Matthew Perry, <EM>The Ron Clark Story</EM> Matthew Perry, The Ron Clark Story

TNT's The Ron Clark Story (Sunday at 8 pm/ET), starring Matthew Perry, follows the real-life story of an energetic, creative and idealistic young teacher who leaves his small North Carolina hometown to teach in a New York City public school. (All kinds of crazy, right?) Bringing with him some inspirational classroom rules (e.g., "Be the best person you can be"), a few innovative teaching techniques and an undying devotion, Clark is able to make a remarkable difference in the lives of his students. And in doing so, Perry, many will find, is able to warm your heart and maybe even bring a tear to your eye in the final act.

Surveying Clark's impact on his charges, Perry says, "These are all kids who could have easily given up and gone on the wrong side of the tracks and lived a much harder life, so the message [of the film] is, 'If you are that kid, dont give up.' And the message to adults is, 'Always be positive and never give up on the kids.'"

The Ron Clark Story invokes several clever moments in the teacher's at-first-tenuous (to put it lightly) relationship with his underperforming and underestimated class. At one point he offers to (and does) chug a carton of chocolate milk for every 15 seconds the room is quiet. Another time, he fashions a rap to serve as a mnemonic device for naming the U.S. presidents. "The hardest thing that I had to do in the movie was the rap song," Perry must quip, "because that is right in the middle of what I can't do."

Despite the conspicuous camera-friendliness of such antics, "all of those things actually happened," Perry assures us. "I didnt want to meet Ron Clark before I started, because I didnt want to do an impersonation of him, but we communicated through e-mails, and one of the stories he told was that chocolate-milk story. I thought that was kind of interesting, so I spoke to the writers and producers, and we got it in the script."

And wait till you seem him double-dutch!

Watching Perry bring so much earnestness and heart to this role, it's easy to ascertain that post-Friends, he was on a mission to get away from wise-cracking Chandler Bing. And he was. "There was a little bit [of strategy] to that, yes," he says. "For the most part, actors just look for good material, you know, but I didnt have an interest in rehashing the same kind of character, and thats why I havent worked much in the last couple of years. You want to change it up a little bit. Thats why I got very lucky with Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God) directing it, because she's a wonderful actor's director, and she had my back. I said to her from the very beginning, 'If you see any Chandler, tell me to stop.'"

This fall, of course, Perry takes a tiny step in Mr. Bing's general direction with the new NBC drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, playing Matt Albie, a sarcastic and sardonic exec producer of a Saturday Night Live-style late-night comedy show. From the get-go, the project was considered a given for NBC's fall slate. The justification for the advanced buzz, Perry says, is "the pedigree of the people involved. [Creator] Aaron Sorkin and [executive producer] Tommy Schlamme (both of The West Wing) certainly know how to put on excellent dramatic television."

Television that plants a bull's-eye on today's prime-time playing field no less, and then fires away with buckshot. "The thing I like about [Studio 60] and what NBC likes is it's kind of a television show about how bad television has become," Perry notes. It even takes shots at NBC [with digs at such fare as The Apprentice and Fear Factor]. I think its a rather significant show for them and, hopefully, everybody."

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