most significantly, there was co-star Lynne Thigpen’s sudden death a year ago from a cerebral hemorrhage. She played Ella Mae Farmer, administrator of Mannion’s briefing room.

Nelson says he’s never thought of himself as “a big griever” but he’s found it very hard to lose the actress, who was an integral part of the show and whom he much admired.

“I’ll think I’ve kind of put it behind me, but then it pops up again and when it resurfaces like that it’s extremely difficult,” Nelson said.

“She was the mother of the show in our heart and you can’t replace her. All we can do is try to let that wound heal and deal with the scar,” says Wayne Duvall, who plays Sgt. Phil Brander.

But on this day, Duvall is grinning as he watches the “Coach” actors’ camaraderie. “It’s just like they never missed a day. The timing is perfect.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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